A meeting of environment ministers today in Poznan is not expected to reach an agreement on a long-term target for global emissions reductions. Despite a growing range of proposed targets – the EU’s 20 by 2020, the G8’s 50 by 2050 (now also endorsed by Mexico), and more recently, Brazil’s deforestation commitment – a consensus across developed and developing countries seemed unlikely. The ministerial meeting is the first of its kind since Bali, and they may not sit in the same room again until COP 15 in Copenhagen next year. Even so, releasing a summary of the meeting may be the only tangible ‘outcome’, according to Yvo de Boer. Not exactly a breakthrough.

Much has been said about setting a global long-term target for emissions reductions to prevent future GHG concentrations in the atmosphere to exceed some maximum threshold (for example, see this CICERO report). The 350 ppm threshold has become the new rallying cry for many, including Al Gore. Famously, the Bali Action Plan did not touch any numbers; countries agreed on ‘deep cuts’ in order to ‘avoid dangerous climate change’, essentially a non-consensus consensus that does not explicitly tie this commitment to any quantitative targets.

Yet, as demonstrated by this table compiled by the Pew Center, long-term targets play a key role in climate policy across levels of government – municipal, sub-national, national, and regional. Advocates claim timetabled targets are essential for communicating ambitions, setting expectations for business, and providing an overarching framework for designing regulations, including cap-and-trade systems. And if formalized in international treaties, targets may lock-in national climate policy across electoral cycles and financial turmoil.

Others argue that spending time and resources on negotiating a long-term emission target for 2050 diverts attention away from more urgent practical matters, such as designing effective institutional instruments for finance/technology transfers. In order to create momentum in negotiations, it is important to advance the more immediate issues so as to build in a continuous commitment to implementation. In short, talking about 2050 may deflect attention away from what has to be done in 2009.

What seems clear is that long-term targets are not constructive unless they pave the way for agreements on short- and medium term actions. Because as Keynes famously said, ‘in the long run, we’re all dead’.

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