Mon, Oct 06, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Could the 2°C climate target
be wrong?

The global warming goal that nearly 200 governments have agreed upon should be ditched, according to scientists writing in ‘Nature’

By Adam Vaughan  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

In a nondescript conference center five years ago, as temperatures fell to freezing outside in the streets of Copenhagen and protesters gathered, world leaders did something remarkable: They put a limit on how high temperatures should be allowed to rise as human-induced global warming takes hold.

It was the first time that the almost 200 countries in the UN climate talks process had put a number on what constituted the limit for dangerous climate change, although Germany had done it years before, followed by the EU. With hindsight, it was one of the signal agreements of a summit that was widely derided as a failure.

Since then, the 2°C target — or obligation, as some in climate diplomacy circles refer to it — has been repeated like a mantra, mentioned thousands of times in newspaper articles and most recently uttered aloud repeatedly by heads of state in New York at a climate summit organized by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

However, two academics in the prestigious journal Nature now contend that the 2°C target has outlived its usefulness. They say it should be abandoned and replaced with a series of measures — “vital signs” of the planet’s health.

Under the headline, “Ditch the 2°C warming goal,” they argue that the 2°C limit is “politically and scientifically... wrong-headed,” it is “effectively unachievable” and it has let politicians off the hook, allowing them to “pretend that they are organizing for action when, in fact, most have done little.”

University of California professor David Victor, who cowrote the commentary with former NASA associate administrator Charles Kennel, said he felt compelled to speak out after watching climate diplomacy efforts and working on the latest blockbuster report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“All diplomacy was focused around this goal and yet it struck me as obvious that the emissions trajectories, even if governments made a big effort at controlling emissions, were way off track for 2°C,” he said.

Working on the IPCC report made him realize that the so-called “climate establishment” was “entirely geared to supporting 2°C, even though nobody had a serious plan for meeting it,” he said.

For some in international climate politics, Victor and Kennel’s message of reality, as they call it, is tantamount to heresy and it has provoked a strong reaction.

“The University of California should realize 2°C is a fact, not a target,” said Lord Deben, former UK environment secretary and now chair of the UK’s statutory advisers on climate change.

“Go above it [2°C] and you say something about the world that is intolerable. 2°C is dangerous, but at least we have some understanding of what that means. To abandon that would seem a most peculiar thing to do,” he said.

The 2°C mark is often described as the level beyond which disastrous effects such as flooding and heat waves — alongside potential “runaway warming” as natural feedback loops kick in — would take place.

Michael Jacobs, special adviser to former British prime minister Gordon Brown when Brown attended Copenhagen and now an adviser to the recent New Climate Economy report said the timing of the intervention is far from helpful.

“Although derived from science, 2°C is not a scientific target due to the uncertainties in our climate system and our ability to model it. It is a political target, whose adoption in 2009 and 2010 indicated a political commitment to limiting climate change as far as possible,” he said.

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