“Agreement on temperature target of 1.5 degrees within reach”

| 10 December 2015
Blog & Articles

I was rather surprised to hear the message from Paris that 1.5 degrees is within reach.  Not being a climate specialist, I talked with two of our scientific advisers, both of whom are internationally recognised, and another specialist who is well plugged into expert scientific networks.

According to Professor Andrew Pitman:

“1.5C is inconsistent with the science so far as I understand it. We have already warmed 1C. There is a 20 year inertia in the climate. Avoiding 1.5C is, in my judgment, not possible without near immediate changes to zero emissions and likely sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.  Its a great message … but its not compatible with reality.  I guess one way of putting it is this.  If the climate sensitivity is on the very low end of the range, and we immediately and very deeply cut emissions to effectively zero then maybe there is a chance – and lets call that 30% – we might limit warming to 1.5. If the climate sensitivity is on the higher end, its already too late to avoid 2C.  In short, the policy makers appear to think there is a linear causation between emissions and temperature.  Instead, there is a risk that one manages by cutting emissions. There is now no plausible cut that can GUARANTEE limiting warming to 2C …” 

From Professor Rich Pancost we heard that:  

“It is laudable that countries want to push for a stronger global warming limit, but they must be honest about the distance between their ambitions and their policies.  By policies I mean not only the INDCs to which they are committing (and which are far short of 2C let alone 1.5C) but the actual policies back home to achieve them.  Many nations’ policies will help achieve 40% reductions – the low-hanging fruit – but are they really investing in the innovation and infrastructure to achieve a 100% reduction in any timeframe, let alone a timeframe to limit warming to 1.5C?

In this context, it is useful to remember the underlying politics. Maybe these leaders are caught up in the moment.  Maybe they are caught up in their needs; it is crucial to remember that small island states are pushing this and they do face an existential threat from 2C warming (and some even from 1.5C warming).

So I hope we are seeing a framing designed to strengthen post-COP21 policy both internationally and domestically.  To put stronger pressure on the ratcheting up process.  To enshrine more robust financial (or even migration) compensation for those nations that will be most impacted by climate change.  To give investors the statement of intent that they have requested to build confidence.  Will it work?  It’s too soon to tell.  But we must recognise just how large the disconnection is between targets and policies – and that also includes a recognition that we will have to capture and store carbon dioxide (and this is unambiguous in the IPCC WG3 report).”

And Ian Dunlop was even more direct:

“You have to wonder where these folk are getting their scientific advice from, or perhaps more to the point whether they pay any attention to the advice they are getting.  From my perspective, it is impossible technically to now stay below 1.5C, and probably below 2C given the lack of ambition in Paris.  Much grandstanding completely divorced from reality. I get increasingly angry at the ra-ra rhetoric coming from organisations who know full well that we are way off any sensible package.”  

As Kevin Anderson highlighted ahead of COP, there is now huge pressure on those inside the system to be inauthentically optimistic.  He was speaking about scientists but clearly the same drivers apply to ESG/sustainability advocates in finance and the corporate worlds.  

Speaking truth to power would be the healthiest response in this situation – the last thing that “addicts” need are “enablers”.  And any investors who really do see the need to keep warming below 2C, let alone 1.5C, could make clear, post COP, that they will adopt the forceful stewardship guidelines at the AGMs in 2016.  This would be a very unambiguous signal of serious leadership support for the push for 1.5C or “even” 2C.

As always, your feedback is welcome.

Raj Thamotheram