Backtracking from 2C goal abandons island states to the waves

Negotiators are already distancing themselves from the 2C goal, but it is too important to throw away

Residents of the Solomon Islands say rising sea levels have forced them to evacuate some atolls (Pic: UN Photos)

Residents of the Solomon Islands say rising sea levels have forced them to evacuate some atolls (Pic: UN Photos)

By Ed King

A proposal in the journal Nature by two academics that the 2C target in international climate negotiations should be scrapped has provoked a mixed response.

David G Victor, a University of California professor and Charles F Kennel, once of NASA, argue the goal is unachievable, impractical and scientifically tenuous.

“Politically and scientifically, the 2C goal is wrong-headed,” they write, saying it will be impossible to achieve given soaring levels of global carbon dioxide levels, which hit a new high for a 12-month period in 2013.

Citing an 18-year stall in global temperatures, they call for a wider “index” of climate forcers and risks to be used to measure progress towards addressing the problem.

“Patients have come to understand that doctors must track many vital signs — blood pressure, heart rate and body mass index — to prevent illness and inform care. A similar strategy is now needed for the planet,” they say.

Complex background

If it sounds scientifically sensible, politically the UN talks are not that simple.

This, remember, is an arena where a planned fortnight of negotiations can be paralysed over a disagreements on what should top the agenda.

Ronny Jumeau, a Seychelles diplomat who speaks for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), says he feels the critique presented by Victor and Kennel is slightly simplistic.

Their assertion that 2C was accepted uncritically by nations “shows an inadequate understanding” of the debate in 2009 over its adoption, he says.

Far from being a universal agreement, it was at the higher end of what small islands demanded.

AOSIS have long argued for a target of 1.5C, which it says will better protect its members, many of whom are low lying island states acutely vulnerable to rising sea levels.

“According to what we’re hearing from the scientists, a 2C and even a 1.5C goal is still technically and economically feasible,” he says.

“While such a goal may indeed appear to be simplistic, just look at the difficulty the international community has had in adopting it, especially since the negotiations are not just about the climate and the science, but also the economics and the politics.”

The US lead climate envoy Todd Stern knows this to his cost.

In August 2012 he gave a speech at Dartmouth College where he said that the target of hitting 2C should be removed from the talks.

US chief climate envoy Todd Stern (Pic: Center for American Progress/Flickr)

US chief climate envoy Todd Stern (Pic: Center for American Progress/Flickr)

Instead he called on countries to develop an agreement that could be modified over time, taking into account new greener technologies not yet developed.

“This kind of flexible, evolving legal agreement cannot guarantee that we meet a 2 degree goal, but insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock,” he said.

Despite its strong call for the world to take urgent action on emissions growth, Stern’s 2C comment was greeted with a volley of criticism from the EU, small island leaders and African states.

It’s revealing to note that the next time he made a big set-piece speech, at Chatham House in 2013, he did not mention the 2C target once.

Stern is not alone.

A quick analysis of the last 36 national submissions to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change reveals the 2C target was mentioned just 10 times, with the EU, Africa and small island states the most frequent.

This seems significant.

Those documents represent the positions of country groupings and individual states on how a climate treaty set to be agreed in 2015 could work, and what its targets should look like.

Far from 2C dominating the thinking of the 190+ countries engaged in climate diplomacy, it appears it is one of a series of indicators they are considering in the lead to 2015.

Others include the level of financial flows from rich to poor, the state of the world’s carbon markets and developing a measure for the fairness (or equity) of a new agreement.

Pete Ogden, until recently a White House climate advisor, wrote more about the range of goals in an article published in Foreign Affairs two months ago.

He says other “collective targets” should be added to the 2C goal and the text for a 2015 deal.

These include a date when global emissions should peak, he writes. It could also include a year when the world goes carbon neutral, a concept Ban Ki-moon alluded to at his summit.

As emissions rise and the door to curb warming closes, further goals will need to be added, included a greater focus on adaptation and perhaps compensation.

“We’re very close to the ceiling on 2C… we need to have a much more open debate about climate change,” John Prescott, one of the architects of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, told the Guardian.

Unwelcome distraction

But for now, there seems to be a consensus among those involved in the talks that abandoning the 2C goal would be counterproductive.

The process has enough problems and needs to build on its recent wins, like the New York meeting, says Michael Jacobs, former climate advisor to UK prime minister Gordon Brown, and quoted in the same Guardian piece.

“15 months out from the Paris conference and a week after a successful summit put climate change back on the international agenda is completely the wrong time to consider abandoning that commitment.”

And Bill Hare, a scientist who leads Berlin-based Climate Analytics, admits the 2C target isn’t perfect, but argues it’s a “good composite indicator” of impacts and risks.

“Without the emission pressures of the 2C limit there would effectively be a green light for continued massive expansion of coal and other fossil fuel intensive infrastructure in the next decade,” he says.

Reality check

What the Nature article has achieved is exposing the intense nervousness in the political and scientific communities over efforts to address climate change.

If Victor and Kennel wanted publicity, they have got it, publishing a paper that’s the equivalent of kicking the UN climate process in the balls.

In the two decades since talks on climate change started, emissions have spiralled, hitting a new annual high in 2013.

But their dismissal of 2C seems brave, given the warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on what warming above this level could mean.

The IPCC WGII study released in April warned the risks of “abrupt and irreversible changes” such as Arctic melt and the death of coral reefs would increase disproportionately with warming between 1-2C.

Another blockbuster study, backed by nine countries and called the New Climate Economy report, says avoiding 2C is economically possible if countries rapidly implement green policies in the coming 15 years.

And for Jumeau, who carries the future of 44 states on his shoulders when he takes part in UN negotiations, this academic debate over 2C ignores the plight many countries face today.

“Being realistic means recognising the complexities of the economics and the politics as well as of the science.  As the article itself acknowledges, “actionable goals have proved difficult to articulate from the beginning of climate-policy efforts”, he says.

“How realistic is it to expect the international community to just throw out the findings of IPCC AR5 which – for all the weaknesses and inadequacies some may find in it – represents the voice of the scientific community as officially recognised by the negotiations?”

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