What’s Half a Degree Between Friends?


Here at the COP21 meeting in Paris, social media is often the best way to learn what’s going on. With 40,000 delegates in the building, somebody somewhere knows something, and the chances are it will be on Twitter before you know it. Amongst the top trending hashtags: #GlobalGoal, #MotherEarth, #ClimateJustice, #EarthToParis. I haven’t been trending. Nor has #HighAmbitionCoalition, well not yet, anyway.

The hashtag, coined by US negotiator Todd Stern and EU lead Miguel Arias Cañete early in the week, denotes a new, ‘informal’ negotiating bloc united by a drive to keep global temperature rise below 1.5oC. In all 113 countries have now joined up. Commissioner Canete, who seems to be subsisting on coffee and charisma alone, has been welcoming new members to the hashtag throughout the week: Bhutan, Mexico, Gambia, Columbia and Norway amongst the most recent affiliates.

In addition to the ambitious temperature ask, the #HighAmbitionCoalition are calling for a durable and legally binding agreement with a comprehensive review every five years. Despite the US’s equivocation on a ‘binding’ accord, there seems to be an acceptance of binding ‘elements’, as long as they don’t drive the agreement into the hands of the Republican-controlled Congress.

This morning we awoke to find that the #HighAmbitionCoalition had scored a major victory. After a day of intense talks the draft Paris agreement now reads:

‘Countries will hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, recognising that this would significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change.’

However, now that the celebrations have died down, the question lingers, what does 1.5oC mean in practice? After all, the EU’s climate ambitions, from carbon trading and renewable commitments to energy efficiency and engine standards, are predicated upon a 2°C temperature check. It may sound easy to slice another 1/2 degree from the target, but is it?

I am Parliament’s lead negotiator on reform of the EU’s carbon trading system. Part of my job is to determine by how much industry must cut their emissions each year to keep us within the 2°C ceiling. Recalibrating the calculation on the basis 1.5°C would not be easy. Let me explain.

Between today and 2010 when the 2°C target was first established, 60 million tonnes of carbon have entered the atmosphere. With each tonne emitted, the effort required to hold us at 2°C becomes harder. The challenge of meeting 2°C yesterday is not the same as meeting the 2°C target tomorrow, for as long as global economies continue to emit carbon. Although much effort has expended to decouple economic growth from emissions, there is still much work to be done. Dropping the target to1.5°C intensifies the challenge of combatting the cumulative impact of emissions, like trying to fit a growing crowd into an ever shrinking room.

There is no easy answer to this. To some, such as India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, it isn’t even worth the effort. This is what he had to say about the HighAmbitionCoaltion:

‘to achieve 1.5°C would require developed countries to massively reduce their emissions and massively scale up their climate finance. That is not happening.’

To others it is possible, but only with serious investment. Shell’s David Hone has calculated that at the current rate of emissions we will hit the 1.5°C limit by 2028 only a dozen years away. His solution is Carbon Capture and Storage, at the rate of10 billion tonnes every year for the next 84 years. In 2008, the EU declared that it would have 6 CCS demonstration projects fully functioning by 2015, and set aside 1 billion euros in funding. To date there are no CCS projects in the EU, and the money has long since been reallocated. The UK withdrew its funding from the last proposed project only a fortnight ago, following similar actions in Poland, Italy and Spain. It doesn’t look like CCS is the answer, at least not in the short to medium term.

What are the other options for the EU? The Emissions Trading Scheme could hold a solution, but in reality reform is just about to begin with a 2°C ceiling, and delivering against that target will be challenging enough. Energy Efficiency could have a role to play, but there is still a reluctance to set biding targets. What else is in the box? Upscaling renewables? Nuclear? More trees? All could play a part. Much will depend not just upon the target but the timeframe in which is has to be met.

No matter how challenging is the figure of 1.5°C, its inclusion in the Paris text is significant. As we navigate through the challenges represented by the 2°C objective, we will now be able to raise our heads and check our progress against a new North Star rising above the horizon.