2 C global warming? It’s much worse.

Off target

The congratulatory fanfare surrounding the agreement approved by the COP21 is to a large extent justified. It is perhaps the first time in hstory that the majority of the world’s countries have forged an agreement aimed at the the management of something as globally significant as the planet’s climate. There have of course been international agreements of huge importance before–the convention on biodiversity comes to mind– but nothing matches the level of participation, the ambition, and the sheer emotion of the COP21 agreement. The problem for those of us who understand climate science and who have been watching the trends in the climate data as they are assessed and reported, is that the technical and scientific basis of the agreement seems to be both inadequate and seriously flawed.

The focus of the agreement is entirely framed in terms of global warming. The stated aim of the global mitigation effort is to keep surface temperatures “well below” 2°C.  A target of 1.5°C is specified in order to give precision to the meaning of the term: “well below”.  But there are two potentially fatal problems with this formulation.

The first problem is that the target is manifestly unattainable. The planet is already half way towards mean surface temperature increases of 2°C.  An evaluation of the cumulative global impact of 147 of the ‘íntended nationally-determined contributions’ (the INDCs) published by the UN in October 2015 showed that the promises made by countries that had submitted INDCs up to that time simply would not keep global warming below 2°C. Compared to the emissions limits necessary to keep the world below 2 C, global emissions (total CO2 equivalent)  are expected to be too high by 8.7 % in 2025 and by 15.1 % in 2030. And these are mean figures of substantial ranges the top ends of which are 50% higher.  In fact, emissions never flatline: they continue to increase through to 2030.  Let’s repeat that: total greenhouse gas emissions never stop increasing–they slow down but they never stop.

Furthermore, the intended mitigation efforts all include results that are conditional on the availability of funding from the multilateral sources in principle set aside and earmarked for the mitigation programs to be implemented by developing and emerging countries.

However, as anyone who has worked in LDC environments knows, funding for climate change mitigation programs is difficult to acquire and the process is lengthy, time consuming, frustrating, and heavily bureaucratic. All of which means that the probability of a developing country actually meeting its own INDC targets on time is actually quite low. It is extraordinarily naïve to believe that the majority of countries will meet their conditional INDC targets. Therefore the estimates cited above are certain to underestimate global CO2e emissions through to 2030

The second problem is that setting a global warming target provides no policy guidance for individual countries. The UN synthesis report on the aggregate effects of the INDCs clearly shows that they are insufficient. So what then is an individual country supposed now to do?  By how much more should each country further reduce their emissions in order that, globally, the 2°C limit is not exceeded and the 1.5°C target is attained?  Since it is agreed that the responsibility for climate change is shared  differently among countries, how is this differentiation to be defined, agreed upon and applied?

What this means is that the agreement signed in Paris is effectively an agreement to exceed the 2°C target: because in validating a set of INDCs that are known to be insufficient to keep global warming below that limit, the agreement in Paris effectively acknowledges that the target will be exceeded.  This also means that the protracted discussions over the importance of pursuing “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” were manifestly a total waste of time.

The desire of the smaller countries (especially the island nations) to aim for a target below 2 degrees is understandable, since even at 2 degrees of warming extreme weather 100-year events may become the ‘new nomal’, and for low-lying tropical islands barely above sea level the risks associated with a 2 degree rise are frightening. Communities on Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Maldives and many of the other SIDS (small island developing states) are looking around for a safer place to live.

In the Solomon Islands, the town of Taro is to be relocated to higher ground on an adjacent island. The Kiribata government has bought land on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu, well above sea level. In Papua New Guinea, communities on Cartert atoll will be moved to mainland Bougainvillea.  In the Maldives, the Male commercial port will be moved to another island: Thilafushi, an island reckoned to provide better protection against the rising seas.

A massive global migration is getting underway. The UNHCR has estimated that climate change could force the displacement of more than 200 million people over the next 30 years.



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