If the Paris Climate Summit was a democracy, we’d be aiming for 1.5°C

Any plan for the future needs a clear, credible and well-justified goal. The goal at the core of the discussions and negotiations at the climate talks in Paris is what the Earth’s average temperature should be limited to – relative to pre-industrial levels.

Limiting warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels has been the holy g[uard]rail of global climate policy for several decades. Indeed, this figure was first identified as a significant punctuation point in the fight against dangerous climate change as early as 1975, when economist William Nordhaus suggested that warming above this figure would push the climate beyond the limit of human experience.

Eighteen years later, James Hansen, known as the “Paul Revere of climate change” warned the US Congress that the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was going to increase the risk of extreme weather events. Hansen didn’t specify a particular level of warming that would be associated with increase risk but two years later, researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute did just that – identifying 2°C as the limit beyond which dangerous impacts were increasingly likely.

Since that time, the 2°C limit has become embedded in international discussions, although it was not until the Cancun Agreement of 2010 that it became formally enshrined into international climate policy.

But now the 2°C limit is looking old fashioned, even downright dangerous. Warming of just under 1°C has already occurred, and with it, significant increases in the intensity and frequency of many types of extreme weather – longer and hotter droughts, more heatwaves, longer bushfire seasons, stronger and more damaging cyclones, and inundation of low-lying coastal areas. These events are putting people and the environment at risk.

At a meeting in Manila last month, the 20 members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), together with 23 incoming members from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Pacific, declared that based on the latest science “the current long-term temperature goal of holding global warming below 2°C is inadequate and that it is essential that this target is strengthened towards a below 1.5°C goal”.

Further, the group’s declaration included the statements that:

“...immediate measures to strengthen the goal to the below 1.5°C target are indispensable to the integrity of the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC, the survival of a number of our nations, and the prosperity of our populations, people everywhere, and the world.”

“A mitigation goal consistent with below 1.5°C should be included in the Paris agreement and include full decarbonisation by 2050 with the peaking of global GHG emissions as soon as possible, and at the latest by 2020, and 100% renewable energy production by 2050”.

The Manilla Declaration has now served as a rallying cry for hundreds of civil society groups, and at last count (on Day 5 of COP21), has been supported by 112 countries – that’s a majority of the 195 countries represented at the summit. The CVF #1o5C campaign www.1o5C.org is taking off!

This map shows in green which countries already support the 1.5°C goal through national or group positions.

The goal also has some powerful supporters who are critical to the negotiations, including Christiana Figueres, the Executive Director of the UNFCCC. In the opening address of the summit, French president François Hollande said that delegates should aim for “1.5°C if possible”, and President Obama noted in a press conference on Day 2 of the meeting that “We want to get to 2°C or even lower than that.”

Of course keeping temperatures to 1.5°C poses significant technological and political challenges, especially for the industrialised and rapidly developing nations, such as Brazil, India and China. But it is possible. In 2014 the World Bank published a report that concluded that the 1.5°C target was “technically and economically feasible”, although it would cost about 50% more than achieving the 2°C limit.

Given the tremendous acceleration of renewable energy technology, the growing divestment movement, and the increased sense of urgency this summit is fostering, the target is within reach.

It remains to be seen how many more countries will sign the 1.5°C declaration before the end of the meeting, and whether the final agreement, if we get one, will reflect this campaign. However, if COP21 was a democracy it would already be enshrined. Watch this space…

Header image: Ministers and delegates raising the #1o5C hand signal at the extraordinary high-level session of the CVF convened at COP21 at Le Bourget, Paris on 4 December 2015 – source: CVF.