Now is the time to debate the international climate policy target

Atmospheric wooden thermometerThis post is by Andy Jordan and Tim Rayner of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research based at the University of East Anglia

When the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) convened for the nineteenth time in Warsaw, how many participants doubted the world’s capacity to fulfill the Convention’s ultimate objective of avoiding ‘dangerous climate change’? Probably many more than were willing to admit it in public.

Breaching two degrees is the elephant in the room 
Since the mid-1990s, the Convention’s objective has been widely interpreted as equating to securing a mean global temperature increase of no more than two degrees Celsius. Nobody seriously expected the Warsaw meeting to take the steps needed to prevent this target from being breached. In fact, negotiators struggled even to keep to the current programme of negotiations, which are widely assumed to lack urgency and ambition, on track. In her closing remarks, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres admitted that negotiators were “caught between the urgency of science and the [slow] pace of policy development”. Nonetheless, the increasing possibility that the two degrees target might be breached has become the elephant in the room at successive COPs.

Back in September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report on the science of climate change. It showed that the target implies a remaining global carbon budget equivalent to about one third of the greenhouse gases released since industrialisation. At present rates, this budget could be used up entirely by 2040, just twenty years after Figueres hopes a new global climate agreement will be in place. So, yet again, climate policy watchers find themselves contemplating a very awkward question: what should the world do with a target that appears more and more likely to be breached?

If policy is based on an unrealistic target we will be unprepared
The target was, of course, expected to serve many purposes. One of the main ones was to drive negotiators to a higher level of ambition. But repeated warnings from the UN Environment Programme that it will soon be overshot have failed to stimulate the “substantial and sustained” mitigation efforts mentioned in September’s IPCC report. At present, policy makers are stuck in a binary discussion about whether or not the target will be met. If the target is now downplayed or higher temperature limits are debated, breaching the two degrees ceiling could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, if the opportunity is not taken, by 2020 international policy could be premised on a target widely acknowledged to be unrealistic, leaving policy with even less credibility and society under-prepared to adapt to a significantly warmer world.

Four alternatives to the status quo
But is there a Plan B, another target (or targets), waiting in the wings that might offer some resolution to these discussions? In a new Open Access paper in Climate Policy, written with nine colleagues from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, we argue that however uncomfortable a prospect, the time is ripe to debate more openly the future of the two degrees target. It begins to identify, for the first time, key uncertainties, risks and opportunities associated with four alternatives to the status quo:

1. Mitigate for two but adapt for four degrees: adjust climate policy to an amended goal, thereby hedging our bets by taking steps to adapt to higher temperatures whilst stepping up to a higher level of mitigation effort.

2. Adopt new goals: since the two degrees target appears unable to stimulate significant decarbonisation in the short term, adopt more specific and near term targets.

3. Be more pragmatic politically: accept that science informed targets such as two degrees have failed to drive change and, instead, concentrate on taking politically achievable steps in the short to medium term (without an explicit ‘target’ structure).

4. Recommit to staying within two degrees: the growing likelihood, confirmed by the IPCC in September, of high rates of warming makes it even more important to recommit to what is termed ‘substantial and sustained reductions’ in emissions.

The first three are Plan Bs; the fourth is effectively a recommitment to implement Plan A.

We are very clear that thinking through these should not be a pretext for abandoning the existing target. On the contrary, openly exploring the alternatives could, we think, encourage some of the policy makers who are less certain, to commit more fully to the existing target, whatever it requires, as the least unattractive course of action. In fact, to adopt the fourth option is to acknowledge how radical the changes required to deliver two degrees would be in reality, potentially including very deep cuts in fossil fuel use and the adoption of new understandings of economic prosperity, and to act meaningfully on this acknowledgment. However politically unpalatable this may seem at the present time, given the choice, citizens might well prefer this radical future to the kind of radical future associated with dangerous climate change.

Other than note that none of the alternatives are far from being perfect in every respect, as all of them generate risks and opportunities, we do not specify which should be selected. But what we do suggest is that any debate about future climate policy would be more meaningful if all the alternatives were explored as part of a more open, society-wide discussion of what probability to aim for, of remaining within two degrees. For example, if the intention is to seek a high probability of remaining within two degrees, some of the debates about the costs and benefits of radical decarbonisation become more pertinent. If, on the other hand, society is only seeking a 20 per cent or 30 per cent chance of staying within two degrees, politicians should focus attention on the costs and limitations of adapting to higher temperatures and associated risks in the longer term.


  • As an active eco-campaigner with many decades of experience of working on climate change related issues I would argue that the world of science is not using meaningful language that enables the general public to understand all that is at stake. For example, referring to 2 degrees as “dangerous climate change” jars, when DARA International tell us that 400,000 people per annum are already being killed due to climate change. I argue that scientists need to express the issue in terms people can better understand – the mass loss of life already being caused and the high probability of many millions being killed per annum in the not too distant future.
    I also argue that tackling climate change needs to be linked to better health and a better quality of life for people right now. The best example is all over the news today – the cost of energy. We need to argue vigorously for an unprecedented programme of home insulation to drive down heating bills, cut greenhouse gas emissions and create thousands of jobs.
    Finally we also need to be realistic about our prospects of avoiding the runaway greenhouse effect. The great mass of humanity cannot survive a world that is in excess of 4 degrees warmer, so we will be forced down a cheap and dirty geo-engineering route. That has to be the ‘Plan B’ for the humanitarian movement. It will be a very unwelcome outcome but is now almost inevitable. So, very reluctantly, we must all argue for the commencement of trials into the various geo-engineering ‘solutions’.

  • A UN study conducted by 152 members from 58 countries said in the early 1970s:
    Clearly man has had nothing to do with these vast climatic changes [moving in and out of ice ages] in the past. And from the scale of the energy systems involved, it would seem rational to suppose that he is not likely to affect them in the future. But here we encounter another fact about our planetary life: the fragility of the balances through which the natural world that we know survives. In the field of climate, the sun’s radiations, the earth’s emissions, the universal influence of the oceans, and the impact of the ice are unquestionably vast and beyond any direct influence on the part of man. But the balance between incoming and outgoing radiation, the interplay of forces which preserves the average global level of temperature appear to be so even, so precise, that only the slightest shift in the energy balance could disrupt the whole system. It takes only the smallest movement at its fulcrum to swing a seesaw out of the horizontal. It may require only a very small percentage of change in the planet’s balance of energy to modify average temperatures by 2°C. Downward, this is another ice age; upward, a return to an ice-free age. In either case, the effects are global and catastrophic.
    This is from page 192 of the book Only One Earth.

  • This is all very well, but the IPCC talked about limiting global warming to a 2 degree rise as giving a 50% chance of avoiding dangerous climate change — very comforting! That’s the bit that is left out in any discussion of this, especially by politicians: the plane you are about to board has a 50% chance of crashing. Recommiting to 2 degrees doesn’t help anyone because it is a worthless target in the first place. Global warming will cause severely dangerous climate change at below 2 degrees.

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