The Use and Abuse of GHG Reduction Targets

Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2019

Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant, a former public servant of 27 years and a diplomat for 10 years prior.

The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment is a U.K.-based foundation that conducts studies and prepares policy briefs in support of the United Nations goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction. In an October, 2018 policy brief entitled, Aligning National and International Climate Targets, it examined the extent to which the countries that adhered to the COP21 Paris Agreement in December 2015 have moved beyond setting general objectives to setting specific economy-wide emissions reductions targets, sector-specific targets, and then embodying these targets in specific laws and policies.


The brief can be read here:


The brief argued that setting very specific targets and embodying them in laws and policies was important for four reasons:


  • Setting “robust, consistent, and measurable” targets will facilitate monitoring of progress towards the attainment of country and international goals;
  • Setting national quantified targets informs the design, implementation, tracking and revision of policies and measures;
  • Setting transparent and robust targets supports political momentum, establishing benchmarks and “new norms of leadership on climate policy”; and
  • The Paris Agreement includes a ratcheting mechanism, which stipulates that countries shall prepare successive “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) every five years that “represent a progression beyond the Party’s current NDC, and reflect their highest possible ambition”. Concrete targets can serve as benchmarks to track the ratcheting up of ambition.


One might be forgiven for viewing this endorsement of emissions reduction targets in a skeptical light. For the most part, since countries began setting GHG emission reduction targets in 1992, in almost no case have the targets actually been met. This is certainly the case for Canada. Every few years, however, another international conference is held at which countries discuss the desirability to imposing on themselves, collectively and individually, even more restrictive targets. COP21, in fact, represented the first time that the countries of the world recognized that they could not collectively set emission reduction targets because of the political and policy discord among them. That is why they committed only to submitting plans, individually determined, every five years. There is no legal requirement under the Paris Agreement for an individual country to set a target.


In practice, emission reduction targets have served primarily  not as public administration management tools but rather as political commitments, usually well beyond a country’s ability to meet at acceptable cost. Environmental organizations have used these public commitments to shame governments that fail to take more stringent measures. Politicians have been caught in the Catch-22 situation of having to choose between being publicly berated for failing to commit to an ambitious target to please the environmental lobby, or being publicly berated every year when the emissions reductions inevitably failed to materialize.


In any event, the Grantham Institute’s review of the performance of the signatories to the Paris Agreement since 2015 is quite revealing, in ways the Institute undoubtedly did not intend. While 157 of the 197 Parties to the Agreement have set economy-wide emissions reductions targets in their NDCs, only 58 have done so with domestic laws and policies, and only 17 of those are consistent with the targets set out in the NDCs. For the rest, there is insufficient data for comparison. Expressed in other terms, only 9 % of the signatories of the Paris Agreement have gone beyond general political commitments to express their emissions reduction objectives in law or policy that are consistent with the political commitments.


The target planning horizons of countries differ. Conferences before 2015 led to the establishment of 2020 as one target-base year. COP21 extended that to 2030. Today, while most (142) countries have set 2030 targets in their NDCs, only 33 countries have set economy-wide targets in laws and policies beyond 2020. In fact, when the Institute examined all the targets set to date (including both economy-wide and sectoral targets) only 60% of them have a target year later than 2020.


The Grantham policy brief recommended, of course, that more countries introduce targets in laws and policies.


Reading the Grantham Institute brief, one cannot help but be impressed by the gulf between its focus on emission reduction targets as bureaucratic, legal and political instruments and the emission reduction demands being made of countries by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

According to the International Energy Agency, the global GHG emissions from fuel combustion in 2016 (the most recent year published by the IEA) were 32.3 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent. Those emissions arise from two groups, the 36 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED), the more developed countries, and the rest of the world, generally considered the developing countries. All of the OECD countries combined produced 11.6 Gt, or 36% of the total. The non-OECD countries combined produced 20.7 Gt, or 64% of the total. China alone produced 9.1 Gt.

In its Special Report 15 of October, 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that global emissions must be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030; otherwise, it predicted a warming of 1.5 degrees C. sometime between 2030 and 2050, bringing “species extinction, weather extremes, and risks to food supply, health and economic growth.” As global emissions from fuel combustion were 30.5 Gt in 2010, that means emissions would have to decline to 16.78 Gt, or 15.5 Gt from 2016 levels, by 2030.

Virtually all major authorities that publish analyses of global energy supply, demand and emissions project emissions to grow, not decline, by 2030. However, even if all economic and emissions growth could somehow be reduced to 2016 levels and frozen there until 2030, the emissions from the non-OECD countries alone (i.e. 20.7 Gt) would exceed the level that the IPCC claims must be the global maximum by 2030.

In other words, even if the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada and all the other 36 countries of the OECD ceased to exist and did not emit one gram of GHGs by 2030, the IPCC goal would not be met.


When no “target” short of oblivion would align with the IPCC’s analysis of the needed emissions reduction, the OECD countries either must question the IPCC’s analysis and objectives, or take a far more jaded approach to setting domestic targets and incurring large emission reduction costs.

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Roman

    Excellent article. Thanks for the analysis.

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