Paris Talks Move from 2.0°C to New Target of 1.5°C
Here at the Paris climate summit, the big news is that the final agreement governments hope to sign by week’s end may urge limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C. This would represent a major shift from the current international goal of 2°C as well as a historic—and surprising—victory for the world’s poor and most vulnerable nations. Their representatives, joined by climate-justice activists, have long criticized the 2°C goal as a virtual death sentence for millions of people already suffering from the sea-level rise, harsher droughts, and other impacts unleashed by the 1°C of temperature rise measured to date.
This news from the climate summit is exciting and potentially groundbreaking since before the climate talks, plans put forward by nearly 150 countries would have limited warming to just under 3°C. Those commitments made the more ambitious target of 2°C – much less a target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – unlikely. But it appears that, over the course of the talks, there now is increased recognition that even 2°C will bring devastating changes to food, water and other vital ecosystems.
The more ambitious 1.5°C goal was first endorsed by France and Germany. Then, according to the Guardian late yesterday afternoon, the US, Canada, China and the European Union – the world’s biggest carbon emitters – declared they were now on board with the more stringent 1.5°C goal.
What made the wealthier nations change their minds? According to Heartsgaard, the relentless pressure from activists and vulnerable countries to support the 1.5°C target has been effective. Small island states, however, are lobbying for an agreement from Paris that would seek to keep warming at around 1°C which is about the current level of warming above pre-industrial levels. They already are experiencing impacts from rising sea levels that are threatening their very existence.
Is a 1.5°C limit to Global Warming Even Feasible?
Yes – from a purely technological standpoint, it is. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change examines scenarios for the energy, economy, and environment that are consistent with limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The study’s authors concluded that deeper emissions cuts would be required from all sectors, and global carbon neutrality would need to be reached 10-20 years earlier than projected for 2°C scenarios.
Will Countries Participating in the Climate Talks Have the Political Capacity to Implement a 1.5°C Target?
This is an important question, given the fact that countries like the U.S. do not want a legally binding agreement that would be difficult – and probably unlikely to be ratified by the Senate. That would mean pledges and agreements reached this week are most likely to be implemented on a voluntary basis.
Brighter Prospects for the Future
Scientists have warned that allowing a global temperature rise higher than 2°C above pre-industrial levels would bring irreparable climate change and extreme weather events that would threaten our ability to exist on this planet. Unfortunately, these climate talks won’t, by themselves, solve concerns over warming. But if the goal of COP 21 is to add structure and momentum to efforts that are already underway, setting a more ambitious target may result in more immediate actions and additional scale-up for clean energy solutions.
Participating nations have just three days to maneuver through the difficult decisions over targets, strategies and fiscal responsibility, particularly to developing nations who need financial assistance to make the transition to a new energy economy. Will they do it? We hope so. Then our task becomes one of focusing on the U.S. to ensure that agreements made in Paris by the Obama administration aren’t blocked by Congress. The Republican-led Congress has threatened to obstruct any environmental policies that come home from Paris.