Global greenhouse gas emissions stalled in 2015, but tough target demanded by climate vulnerable countries looks unattainable
By Megan Darby
More than 100 countries vulnerable to the impacts of global warming are pushing for a 1.5C limit at UN negotiations in Paris.
That is necessary to prevent low-lying islands being swallowed by rising seas and African farmers facing frequent drought and food shortages, they argue.
But it requires a total phase-out of fossil fuel use worldwide by 2025-30, scientists warned on Monday, followed by large-scale use of negative emissions technology. That is an accelerated pathway compared to net zero emissions early in the second half of the century for 2C.
“You would be shutting down coal power plants everywhere, you would be retiring oil everywhere, there would not be any place for gas,” said Glen Peters of research agency CICERO.
“Personally, I think if you look at progress in the negotiations, if you look at [national climate plans], you would have to say 1.5C has an extremely slim chance.”
Peters was speaking at the release of provisional 2015 greenhouse gas emissions data from fossil fuels, on the sidelines of COP21. These showed a 0.6% global decline from the previous year.
Driven by a slight fall in China’s coal use, it reversed a trend of 2.4% average annual growth between 2004 and 2013.
But Corinne Le Quéré, a professor at the UK-based Tyndall Centre, cautioned that was unlikely to be a permanent shift in direction.
She said: “India is growing so fast now and it is growing essentially on coal. We expect in the near future they could eventually dominate global growth in the same way that China has done in the past decade.”
Meanwhile reductions from industrialised countries were “modest at best”, with the EU managing around 2.4% a year in the past decade.
Growth in India’s carbon output this year effectively cancelled out cuts in the EU. It is on track to overtake the 28-state bloc as third largest emitter within 2-3 years.
The figures highlight a central tension at negotiations towards a Paris climate pact. India is determined to expand energy access, with an estimated 300 million citizens currently off-grid. Yet every coal plant makes it harder to hold temperature rise to 2C or 1.5C.
Prakash Javadekar, India’s environment minister, told journalists on Monday no-one could oppose 1.5C as a concept. “We want to actually freeze the temperature rise at present levels,” he said.
But, he added, 90% of the 2C emissions budget was taken up by the developed world. “Make the carbon space for development.”
— Adam Greenberg (@Pragmactivist99) December 7, 2015
In total, 185 out of 195 countries have submitted carbon-cutting plans towards a UN deal. Collectively, these imply a 1% annual growth in emissions, said CICERO’s Peters. On this track, emissions may not even peak by 2030, let alone reach zero as needed for 1.5C.
Whether the danger threshold is ultimately set at 2C or 1.5C, negotiators are trying to agree on periodic reviews to ramp up ambition.
The US, EU and China support 5-yearly cycles, but India is resisting any obligation to reopen its policies in the next 10 years.
Seeking to present a positive message, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi announced a solar power alliance at the outset of talks last week.
One of the country’s key asks is transfer of technology to help clean up its development.
It also joined “Mission Innovation” alongside the US, Saudi Arabia and China, which aims to double research and development funding for clean technology by 2020.
US energy secretary Ernest Moniz told Climate Home: “India was a prime and I would say a key mover for us to launch this Mission Innovation…
“We would imagine that international collaboration, particularly with countries like India, will increase quite dramatically.”
Two studies published by Nature at the same time reinforced both the importance of a strict temperature limit and difficulty of reaching it.
Coral reefs, staple food crops and world heritage sites will suffer major impacts at less than 2C of warming, one paper found. After ecological limits are crossed, such as the destruction of coral reefs, those impacts actually taper off.
The other paper outlined some challenges of sucking carbon dioxide out of the air. That is needed to some degree in 2C models and on a huge scale to curb warming to 1.5C.
Techniques range from mass tree-planting to burning plant matter for energy then capturing and storing the emissions. All of the options are expensive and most require vast areas of land. There are also implications for water demand.