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At the Bonn Climate Negotiations, Unexpected Drama Over 1.5 Degrees

Last week, negotiators met in Bonn to hash out the implementation of the Paris Agreement — while critics of negative emission technologies warned of the risk of land grabs.

By Eric J. Lyman


French Environment Minister Ségolène Royal speaks during the opening of the Bonn Climate Change Conference on May 16, 2016. (Photo: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images)

A 1.5-degree temperature target many see as the most significant component of the Paris Agreement came under unexpected — and unusually dramatic — scrutiny at a set of United Nations climate negotiations last week in Bonn, Germany.

Six months ago, nearly 200 nations agreed to the world’s first-ever global climate pact. At the center of the deal was a long-term goal to keep global warming “well below two degrees Celsius” over pre-industrial levels, with a call to “pursue efforts” for a 1.5-degree Celsius limit.

The difference between the two goals is dramatic: At 1.5 degrees, global sea level rise from melting glaciers would likely stay under one meter (3.3 feet), said Sven Harmeling, a coordinator for CARE International; at two degrees, the Greenland ice sheets could be at risk, resulting in sea level rises of five to seven meters, “completely inundating islands and coastal areas,” Harmeling said. At this higher temperature, agricultural yields would be as much as 50 percent lower and extreme weather events could be almost twice as frequent. In a two-degree world, most of the world’s coral reefs would be wiped out, and deserts would rapidly expand. By some estimates, as many as 150 million of the world’s poorest people — more than the current population of Russia — could join the swelling ranks of climate refugees.

“In the poorest countries, two degrees or more is a kind of death sentence.”

“It’s imperative the world do what it can do to keep warming to within 1.5 degrees,” says Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, the newly selected chief climate negotiator for the 48-nation group of least developed countries. “In the poorest countries, two degrees or more is a kind of death sentence.”

At the negotiations last week in Bonn — a follow-up to the Paris climate summit, and in anticipation of COP22 in Marrakesh — the question unexpectedly emerged into the spotlight: Is 1.5 degrees still within reach?

By most estimates, worldwide temperatures have already climbed about one-degree Celsius (1.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the Industrial Revolution, and even if emissions were halted immediately, “worldwide temperatures would probably still rise by a total of 1.3 or probably 1.4 degrees,” according to Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Most climate models that chart the best chance of keeping warming within 1.5 degrees require worldwide emissions to peak within the next four or five years. In this scenario, much of the coal, oil, and gas already extracted from the Earth would have to go unused, and traditional fuel companies would have to halt exploration. The world would experience a rapid and dramatic scaling down of international transport, industrial production, and economic expansion, and it would need a swift ramp-up in renewable energy use. But there’s almost no sign any of that is happening.

There’s another alternative that has polarized observers in the process: negative emissions technologies. They’re largely experimental plans that would, in theory at least, reduce the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and help scale back down from the peak in worldwide emissions. Such technologies include large-scale versions of “carbon dioxide scrubbers” like those used for life support on submarines or spacecraft, or geo-engineering that would change the chemical make-up of the ocean to allow it to absorb more greenhouse gases.

But the negative emissions technology gaining the most traction is called BECCS, short for Bio-Energy With Carbon Capture and Storage. BECCS is a plan that would create fuel from agriculture and then take the carbon dioxide it produces and liquefy it under pressure, pump it underground, and store it there indefinitely.

It was a clash over BECCS that provided an unexpected flair of drama at the May 16–26 Bonn talks. Environmental groups and observer organizations are split on the topic. Those in favor of BECCS say that they’re probably the only option left. Bill Hare, a climate scientist with Germany-based Climate Analytics, for example, said he thinks that neither the 1.5-degree nor the two-degree target is within reach without the use of negative emissions technologies. Critics, meanwhile, say it’s unlikely the technologies will work, that betting on them would delay more meaningful and immediate action, and that such heavy use of bio-energy would spark a series of “land grabs,” monopolizing fields that would otherwise be used to feed the world’s poor.

“We have waited too long. Our options are reduced. We are facing fairly brutal carbon arithmetic now.”

“The amount of cropland needed for the amount of bio-energy BECCS requires is 500 million to three billion hectares,” says Teresa Anderson, a climate campaigner with ActionAid International. “To put that in perspective, all the cropland in use today adds up to 1.5 billion hectares.”

The 1.5-degree target was not officially on the agenda in Bonn, where formal negotiations focused on procedural matters and on laying the technical groundwork for a kind of rule book that will guide the implementation process for the Paris Agreement. But Hare and Anderson called attention to the issue at an otherwise low-key media briefing where Hare, one of the panelists, made his case for the use of negative emissions technologies. When Anderson, another panelist, responded with concerns about land grabs, Hare called her conclusions “bullshit” and stormed out.

“I regret having said that; I probably shouldn’t have been so impetuous,” Hare says. “But my point is correct. We have waited too long. Our options are reduced. We are facing fairly brutal carbon arithmetic now. This is the only way to reduce emissions dramatically enough and quickly enough.”

Anderson is equally convinced there are other alternatives.

“This idea of negative emissions is a delaying tactic, it’s smoke and mirrors to create the illusion that industrialized countries can maintain their standard of living, avoid sacrifice, and the world can still be saved,” she says. “This is the elephant in the room. We must reduce consumption and we must do it now. It will be unpalatable for many of us. But it’s still far better than the alternative of a world with warming of two degrees or more.”