Paris talks: Why the 2-degree warming target has now come down to 1.5 degrees

Both 2 degrees and 1.5 degrees are mentioned as options in the current negotiating text. The choice is still to be made.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Published: December 10, 2015 1:24 am
paris climate talks, paris climate conference, paris news, world news, news, un climate talks, un climate conference 1.5 degrees is where hope for survival lies: environmental activists in Paris. (Source: Reuters)

Two degrees isn’t good enough. We need to prevent the Earth from warming beyond 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times, say the island countries. Over the years, the rest of the world has expressed sympathy, said it agreed in principle — and then thrown up its hands. The actions required to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius weren’t practically possible, it has argued.

Not any longer. For the first time, the climate talks have gathered some momentum on the 1.5-degree target. The US and EU have said they are willing to accommodate a reference to this target in the agreement under negotiation. India has said it has no opposition to the proposal. On Tuesday, BASIC countries — Brazil, South Africa, India and China — said the 1.5 degree target was still an option. African countries and the group of least developed nations have always backed the idea.

Both 2 degrees and 1.5 degrees are mentioned as options in the current negotiating text. The choice is still to be made.

A tactical step?

The growing convergence on the 1.5-degree target is being seen as evidence of stronger resolve to fight climate change. While non-government organisations have welcomed the move, some have suggested that it could also be a negotiation tactic by the bigger players in the talks.

The US and EU could be attempting to wean the small island developing states (SIDS) and the least developed countries (LDCs) away from the bigger developing nations like China and India. The EU has, in fact, formed an alliance with 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries on some common issues, and promised to provide $ 516 million to support climate action there up to 2020.

The developed countries were hoping that India, China and other developing nations would not agree to the 1.5-degree target — and they could be painted as spoilers. By promising to keep the discussion open, the BASIC countries have tried to call the developed nations’ bluff, and hold on to the support of the SIDS and LDCs.

How big is 1.5?

This isn’t the first time that the 1.5-degree target has created a buzz at a climate meet. In Copenhagen 2009, the last time the world tried to stitch together a climate agreement, Tuvalu, one of the smallest countries on the planet, held up talks for two days on this demand.

So, what happens at 2 degrees that doesn’t at 1.5 degrees?

The Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose periodic assessments of climate science are the basis of the ongoing negotiations, says keeping the rise of average global temperatures under 2 degrees from pre-industrial times is essential to prevent “catastrophic” and “irreversible” impacts. This year, we are set to touch the 1-degree mark.

Obviously, 2 degrees is not a definitive tipping point. Impacts of climate change get progressively strong with rising temperatures, and there is no minimum threshold for triggering them. IPCC uses the language of probability to say what different impacts could be expected with rises of 1.5 and 2 degrees. For example, there is a much greater possibility that seas would rise by more than 1 metre by 2100 in a 2-degree scenario than in a 1.5-degree world.

A rising sea is what small island states fear most. Most of them are in danger of disappearing altogether. Even parts of Bangladesh face nearly 70% submergence if the sea rises by 1 metre.

The road to 1.5

In the run-up to Paris, countries submitted proposed climate action plans for 2030. An assessment showed that combined actions would not be able to prevent global temperatures rising beyond 2 degrees, and if actions were not enhanced, the world was headed to a 2.7-degree rise by 2100.

Achieving a 1.5-degree target would require far greater action. The world would need to ‘peak’ its emissions much faster, probably as early as 2020 — and then achieve net zero carbon emissions in the 2060-80 period. It has often been argued that with the world struggling to meet even the 2-degree target, targeting 1.5 would be a non-starter.

But this may not be entirely true. Several reports have shown that the 2-degree and 1.5-degree roads are not very different till 2030. This year’s emissions gap report by the UN Environment Programme showed that for a 2-degree world, total greenhouse gas (CO2 plus other gases) emissions must be about 37 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2030. Total emissions for the 1.5-degree scenario for the same year was only slightly higher — 39 gigatons. In 2025, total emissions in both scenarios are nearly equal.

After 2030, however, the paths diverge sharply. In 2050, the world should not be emitting more than 8 gigatons of CO2 equivalent for a 1.5-degree scenario, while in the 2-degree scenario, it can emit up to 23 gigatons. For 1.5, a net zero emissions scenario must be achieved in 2060-80; for 2, it is 2080-90.

Will we choose 1.5?

It is unlikely that the Paris agreement would commit itself to a 1.5-degree target. To satisfy the SIDS and LDCs, other formulations may be used — say, “well below 2 degrees” instead of “2 degrees”. Another formulation could be to aim for the 2-degree target while striving to achieve 1.5 degrees.

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