At COP21, a Victory for 1.5 Degrees?

Major powers make a major concession on their stated climate targets. Given the money and the science, that concession remains largely rhetorical.
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Visitors at the Indian pavilion at COP21 in Paris, France, in December of 2015.

Visitors at the Indian pavilion at COP21. (Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

Last night in Paris, there was a swell of excitement among delegates from the developing world as news came that ministers were strengthening language in the working agreement to halt global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

That's a critical benchmark, and a dramatic shift from the G7’s longtime emphasis on a two-degree limit. As Saleemul Huq of the International Center for Climate Change and Development told reporters last week: “While two degrees will protect most people and most ecosystems, it will not protect all. And if we want to protect all, we need to hit 1.5 degrees. The difference between two and 1.5 is roughly 100 million people whose lives will be overturned.”

The new language emerged under pressure from African countries, whose leaders have been outspoken about the inequity of a two-degree climate deal, which might work for the north but would present deep and imminent challenges for the global south.

Suddenly, though, China, the United States, Canada, and the European Union have announced that they could endorse a final agreement that includes language about 1.5 degrees. (India, so far, has not budged from its position on two degrees.)

U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern told reporters yesterday that the language was still being worked out.

“We are working with other countries on some formulation that would include reference to the 1.5 degrees, all as part of a somewhat larger, broader sentence,” he said in the Blue Zone. “So we are working with our island friends and other developing-country and other developed-country friends in crafting language.”

Mark Hertsgaard, one of the first journalists at COP21 to report this potential concession, said the new language “would represent a major shift from the current international goal of two degrees Celsius as well as a historic—and surprising—victory for the world’s poor and most vulnerable nations.”

As we see, developing countries have sufficient clout to move the language on long-term climate targets, but not enough to move the money that will get us there.

It's a victory to be sure, especially given the occasional muzzling of civil-society advocates, who are among the most vocal proponents of the 1.5 target. (Activists who could not attend the summit are mobilizing on Twitter under the hashtag #1o5C.) It's also a testament to the more central role that island nations and African delegations have begun to play at these negotiations.

That victory, though, is all too symbolic, especially as brinkmanship continues on the financial side. This morning, Oxfam issued a troubling statement about recent developments in the text—specifically, the deletion of language that would commit an interim finance target of $100 billion to the Green Climate Fund by 2020.

“This language was on the table in a COP decision on long-term finance in a text that will feed into the final agreement but was sacrificed last night in favor of a much reduced text with little or no new agreements,” said Oxfam, adding that the dust-up over finance “illustrate[s] the challenges developing countries are facing in maintaining positions on key issues across the breadth of negotiating groups taking place.”

That $100 billion could still make it into the final agreement. But, according to Helen Szoke, executive director of Oxfam Australia, “developing countries are at risk of being squeezed out of critical negotiations as the pace of talks intensifies. The small delegations of the poorest countries are being stretched, and it is vital that ministers ensure their voices are heard on critical issues like climate funding."

As we see, developing countries have sufficient clout to move the language on long-term climate targets, but not enough to move the money that will get us there.

This morning, Harjeet Singh of ActionAid told reporters that including 1.5 degrees in the final agreement is useless without proper finance and accountability.

“We need not language but implementation that also accounts for displacement and permanent loss and damage,” he said.

As the Guardian reported last night, many civil-society groups are not impressed with what they see as political cover for dodging questions of finance; the position of such groups is that “the aspiration to 1.5 Celsius [is] far removed from reality,” since current INDCs, from 185 countries, set us on course for a rise of 2.7 degrees.

Erich Picha of Friends of the Earth tells the Guardian: “The U.S. and European countries are adopting the idea of 1.5 Celsius as a mitigation target but are blurring of the lines on what has to happen to have a just and fair sharing of the 1.5-Celsius equation.”

In other words, the U.S. is happy to ratchet up ambition, as long as it means re-negotiating the financial mechanisms to modulate its commitments.

Still, 1.5 is great if it leads to a more ambitious—and frequent—review process of INDCs, one that begins by 2020 rather than by 2030, the year that several major players, including the European Union, are sticking to.

“That's what 1.5 is actually about—it's about stimulating action today,” Heather Coleman of Oxfam told reporters yesterday. “Adaptation finance will decide whether this deal is just for the biggest emittors, or for the poorest people on the planet as well.”

Ruth Davis of Greenpeace said this morning that the NGO community welcomes 1.5 if it means action, “but not as a rhetorical gesture.”

As for whether we can actually keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, the scientific community is not sanguine. (The best hope? That we breach it and scale back.) At a technical panel yesterday in the Blue Zone, Dr. Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, said that 1.5 is a joke unless the developed world is willing to alter its way of life in radical ways.

“Put bluntly, while the rhetoric of policy is to reduce emissions in line with avoiding dangerous climate change, most policy is to accept a high probability of extremely dangerous climate change rather than propose radical and immediate emission reductions,” Anderson said. “If you look at the policy, they're actually set for a much higher number. And yet our policymakers say we're on line. The reason I think we're not moving about being very direct and candid about two degrees Celsius is that if we are clear, that brings fundamental economic questions about how we live today, and we can't accept that.”

Instead, Anderson added, Western leaders are engaging in “some sort of ruse that allows us to hold two incompatible positions together.”

Asked whether the successive versions of the negotiating text contained unrealistic assumptions, Anderson replied: “That's being polite about it.”

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"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.

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