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FEATURE: 1.5 degrees target creates a challenge for human ingenuity

CDKN’s Mairi Dupar reports from the scientific conference 1.5 degrees: Meeting the challenge of the Paris Agreement hosted by the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford.

Scientists gathered in Oxford last week to debate how world society could achieve  the Paris climate agreement and particularly its target of holding global temperature rise as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible.

The two-day conference was rich with models, graphs, calculations, suppositions and rigorous academic debate. From these, three headlines stood out clearly: first, the science of reaching the 1.5 degree temperature target tells us that we must create ‘negative greenhouse gas emissions’ by the second half of the century – meaning that we should be taking more emissions out of the atmosphere than we are putting in.

Second, neither scientists nor policy-makers sufficiently understands the social and political implications of moving so fast on climate mitigation that the world reaches a ‘negative emissions’ scenario in this short time. The social and political fallout is an area for urgent enquiry.

Third, the 1.5 degrees target has been championed by the most climate-vulnerable countries and peoples on account of the deep development impacts that climate change already inflicts; similarly, climate mitigation responses to meet the 1.5 degree target must put development first, if they are to gain traction and succeed.

Negative emissions this century

Eminent climate scientist Valerie Masson-Delmotte said we already know that mitigation pathways compatible with temperature targets under two degrees “imply a sharp greenhouse gas emissions drop by 2030 and large negative emissions after mid century”.

Dr Masson-Delmotte is co-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group 1 on physical science. The IPCC is charged with producing a Special Report on how the 1.5 degree target may be achieved, which is to be written, reviewed and issued at ‘super-fast’ speed by mid-2018, in order to inform the international political process.

Professor Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen noted: “Of the 116 scenarios consistent with limiting warming below 2C this century, 87% of them involve negative emissions.” The conference was also reminded by the Potsdam Institute’s Elmar Kriegler that it matters when global society’s greenhouse gas emissions peak and then go into irreversible decline.

To keep within a global carbon budget consistent with 1.5 degrees of warming, it will be desirable for global emissions to peak between now and 2020, he said. If global emissions peak as late as 2030, then “carbon neutrality is needed earlier (e.g. 2060) and even more negative emissions (greenhouse gas removal from the atmosphere) would be required by the late 21st century.

These scientific conclusions push beyond what’s in the Paris Agreement itself, which does not mention negative emissions. Rather, the Paris Agreement commits countries (collectively) to balancing sources and ‘sinks’ of greenhouse gases, to achieve carbon neutrality by the second half of the century. It seems the tasks of marrying human action with the 1.5 degree target is greater than politicians reckoned.

Social and political implications: a war footing?

It is well understood that the national climate pledges submitted to the UNFCCC at the Paris conference in 2015 add up to far less than a 1.5 degree world. Janos Pasztor, the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Climate Change, reminded us that the 188 national commitments presented in Paris deliver the likelihood of a 2.7-3.5C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels – and that’s if they are 100% implemented. (He rightly noted that implementation depends in part on international climate finance flows, not to mention the development of domestic laws and policies and their enforcement.)

The 1.5 degree conference looked at different ways the temperature target can be met. What greater effort will be required beyond what countries have pledge already?

One aspect that didn’t provoke any serious debate was the need for power generation to be ‘decarbonised’ in the next 15 years: that is, electricity to be generated from virtually emissions-free, renewable sources. Or the fact that new coal-fired power generation is inconsistent with the 1.5 degrees target. These realities are well acknowledged in the scientific community.

Of far greater debate over the two days was ‘BECCS’, an acronym which stands for ‘bioenergy and carbon capture and storage’. A possible scenario for reaching 1.5 degrees would see the acceleration of ‘nature based’ ways of sequestering carbon, via forest and wetland restoration, as well as climate-smart agriculture methods that lock up more greenhouse gases in soils. Analysts proposed the combination of these land-based solutions with the instant commercial deployment and scale-up of carbon capture technologies which literally bind with and pull off carbon dioxide from the air (see Arizona State University Centre for Negative Carbon Emissions technological prototype) or capture and store emissions from power generation and industry (as presented by Henrik Larsson of Biorecro)

However, from a public policy viewpoint, politicians will may need to take extraordinary measures to ensure the uptake of these technologies and approaches at the scale and speed needed. Should global society be on a ‘war footing’? asked Professor Michael Grubb of University College London. The analogy is worth exploring, responded Achim Steiner, Dean of the Oxford Martin School and former UNEP Director, in his closing address. Europe needed a Marshall Plan for its recovery after the devastation of World War II; noted Steiner. Is an equivalent of the Marshall Plan at worldwide scale needed to meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement?

Under pressure to mitigate climate change, decision-makers cannot lose their development focus

At national level, the burning question is: how do we balance the need for massive political and economic momentum toward a zero emissions future with the present-day prerogatives of development and how do we manage the conflicts?

Sometimes development and climate mitigation align beautifully: especially when low-emissions energy technologies bring heat and light to people whose poverty has been mired in the lack of energy services. Achim Steiner praised the Moroccan government, which had barely any renewable energy in place five years ago and now has a commitment to derive 30% of its power from renewables by 2030; and Kenya, which has extended electricity provision to millions of residents while cutting the carbon footprint of its power sector. Saleemul Huq celebrated the 4 million households in Bangladesh which now enjoy electricity thanks to solar powered rooftops. These are the success stories and genuine reason for hope, and for faith in human vision and ingenuity.

Yet, when it comes to managing and the possibility of restoring our dwindling natural resources on the planet, especially the scarce resources of land and water, the possibility for social conflict over climate mitigation actions is poorly understood and the risks loom large. John Magrath previewed a forthcoming Oxfam report which will document the ‘largely negative’ social impacts of biofuel expansion.

While scientists have an obligation to generate the best possible understanding of the different mitigation scenarios there is no ‘right’ pathway, said John Magrath; there are synergies among different mitigation choices and there are trade-offs. Ultimately the (political) debate must be about who decides on which synergies to embrace and which trade-offs to make.

CDKN shared a similar conclusion in its poster presentation which emphasises that leaders must build a national consensus around the need for mitigation action, and there must be a critical mass of agreement among interest groups on the nature of the problem – and shared solutions.

Harald Winkler of the University of Cape Town urged the Co-Chairs of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees to use sustainable development as its framing: look at how climate adaptation and mitigation could be achieved in support of the overarching goal of sustainable development. He’s right: but policy-makers still need more evidence and yes, inspiration, on how to do this. The conference concluded that investigating the social equity and governance implications of drastic mitigation action to reach 1.5 degrees should be a high priority : here is where the science community has a special role to play.


Image: solar cell, Tanzania, courtesy DIVatUSAID,

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