Pacific Islands face bleak future as 1.5C warming target slips away

Countries need to accept radical carbon cuts over next decade to avoid worst climate impacts, says UN

The frequency of high tides has been increasing due to climate change say Marshall Island citizens (Pic: Alson J Kelen)

The frequency of high tides has been increasing due to climate change say Marshall Island citizens (Pic: Alson J Kelen)

By Ed King

The chances of avoiding global warming of above 1.5C this century are “vanishingly slim” unless there is a radical cut in levels of fossil fuel use, says a senior UN scientist.

Jacqueline Mcglade, the UN Environment Programme’s chief scientist, says current greenhouse gas cuts from governments are far too small to prevent dangerous temperature rises before 2100.

“We are certainly unlikely to meet it on the pledges that we have,” she told RTCC.

“What would have to happen is a systemic change of understanding of how our energy systems will operate. That may happen, there is no doubt there are moves afoot.”

Warming of beyond 1.5C will likely spell disaster for low-lying countries at risk from sea levels, which could rise 75cm higher than 2013 levels by 2100, say scientists at German-based Climate Analytics.

Mcglade was speaking on the day UNEP launched its fifth annual Emissions Gap study, which examines what steps governments are taking to control climate change.

As in 2013, the conclusion of the 2014 study is that over the past 12 months there has been little change in projected carbon cuts between now and 2020.

Global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) have risen by 45% since 1990, a trend that is expected to continue unless countries manage to agree a new UN climate deal next year.

By 2030, humans will be emitting about 14-17 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GT CO2e) per year more than they should be if global temperatures are to stay below 2C.

“This is equivalent to about a third of current global greenhouse emissions (or 26–32% of 2012 emission levels),” says the report.

It adds new clean energy and efficiency measures worth over US$ 600 billion in 2012 could start to have an impact on these predictions, provided these investments are scaled up around the world.


The study does not take into account the recent US-China climate pact, which Niklas Höhne, one of the authors of the UNEP report, said could change warming projections.

“If the models now assume that China’s emissions won’t grow beyond 2030, that would have a significant impact on the temperature increase they would contribute to,” he said.

Brazil, China, the EU, India and Russia are all on track to meet their 2020 goals, says UNEP, while Australia, Canada, Mexico and the USA need to either make tougher cuts or buy carbon offsets.

The report’s authors say governments must target “global carbon neutrality” by 2055-2070 to stay within the 2C warming target, requiring GHG emissions to shrink to net zero between 2080-2100.

If they miss this goal, they risk blowing the world’s carbon budget – the amount of CO2e that scientists say can be released before dangerous warming of 2C and above is guaranteed.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest study, around 1900GT CO2e of an overall budget of 3670GT CO2e has been released.

“It genuinely suggests we have some choices ahead of us in the negotiations, and those choices are predicated on the speed at which people and countries will react,” said Mcglade.

“It’s like saying, here’s your bank account – how quickly are you going to spend it?”

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