The world should agree to limit global warming to just 1.5C instead of the current target of 2C, the United Nations’ climate chief has said, in remarks that shocked the governments of developed nations.
Two Degrees: Too Much Heat
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN framework convention on climate change, said: “Two degrees is not enough – we should be thinking of 1.5°C. If we are not headed to 1.5°C we are in big, big trouble.”
Scientists estimate that 2°C of warming is the limit of safety, beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible. Last December at a UN climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, all countries reached a consensus on a 2°C target, the first time the world’s governments had set a target limit on climate change.
But Figueres said reaching 2°C of warming would have a devastating impact, such as sea-level rises that could overwhelm low-lying islands and some coastal nations, and levels of warming in sub-Saharan Africa that could severely damage agriculture.
Figueres was speaking at Carbon Expo, the annual conference of the International Emissions Trading Association.
Can’t Do Any Better?
For Figueres to reopen the debate on the proposed target is regarded as dangerous by some countries, who fear that a push by the UN for a tougher target would derail the already fragile negotiations that officials have been trying to reconstruct after the 2009 summit in Copenhagen ended in only a partial agreement, amid acrimony and scenes of chaos.
Developed nations and some rapidly emerging economies, such as China, want to stick to the weaker target of 2°C, arguing that it would be impossible to opt for the tougher target at this stage.
One participant in the talks said: “We need to be ambitious but realistic. Although it’s positive to start discussions about more ambitious targets, the UN Environment Programme concluded a while ago that countries will have to make more ambitious emission-reduction pledges [than they have done] if global-temperature rise is to be curbed at 2°C.”
Another participant said: “This is a big surprise. We had no idea this was on the cards.”
A campaign for a 1.5°C target by some developing countries was one of the factors that nearly wrecked the Copenhagen summit. A group of governments insisted they would halt negotiations until the arguments for a 1.5°C target were heard, delaying the talks and deepening the rift between developing and developed nations’ governments.
A Matter of Justice
Figueres said she had the support of the group of about 40 small island states – many of which are in danger of disappearing as sea levels rise – as well as most African countries and other, least developed countries. She pointed out that at Cancun, governments had agreed to review the 2°C target in the light of a new scientific study on the effects of climate change.
“I’m not saying this is going to be easy,” she said. “The argument I am making is not about feasibility but an argument of social justice. We can’t have as our goal something that we already know does not guarantee the survival of low-lying states and sub-Saharan Africa.
“If we already know that, in my book there is no way we can stick to the goal we know is completely unacceptable to the most exposed [countries].”
Warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels would cause sea-level rises, storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but the effects would be far less severe than if warming were allowed to reach 3°C or 4°C.
Estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA), revealed by the Guardian, showed a record rise in carbon emissions from energy last year. If that pattern were to continue, the world would be on course for at least 3°C to 4°C of warming, according to scientific advice.
Figueres said the IEA estimates strengthened the case for urgent action on greenhouse gases. Aiming for a more stringent target would require much more effort from all countries. Current emissions pledges from both developed and developing countries represent only 60% of what is needed to stay below 2°C, according to scientific estimates.
But Jörg Haas, programme director for climate diplomacy at the European Climate Foundation, said most of the extra effort would need to be made after 2020, making it easier to push for a tougher target now. Φ
Fiona Harvey reports for The Guardian from Barcelona, Spain.