It would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, but a new global deal to combat climate change expected to be wrapped-up today (11 December) appears poised to set the world a much more ambitious target than expected.
With the support of the United States and the EU, the agreement, due to be completed within days, seems set to go beyond the current goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Instead, the latest draft released late yesterday (10 December), states a new goal to keep the rise “to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius”. It is the first draft that does not offer alternate options for the goal.
Even though the cuts to greenhouse gas emissions being pledged in Paris will not come close even to limiting the rise to 2C, an explicit recognition of how much more is needed could still set the world on a path to more decisive action in future.
US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on 9 December that the United States would join around 100 countries in a “high ambition coalition” seeking to go beyond 2C, a level that low-lying island states such as the Marshall Islands say may not be enough to stop them being submerged by the end of the century.
Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum, who formed the ad hoc group during sideline meetings over the past few months, said a higher target, and cycles of negotiations to get countries to “ratchet up” their emissions cuts, were the “beating heart of the Paris agreement”.
Last week, Germany and France came out in support of another coalition called the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), who have championed the 1.5C limit since 2009.
Monica Araya, adviser to the CVF and former Costa Rican climate negotiator, said the rich countries’ change of heart was a “shift of the tectonic plates” in the debate.
Not so fast…
If the text remains intact, it would be a symbolic defeat for some countries that have opposed the more ambitious goal, particularly oil exporting Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia last week blocked initial attempts to include references in the Paris deal to a UN report that recommended 1.5C as a target, arguing that reaching it could imperil food security because it would require massive planting of trees on farmland.
Saudi negotiator Khalid Abuleif said scientists did not have “robust information and the support of science to act practically and meet such criteria”. Saudi officials were not immediately available to comment on the new draft.
India, which has led demands for richer countries to take a bigger share of the load, offered conditional support for a 1.5C target if those developed nations accepted bigger emissions cuts.
The 2C target was always somewhat arbitrary as a threshold for preventing the worst effects of global warming in the form of rising sea levels and more severe and frequent storms, floods and droughts.
Average surface temperatures have already risen by 1C, and greenhouse gases already emitted and locked into the system are likely to push the rise past 1.5C within a few decades.
The UN’s main scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has said that just aiming for a 1.5 degree long-term pathway would put countries on course to meet the 2 degree goal, but concedes that research is incomplete.
“There is limited evidence of the likely impact of 1.5 degrees and more research needs to be done,” said IPCC head Hoesung Lee.
In the very short term, a bolder goal will make little difference. Ahead of the Paris summit, nearly every nation submitted its own plan for curbing emissions, but those measures in total will fall far short of even meeting the 2C goal.
Michiel Schaeffer, a researcher with Climate Analytics, said the only difference between achieving 1.5C and 2C was the speed at which carbon-reducing technologies such as energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage had to be deployed:
“If you want to get to 1.5 degrees, you need to deploy them five, 10 or 20 years sooner.”
What about human rights?
Rights experts urged ministers to put respect for human rights back into the binding section of a draft new global deal to tackle global warming, after it was removed from the latest version released yesterday evening.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is hoping to have the final text ready today (11 December), and key issues remain open, with talks likely to carry on through the night.
Human rights organizations, aid agencies and climate-impacted people were disappointed to find an earlier binding proposal that said a Paris agreement should be implemented “on the basis of respect for human rights” had been thrown out.
“We would certainly think human rights is not something that should be dropped,” said Benjamin Schachter of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “There still is time to bring this language back.”
There has been concern during the two-week talks in Paris that some states – including Saudi Arabia, Norway and the United States – have been trying to weaken the presence of human rights in the climate deal.
The removal of the reference was a particular affront because of its timing, campaigners said.
“Incredibly, references to human rights have been stripped from the body of this UN agreement on the very day that people around the world mark Human Rights Day,” said Friends of the Earth International climate justice coordinator Sara Shaw.
On Thursday (10 September) morning, UN experts said human rights are already being violated by climate change impacts, including more extreme weather and rising seas, as well as solutions.
A report from the UN Environment Programme said the environmental impacts of climate change pose a threat to human rights, including the rights to health, food, water and adequate housing.
Ursula Rakova of the Cartaret islands in the Pacific, a community leader who has been trying to relocate some of her people threatened by rising seas to Bougainville, said she was “very angry this agreement does not protect our rights”.
“Looking at this (text), it doesn’t give us any hope. It means business as usual. Climate change impacts violate our rights,” she added.
International aid group Oxfam described the loss of the binding human rights language as “extremely disappointing”, noting it followed the earlier loss of references to gender equality and a just transition to a clean economy.
The non-binding introduction to the latest version of the text acknowledges that climate change is “a common concern to humankind”. It says countries should “promote, respect and take into account their respective obligations on human rights” when developing policies and taking action to address climate change.
But this does not satisfy human rights officials or campaigners.
“The language in the preamble is merely aspirational. It doesn’t require (governments) to do anything,” said Alyssa Johl of the Center for International Environmental Law. “This means it’s not a priority issue for them.”
Joni Pegram, climate change policy advisor with the UN children’s agency Unicef UK, said combating climate change and helping communities adapt should be about ensuring the rights of children, particularly the poorest, and other vulnerable groups, including migrants, indigenous peoples and women.
“World leaders talk of securing a deal that will protect the planet for children and future generations, but what they are proposing suggests that these are nothing more than warm words,” she said.
Pledges of the top 10 emitters
Some 185 countries submitted pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ahead the expected closure today of a historic climate deal.
The voluntary pledges begin in 2020, with a few running to 2025 and the rest to the end of the decade.
Among the top 10 emitters, here’s who has promised what:
1) China – 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions
China envisages a peak in emissions “by around” 2030, and reducing carbon intensity (CO2 emitted per unit of gross domestic product) by 60-65% by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. The world’s most populous nation will boost the share of non-fossil fuel in primary energy consumption from 11.2% in 2014 to 20%, and boost the volume of CO2-absorbing forest by about 4.5 billion cubic metres (bcm).
2) United States – 15.5%
The United States has pledged a 26-28% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2025. Power plants are to cut carbon dioxide pollution by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030.
3) European Union – 10.8%
The 28-member European Union intends to cut emissions by at least 40% by 2030 over 1990 levels, and has set 27% targets for renewable energy supply and efficiency gains.
4) India – 6.4%
India plans to reduce carbon intensity by 35% by 2030 from 2005 levels, and to generate 40% of its electricity from renewable sources by the same date.
5) Russia – 4.9%
Russia has proposed cutting emissions by 25-30% by 2030 from 1990 levels, conditional on the pledges of other “major emitters”.
6) Japan – 2.9%
Japan has pledged a 26% reduction in emissions from 2013 levels by 2030, with nuclear energy – offline since the 2011 Fukushima disaster – providing 20-22% of electricity by then. Renewable electricity production, including hydro power, would be expanded to a 22-24% share, from 11% in 2014.
7) Brazil – 2.1%
Brazil will cut emissions 37% by 2025 from 2005, and 43% by 2030.
8) Iran – 1.6%
Iran has made an unconditional pledge to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 by 4% compared with a “business as usual” scenario. In addition, Tehran said it would reduce emissions another 8% if it receives financial and technology support, and if what it describes as “unjust sanctions” were lifted.
9) Indonesia – 1.6%
Indonesia envisages a 29% cut in emissions by 2030 compared with what the level would have been without any action. With financial and other help, this could be raised to 41%.
10) Canada – 1.5%
Canada will seek to cut emissions by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030.