Is it time to abandon two degrees?

Permanent representatative of Nauru to the United Nations Ambassador Marlene Moses and former IPCC chair Robert Watson defend the international goal to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius.

cook islands fishermen
Fishermen on Muri Beach, Cook Islands. The Cook Islands are one of 39 members of the Alliance of Small Island States, a global group of low-lying island nations that are especially vulnerable to climate change. Image: ChameleonsEye /

No sooner had the climate blogosphere become saturated with analysis of what the recent United Nations summit did or did not accomplish, than a new question took its place: Has the time come to abandon the target of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius? The answer is unequivocally no.

Scientists and environmentalists have grappled with this debate before, but after a paper appeared in the prestigious journal Nature early this month arguing that the internationally agreed temperature goal is not helping, and may actually hinder the U.N. climate negotiations, another round of handwringing has ensued. 

The paper suggests that a new set of metrics, such as ocean heat content, warming in the polar-regions, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations, would be more useful in steering action.

But while these indicators could complement the temperature goal, we should not let this debate distract us from the most urgent challenge of our time: achieving emissions reductions and fast.

We should also recognize that the 2-degree goal opened the door for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to calculate the total cumulative amount of greenhouse gases that the world can emit while still staying below this temperature threshold. We have already burned through half of our “carbon budget” and are on track to exhaust the rest by 2040. That is a political signal every policy maker ignores at our peril.

Furthermore, we must not lose sight of the fact that if we fail to make urgent cuts – and ensure they continue to decline dramatically thereafter – it may become impossible to protect the world’s most vulnerable communities from deadly climate impacts, including the inundation of low-lying island nations and coastal areas from rising seas.   

Already a temperature increase of just one degree Celsius has precipitated increased droughts, floods, and famine on a scale never before seen. This is undermining sustainable development and poverty alleviation around the world. What’s worse, some low-lying island states are even developing relocation plans in the event it becomes impossible to turn back the tide.

And it is not only small island states that are vulnerable to climate impacts. All nations are vulnerable to differing degrees and, unless there are immediate mitigation actions beyond those currently proposed, we’re likely headed for a 3 to 5 degree world.

That is why the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) was one of the first groups to call for a more cautious 1.5-degree goal to focus global efforts. It is also why Nauru, chair of AOSIS, commissioned a paper from 30 leading climate and energy experts from around the world to identify the most promising solutions to deliver significant near-term emissions cuts.

The findings clearly show that the technologies and know-how to prevent runaway climate change are readily available, but countries must embark on a bold effort to transform the way they generate and consume energy, and how they manage agricultural and forest lands today.

We must not lose sight of the fact that if we fail to make urgent cuts – and ensure they continue to decline dramatically thereafter – it may become impossible to protect the world’s most vulnerable communities from deadly climate impacts, including the inundation of low-lying island nations and coastal areas from rising seas.  

These solutions probably won’t come as a surprise to climate policymakers, and that’s a good thing. It means they are familiar and can be implemented immediately under a variety of national circumstances. The work builds on the IPCC, the Global Energy Assessment, and information from leading scientific and energy experts. What’s more, the recommendations are cost-effective and have important co-benefits, such as improved public health, green jobs, economic competitiveness, and increased energy access and security.  Some key findings include:

  • There is major cost-effective potential to rapidly increase efficiency in the transportation, building, industrial, agricultural, waste management and water sectors with existing commercially available technologies and use of best practice, given appropriate policy support.  For example, energy efficiency building retrofits can typically achieve 70-90 percent reduction in energy consumption for heating and cooling.
  • Wind and solar PV will result in about 1.4 billion tonnes of avoided CO2 emissions per year by 2020, but with great policy support could cut another billion tonnes of emissions globally.  
  • Where governments have made climate a priority, smart policies have facilitated the transformative scaling up of renewable energy and end-use efficiency.  On a sunny day, Germany can generate more than half its electricity from solar power; one-third of new builds in Vienna use nearly zero energy for heating and cooling; in 2013 Denmark and Spain produced 33 percent and 21 percent, respectively of their electricity from wind.
  • An effective price on carbon to reflect the health and environmental costs of emissions for current and future generations would send the right price signal to drive investment in clean technology. 

Of course, identifying solutions is not enough. Governments must work diligently to get the policy framework right and to take action together, along with the private sector.

Here as elsewhere U.N. climate negotiations have a crucial role to play in motivating countries to take immediate action, particularly through the Convention’s solutions-oriented Workstream 2 process that not only focuses on identifying practical approaches to reduce emissions like those describe above, but also strategies to overcome barriers that have prevented their wider implementation.

We have already had productive meetings about renewable energy and energy efficiency, land-use, and urban development, as areas where the potential for substantial emissions reductions and global cooperation exists. In fact, at meetings held today and tomorrow in Bonn, participants will discuss carbon capture and sequestration and cutting non-CO2 global warming pollutants like methane and black carbon.

The international community has put off hard decisions on climate change for far too long, and the cost of our inaction is severe and in many cases irreversible. But it is not too late to do what is required to give the most vulnerable among us a fighting chance and protect all communities by doing it. In a carbon-constrained world, where the prosperity and security of all countries is inextricably connected to energy and climate change, it is no exaggeration to say we share the same island.

Ambassador Marlene Moses, is permanent representative of Nauru to the United Nations and chair of the Alliance of Small Island Developing States (AOSIS) and  Robert Watson is strategic director, Tyndall Center, University of East Anglia, and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This post originally appeared on the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Alertnet.

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