The 1.5 Placebo

David Gawith | December 10, 2015.

Moments before the Paris climate agreement is to be decided upon, the draft text (as of 3pm Wednesday) still contains three different options surrounding its overall objective. The draft retains options to limit warming to below 2°C, below 1.5°C, or ‘well’ below 2°C with mention of scaling up efforts to stay below 1.5°C.

As The Verb reported earlier in the week, half a degree of difference is highly economically significant, and for vulnerable nations may be the difference between persistence and functional destruction.

For many small island states, a target of 1.5°C has been a long held objective that has gained increasing support in Paris. “To hold the temperature within 2°C is not an acceptable goal,” said Barbados Environment Minister Dr. Denis Lowe, who argued that “the goal should be 1.5°C, that is what will keep us alive.” Day one of the negotiations saw leaders of 106 states sign a statement calling for 1.5°C to become the long-term temperature goal. This was in lieu of the 2°C target, established in the 2009 Copenhagen meeting.

Canada, France, Germany, the UK, Australia, China, and the US have since expressed support for including the 1.5°C target in some capacity.

At first glance, this shift sounds good – it may even make people feel better about the possibility of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. But it appears to be a placebo, and it may come at the expense of more effective responses.

The challenge of limiting warming to below 1.5°C is enormous given current carbon dioxide concentrations and emissions. Some call it unfeasible. There are currently 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a number that is growing at two parts per million per year. New research suggests that we would have to stabilise concentrations between 420 and 440 parts per million by 2100 to have even a 50% chance of holding warming
below 1.5°C.

With the sum of all current emissions reduction plans putting us on track for 2.7°C of warming, we don’t even have the structure or mechanisms in place to limit warming to 2°C, let alone 1.5°C.

Recent reports suggest that in order to limit warming to 1.5°C we would need to
combine deep cuts in emissions with the removal CO2 from the atmosphere on mass. The scientific prospects for removing CO2 from the atmosphere at scale are, however, highly

Deep cuts in global emissions would also require substantial financial support for developing countries. The current target of providing US$100 billion each year in finance is proving difficult to achieve, and is widely criticised as inadequate with respect to the 2°C target. There have been no assessments of the finance required to limit warming to below 1.5°C.

While moving from a 2°C target to a 1.5°C target greatly amplifies the task at hand, there have been no changes to countries’ emissions reduction efforts or financial pledges to reflect the magnitude of the task. To the contrary, it appears the language around reviewing efforts and increasing ambition has since weakened, and there have been rumours circulating that concessions have been made in order to bolster support for the 1.5°C goal.

But why would countries vulnerable to climate change make these concessions?

Unfortunately, how the deal looks may be as important as what it can provide. As the lead negotiator for St Lucia, Dr James Fletcher, explained: “I left with a mandate that I cannot come back without 1.5°C.” Strengthening the target to 1.5°C is the sort of outcome that resonates well in the media and aligns with the broader civil society demands.

In the fleeting moments the average voter may spend digesting the Paris outcome, few will question its substance or the details. It will reflect well on the leaders and negotiators who are here in Paris, many who have invested their reputations, if a positive outcome is secured.

However, with no substance behind the revision of the long-term temperature goal, it appears to be merely a placebo issued by leaders who must be seen to be acting.

Placebos often rely on patients misunderstanding the benign nature of the treatment applied. The problem is that the energy balance of the earth has no consciousness. Positive framing and reassuring targets are irrelevant to physical laws and processes. The only things that really matter are the actions we take. At the moment, we’re kidding ourselves.

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