Plan B: Saving Political Face Beyond 2 Degrees

So far the ‘targets and timetables’ approach to keeping climate change below 2oC has done very little to reduce emissions. What happens when we start thinking about giving up the 2oC target?

WHO:  Oliver Geden, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)

WHAT: Looking at the ‘politically possible’ in light of our failures to get anywhere near the emissions reductions needed to keep global warming below 2oC.

WHEN: June 2013

WHERE: Online at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs

TITLE:  Modifying the 2°C Target: Climate Policy Objectives in the Contested Terrain of Scientific Policy Advice, Political Preferences, and Rising Emissions (open access)

This paper is all about the realpolitik. At the outset, it points out that in the 20 years since the UN framework on climate change (UNFCCC) was adopted that progress has been ‘modest at best’. Also, in order to keep global emissions from soaring quickly beyond the 2oC limit, significant reductions will be needed in the decade between 2010-2020, which is ‘patently unrealistic’.

Ok, so we’ve procrastinated away the most important decades that we had to do something about climate change with minimal impacts on both the economy and the wider environment. What now?

This paper suggests that the best bet might be changing or ‘modifying’ the internationally agreed on 2oC target. The author points out (quite rightly) that unrealistic targets signal that you can disregard them with few consequences. For instance, I’m not about to say that I’m going to compete in the next Olympic Marathon, because the second I miss a single training session it’s obviously time to give up given I’ve never run a full marathon before.

So if the world is going to fail on our 2oC training schedule, what will we aim for instead? Should we just aim for redefining ‘safe’ and ‘catastrophic’ climate change? Should we aim for 2.5oC? Should we aim for short term overshoot in the hopes that future humans will pick up the slack when we’ve kicked the can down the road for them?

The author points out what many people don’t like to notice when their countries are failing on their carbon reduction diets – not only have we already warmed by 0.8oC, but we’ve already baked in another 0.5oC from current emissions, so we’re already really close to 2oC without even starting to give up our fossil fuel habits. Also, those reductions we’ve all been promising to make and failing to make (or withdrawing from completely in Canada’s case)? Yeah, if we met all those targets, we’d still blow ‘significantly’ past 2oC. Ouch.

The emissions gap (from paper)

The emissions gap (from paper)

Another issue – the current top-down UNFCCC approach assumes that once we reach an agreement, that effective governance structures can be set up and operating within a matter of years, which is highly unlikely given we can’t even reach an agreement yet.

So what does a ‘more pragmatic stance’ for the EU on climate policy look like if we’re going to collectively blow past 2oC? Will climate policy have any legitimacy?

The author argues that the coming palpable impacts of climate change will soon remove the political possibility of ignoring climate change as an issue while in office (which I for one am looking forward to). He also doesn’t place much faith in the UN process finding a global solution with enough time – if an agreement is reached in 2015, it’s unlikely to be ratified by 2020, at which point the targets from 2015 are obsolete.

One suggestion for the EU is reviewing the numbers for the likelihood of passing 2oC. Currently, humanity is vaguely aiming to have a 50/50 chance of staying below 2oC. If we could roll the dice with slightly higher odds of blowing 2oC, maybe we could buy some time to get our political butts in gear?

That idea puts all the hard work of mitigation on everyone post-2050, at which point we’ll all be dealing with the climate impacts as well as trying to find the time for mitigation.

The other option is to say that 2oC is a ‘benchmark’ (only slightly better than an ‘aspirational target?’) and put our faith in climate inertia allowing humanity to overshoot on emissions and then increase the amount of sequestration (negative emissions) to pull back from the brink of the next mass extinction.

The paper does acknowledge that this will implicitly approve a temperature overshoot as well as an emissions overshoot, which could possibly kick the can down the road to 2300 before global temperatures are below 2oC above what we used to call ‘normal’. Apologies to everyone’s great great great great grandchildren for making you responsible for all of that.

Kicking the can down the road to 2300 (from paper)

Kicking the can down the road to 2300 (from paper)

The author also acknowledges that overshoot policies will only be accepted by the wider public if they’re convinced that this time governments will actually respect them as limits not to be passed. Previous experience with the UNFCCC processes show that any extra time that can be wrangled through carbon accounting is likely to be procrastinated away as well.

The other option could be a target of 2.5oC or 550ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, but as the paper points out, the ‘targets and timetables’ policies haven’t worked yet, and it might be time to look more towards feasible ‘policies and measures’.

The problem for me with this paper is that while it’s practical to look at aiming for what humanity can politically achieve in terms of climate policies, redefining what ‘dangerous climate change’ is to fit with realpolitik rather than physics won’t work. Physics doesn’t negotiate – the first law of thermodynamics doesn’t care that there was an economic downturn in 2008 that has made it harder to pass climate legislation.

So yes, we need to think about what is politically possible in the current ‘we can still procrastinate on this’ climate. But we also need to be planning for the tipping point once all the extreme weather adds up to business as usual no longer being feasible. We may be able to ‘postpone the impending failure of the 2oC target’, but we won’t be able to ignore the impacts of climate change.

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4 thoughts on “Plan B: Saving Political Face Beyond 2 Degrees

  1. I think this is a bad idea but I don’t think I’m capable of explaining very clearly why. I think we need to set our goals high especially goals that are hard to meet. If we relax them slightly, then we risk complacency and even more inaction. I think it also sends the message to people that the impact is not going to be too bad because hey look, we can change our target whenever we want. It’s not much of a target if we start changing it.

  2. I agree with you Rachel – there’s no amount of trying to count the numbers differently that will change the chemistry of the atmosphere, and trying to pretend it’s not that bad so that we can keep aiming for the ‘politically possible’ rather than the ‘physically necessary’ is just lying to ourselves.

    However, everyone thought the Berlin Wall was never coming down and it did – one day the politically impossible will become a stark reality that needs to be faced. Fingers crossed for sooner rather than later.

  3. Pingback: Another Week of Climate Instability News, August 11, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  4. Pingback: Plan B: Saving Political Face Beyond 2 Degrees | Amy Huva

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