1.5 Degrees – Really?

February 2, 2016 / Climate Change, Energy Policy /

One of the stories which made headlines after the recent Paris climate talks was that the text included a commitment to  “pursue efforts to” limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C. This amendment to the agreed text was apparently led by a group of small island states, understandably fearing the consequences of a 2°C world for sea level rise and extreme weather events.

Nearly all reports from Paris were of an optimistic atmosphere, of agreement and hope for the future. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that climate science is becoming more irrefutable and the impacts of climate change are already being felt. One of the major differences between these set of talks (COP21) and previous international climate agreements which famously ended in strained efforts from world leaders, is that in Paris, the organisers were not aiming to produce a legally binding set of agreements, that would require unanimous support, and subsequent ratification. Recalling the arguments raging in the mid-2000s around the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by Russia, the USA and Canada, this seems like a wise move.

Instead, before the Paris talks, all UN states were invited to submit ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions‘ (INDCs), setting out their own nationally specific objectives regarding carbon emissions over the coming decades. In many ways, this meant that the hard work had already been done prior to the December 2015 talks. Of course, leaving these commitments to each nation (and in the case of Europe, the EU), meant that there were a wide variety of different metrics and measures used in these documents. China, for example, aimed to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 making a commitment for emissions reductions of 60-65% per unit of GDP, whilst other countries made commitments based on gross emissions, such as the 40% reduction set out by the EU by 2030, and the 26-28% reduction targeted by the US, by 2025. Even where gross commitments were made, it is very difficult to compare countries due to differences in baseline and target years used.

Nonetheless, whilst the Paris talks were in mid-flow, the UNFCCC managed (somehow) to combine these commitments, and make an assessment of what kind of climate-future the world’s nations were committing to. Making this announcement, Christiana Figueres (Head of UNFCCC), declared that the combined INDCS amounted to around 2.7°C warming. A far cry from 1.5°C. And of course, this calculation assumes that all the countries do go on to implement their commitments and achieve the levels of emissions reductions set out. Thinking about the 40% reduction in the EU, this will be far from easy.

It seems to me that there is a determined optimism in much of the conversation about climate change. A faith that we will somehow manage to take all the measures required to keep warming down below dangerous levels. I was lucky enough to hear Christiana Figueres speak in Oxford before the Paris talks, and I was struck by her positive, optimistic outlook.  Even when making her announcement about the 2.7°C commitments, she put a positive spin on this news, saying it was a real improvement on the 4-5°C predictions being made by many. Of course, you would want nothing short of this kind of optimism from someone in her uniquely difficult position, having to corral world leaders into agreement.

My concern however, is that followers of the agreement were left with an optimism that might border on complacency. Following developments via mainstream media for example, one might be forgiven for thinking that great progress had been made by our governments, and that climate change was going to be managed nicely by our elected superiors on our behalf. And yet it is not only those following climate change at arms length that seem to be in danger of this. At a recent meeting in the ECI, I was surprised to hear some of the Professors talking about a dearth of literature expanding on 1.5°C scenarios, and that the celebrations to mark the institute’s 25th birthday would be centred on a conference on the topic.

My personal view is that 1.5°C is entirely unrealistic. At best, the inclusion of this goal in the UN talks highlights the dangers of warmer scenarios, potentially instigating further action. But at worst, it detracts from the reality, that it is high likely we’ll see our climate warm by more than 2.5°C unless we take drastic, urgent action to curb emissions.