Home » 1.5ºC boundary for global heating exposes the chasm between rhetoric & reality, here’s why:

1.5ºC boundary for global heating exposes the chasm between rhetoric & reality, here’s why:

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Nick Breeze

Climate journalist and host of Shaping The Future podcast.

As the backslapping of the main protagonists of the COP21 summit joined in the celebrations, many others turned their attention to the details of how the agreement is going to play out in the real world. We can rest assured because, as ever, the devil is in the detail. Carbon Budgets

The ‘carbon budget’ relates to the amount of burnable carbon (coal, oil and gas) that we can burn before emissions cause global temperatures to rise above certain thresholds. The term is controversial enough due to differing debates on Earth’s sensitivity to temperature, especially as we see the level of impacts on ice-sheets, Arctic ice, extreme weather events, human life and the natural world, from just 1ºC warming. However, having a carbon budget does attempt to quantify in an equitable way, an amount of burnable carbon that can be then divided up among nations, during the transition to a sustainable future.

Currently, our global output of carbon emissions is around 30 billion tonnes per year. In order achieve the new aspirational goal of 1.5ºC we would need, globally, to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2025[1]. I was in Paris for most of the UNFCC talks and did not once hear any mention of zero carbon emissions by 2025 as real goal for our civilisation.

Why no budget?

It seems obvious that the reason the budget was removed is because to keep it in the agreement, would raise further questions about how it is going to be achieved. In other words, who is going to cut emissions and by exactly how much? What we currently have is a renewed numerical icon of 1.5ºC with no roadmap of how to get there.

This absence of budget also attempts to shift the burden of emissions reductions away from the industrialised nations and onto the developing and developed nations. For instance, the US is all to happy to talk about it’s achievements in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by switching from oil and coal to gas, but it should be remembered that this was not due to any environmental aspirations, it was purely down to the boom in fracking and loose regulatory policy to allow this dirty industry to expand rapidly. Had this not happened, it is very unlikely the US would be the bold and leading voice at these talks in Paris.

Historic emissions play a role

The carbon budget issue is also an important factor because it allows us to look at global emissions over a longer period of time, since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This is important if we are to say truthfully that we are seeking a fair and equitable way forward for all the peoples of the world. In this respect, we would have to conclude that nations such as the UK and the USA have already used their carbon budget and will have to accelerate their decarbonisation programmes to zero emissions. The rest of the budget would then be divided up between the developing nations in order that they may raise many people in their societies out of poverty, whilst transitioning to renewable energy.

Of course, if this was presented to the negotiators in Paris, there would be no Paris Accord. Politics and ambition may couple nicely for the individual politician but in the wider context where courage is required for implementation of bold policy, ambition evaporates.

The status quo: no mitigation targets

So where are we? Well, nowhere really. The celebrating politicians will all fly home feeling slightly relieved by the mainstream media press headlines, whilst those in developing nations will be left asking “where is the climate justice?”. With no mitigation targets put in place and an agreement that is non-binding (yes, “voluntary” is another word for it), we see that the greatest burden to both decarbonise and to cope with the massive impacts from climate change, will fall on the same narrow shoulders of the world’s developing nations.

I’m alright Jack

So we in the wealthiest nations look away and shrug our shoulders, turning a blind eye to what this really means. At the same time we question the strength of our borders as refugees seek safe climates by moving north. We understand the concept of the “global village” but our mentality is often fixated by fear and aggression.

This is a great shame because at the COP21 Paris talks there was also another side where organisations involved in tackling the huge problems that we face around the world, demonstrated how we do have the intelligence and power to move in the right direction. We can restore forests and rivers, building resilience against droughts in regions such as Ethiopia[2]. We can stem the flow of refugees into and across the Mediterranean. We can do so much and yet, when we retract into selfish introversion and greed, we are really saying, “no, we will fight this out until the last man is standing!”

The next choice for us on this planet is to evolve to being custodians of the Earth and each other. To quote from the subject of my next post, “We have to give back to nature!” A major part of this journey is with eachother. We can no longer turn away as millions suffer, when we have the power to end that suffering. The true cost of turning away is too great. It requires the courage of individuals to stand up and do what we can to get this job done.

[1] It is very much worth watching this press conference held at the COP21 summit on Friday 11th December, by the Centre for Science & the Environment

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