Turning up the heat: how the diplomatic push for 1.5℃ unfolded in Paris


Bill Hare, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

The inclusion of a 1.5℃ temperature limit in the new Paris climate agreement was a major victory for the poorest countries and island nations who came to Paris saying they wanted the world to act.

By placing the 1.5℃ limit alongside the legally binding goal to hold global temperatures “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels”, the deal offered hope to the many who had begun to despair about the prospects of an ambitious enough global climate agreement ever being reached.

As an adviser to the government of one of these vulnerable countries – St Lucia – I had the privilege of being at the epicentre of the Paris Agreement negotiations.

The inclusion of 1.5℃ surprised many governments and well-placed observers, given that in the run-up to the summit, preparations seemed fixed only on securing a 2℃ limit. But in truth, the scientific and diplomatic push for a stronger agreement had been going on for years, if not decades.

Backing the science

The formal 1.5℃ target is based on progressive improvements over 25 years in the science of understanding of the risks of climate change, and on the economics and technology of cutting greenhouse emissions. This huge body of work has now been translated into an international law that seeks to put a safe “speed limit” on the global climate.

For much of the time, the world was considering what has come to be seen as a more dangerous speed limit. The 2℃ goal emerged from the European Union in 1996 after ministers considered the outcome of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1995 Second Assessment Report, and it was ultimately enshrined in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.
But this ignored the fact that by 2009, more than 100 vulnerable countries, alarmed about the projected impacts for 2℃ described in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report – not to mention the impacts they were already beginning to see and feel – had already begun calling for an alternative 1.5℃ limit.

Taking the target to Paris

In Paris, despite the objections (from Saudi Arabia in particular), many more governments beyond the small islands and least developed countries began to join the call for 1.5°C to be included in the purpose of the agreement. By halfway through the summit, some 114 governments had backed the new, more ambitious target.

The reaction of negotiators from many of the big countries and groupings was one of surprise and, in some cases, shock that this issue had even come up. It shouldn’t have been that shocking really – the small island states and least-developed countries had been prominently inserting this goal into the draft text ever since the pre-Paris negotiations began, back in Durban in 2011. Yet negotiators from many of the big groups pushed back.

Nor could the scientific recognition that 2℃ was no longer a safe “guardrail” have been a surprise, given that a UNFCCC report had already reached this conclusion back in June. Yet, still the bigger emitters expressed surprise and shock at the idea of the purpose of the agreement reflecting the 1.5°C limit.

It quickly became clear to anyone paying attention that the inclusion of 1.5℃ in the agreement was a “red line” for many countries. Barbados’ environment minister Denis Lowe expressed it in almost Shakespearean terms, saying that he had not come to Paris seeking a sympathy vote – and that failing to include 1.5℃ in a meaningful, non-token way would be tantamount to a rejection of his people’s right to exist.

Barbados: too nice to lose.
Veronidae/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Country after country argued that they were already feeling the heat with 1℃ warming to date, and that by 1.5℃ they would be suffering extreme damage and risk, and that even this target would represent a significant compromise.

Luckily, the French organisers of the summit had been paying attention. They knew they would have to find a meaningful way to accommodate the 1.5℃ goal if they wanted to have any hope of clinching an agreement.

A difficult challenge

Of course the Paris Agreement is much more than the 1.5℃ limit, but the limit is a fundamental guide to how the agreement should be implemented, and a signal of the urgency with which nations must address climate change.

To limit warming below 1.5℃ by 2100, the best available science indicates that the world needs to reach zero greenhouse emissions between 2060 and 2080, or between 2080 and 2100 for a 2℃ limit. These time frames are now written into the long-term goal in Article 4 of the agreement, which commits countries collectively to reach zero global greenhouse emissions in the second half of the century.

The rate of global reductions, and hence the time at which zero global emissions are achieved, are to be “in accordance” with the best available science, an obvious, but hard-fought clause to ensure that regular scientific assessments play a role in defining when and how zero emissions need to be achieved.

Some observers and governments were concerned that the inclusion of a temperature limit could obstruct inclusion in the agreement of a time frame for deep 2050 emission reductions and for reaching zero emissions. From where I sat, it is hard to see how this could ever have been achieved without there being a temperature goal in the purpose of the agreement, as otherwise there are many parties who would have argued that there was no basis for setting any particular time frame.

Many would have preferred a reference to “decarbonisation” in the long-term goal, even at the expense of the temperature goal. However, there was deep opposition to this term, particularly among oil-exporting countries. Indeed, this allergy extended to nearly any term that mentioned the word “carbon”.

Five-yearly ambition cycle is critical

Some have expressed concerns that the Paris Agreement does not contain a concrete roadmap for how the necessary emission reductions will be achieved, and how effort is to be shared between countries with very different levels of economic development. But how could it, beyond prescribing the five-yearly reviews that will push each country to strengthen its ambition?

There are those who have questioned, or even denied, the feasibility of limiting warming to 2℃, let alone 1.5℃. But these are more expressions of personal political judgements rather than a description of what the science tells us is possible. One is entitled to be pessimistic about whether politicians will take the action needed to limit warming below 2℃, given the lack of progress to date. However, such pessimism is not a scientific opinion and should never be dressed up as such.

The Paris Agreement is historic and it should be no surprise that the challenges ahead in achieving its purpose will dominate the 21st century – as would its failure due to the damages, impacts, ecological and human dislocation that would be caused by just a few degrees of warming. The initial climate pledges submitted by governments are far from sufficient: without rapid improvement we are indeed heading for around 3℃ of warming.

The hard-fought ambition mechanism in the agreement establishes a common five-year global political moment, starting in 2020. If used effectively this will create the sustained political pressure to progressively improve each country’s climate pledges, gradually winding back global emissions towards zero on a time frame consistent with the the 1.5℃ limit.

No one, however, should underestimate the gravity and scale of the task ahead. The Paris deal has set the rules and fired the starting gun in the race to save the planet from climate change. How we run that race is now up to us.

The Conversation

Bill Hare, Visiting scientist, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Thanks to Paris, we have a foundation for meaningful climate progress


Robert Stavins, Harvard University

The Paris Agreement is a truly landmark climate accord, and checks all the boxes in my five-point scorecard for a potentially effective deal. It provides a broad foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the Kyoto Protocol and the past 20 years of climate negotiations.

In Paris, representatives of 195 countries (plus the European Union) adopted a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes: bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now, all countries will be involved in taking actions to reduce emissions.

Remarkably, 186 of the 196 parties to the agreement submitted INDCs by the end of the Paris talks, representing some 96% of global emissions. This broad scope of participation under the new agreement is a necessary condition for meaningful action – but, of course, it is not a sufficient condition.

Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time.

That said, even this initial set of contributions could cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 3.5℃ – more than the frequently discussed aspiration of limiting temperature increases to 2℃ (or now, under the Paris deal, potentially to 1.5℃), but much less than the 5-6℃ increase that would be expected without this action. (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is likely to shave off a further 0.5℃ of warming.)

The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change.

The new climate agreement, despite being pathbreaking and the result of what The New York Times rightly described as “an extraordinary effort at international diplomacy”, is only a foundation for moving forward. But it is a sufficiently broad and sensible foundation to make increased ambition over time feasible for the first time.

Whether this foundation for progress is effectively exploited is something we will know only 10, 20, or more years from now.

What is key in the agreement is the following: the centrality of the INDC structure; the most balanced transparency requirements ever promulgated; provision for heterogeneous linkage, including international carbon markets (through “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” – ITMOs); explicit clarification in a decision that agreement on “loss and damage” does not provide a basis for liability of compensation; and 5-year periods for stocktaking and improvement of the INDCs.

So my fundamental assessment of the Paris climate talks is that they were a great success. Unfortunately, some advocates and some members of the press may characterise the outcome as a “failure,” because the 2℃ target has not been achieved immediately. But the Paris Agreement provides an important new foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the past 20 years of international climate negotiations.

Of course, the problem has not been solved, and it will not be for many years to come. But the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step towards reducing the threat of global climate change. In truth, only time will tell.

The Conversation

Robert Stavins, Professor of Business and Government, Harvard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

No climate policy is perfect: here’s how to choose the best one


Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

The Australian government has pledged to the global community to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. The Paris Agreement suggests that this and other countries’ pledges will need to be strengthened if average global temperature increases are to be kept below 2℃.

In 2016, likely an election year, attention must and will turn to how these pledges will be kept.

Recent projections from the Australian government indicate that we are on track to meet the 2020 target – a reduction of 5% below 2000 levels. The current government’s climate change policies are contributing to this outcome.

But they will need to be re-engineered to meet the 2030 target. The Labor Party is consulting on a 2030 target of 45% reductions and will need to develop a policy that reflects its commitment to emissions trading and an aspiration of 50% renewable electricity.

Bipartisan support is essential for whatever mechanisms are adopted. Companies will not make long-term investments to reduce their emissions unless they are confident that policies are stable. To date, they have been anything but.

Choosing a good climate policy

The challenge for policymakers across the political spectrum is to construct a credible emissions reduction policy framework that satisfies multiple, sometimes conflicting, criteria.

A policy that may be ideal from a theoretical economic perspective may be too complex to secure political or community support. The criteria are:

  • credibility: ability to meet current and future targets

  • political viability: capacity to evolve from current policy settings and achieve bipartisan support

  • flexibility: ability to adjust for changes in targets, political and technological developments

  • adaptability: potential to move towards an economy-wide market-based scheme

  • public acceptability: ability to be understood and accepted by the community

  • low cost.

In a Grattan Institute working paper published this week we assess six policy alternatives that could do the job. These are cap and trade emissions trading, carbon taxation, intensity baseline emissions trading, emissions purchasing, regulation, and tradeable green certificates. None of the plausible policies fulfils all of the criteria.

The who’s who of climate policy

A cap and trade scheme meets many of the criteria. In a cap and trade scheme, the government releases a “capped” number of permits which carbon emitters must purchase. Demand for the permits drives the price of carbon. It is relatively easy to link a cap with an emissions reduction target and then expand in the future. Economists generally favour this approach to deliver lowest cost reductions.

However, it is complex to design and this creates challenges in terms of political support and public acceptance, as happened in the US in 2009 and in Australia with Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2008-9.

A carbon tax has the advantage of simplicity with a clear, explicit price on emissions, and is likely to drive low cost emissions reduction.

However, it can be difficult to set the tax level to meet a particular emissions target, and to establish a way of reviewing the price. And carbon taxes, like cap and trade schemes, impose costs on businesses that are passed on to consumers through higher prices.

The likely fatal flaw with a carbon tax is simply its name. This was illustrated starkly in 2013 when the Labor government’s fixed price on carbon provided a winning strategy for opposition leader Tony Abbott. He successfully labelled it as a carbon tax thereby severely damaging Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s credibility.

Intensity baseline and credit schemes, like cap and trade and carbon taxes, have the advantage of delivering low cost emissions reduction through a market mechanism but with less impact on prices. Intensity baseline and credit schemes set a limit (the “baseline”) on the carbon emissions per unit of output, such as tonnes per megawatt hour of electricity. Carbon emitters must pay for carbon produced above the baseline.

This type of policy was successfully applied in New South Wales from 2003 to 2012. It could be effective in the electricity sector, but is harder to extend into sectors with more uniform emissions intensity.

The Federal Government has successfully applied an emissions purchasing scheme, the Emissions Reduction Fund, to deliver cut emissions by 100 million tonnes at a cost of around A$13 per tonne. Funding from the government’s budget avoids direct price effects, but more stringent targets would require much bigger budget allocations, and this would likely become problematic.

Governments can directly regulate emissions reductions, an approach that the US has taken. Regulation can be effective in specific sectors such as applying emissions standards to vehicles, but becomes onerous if used as an economy-wide policy. The cost of reducing emissions through regulation is also likely to be higher than under market mechanisms.

Finally, tradeable green certificate schemes have been applied to the electricity sector in the UK and many US states. In Australia, the Renewable Energy Target has delivered emissions reductions in, the absence of a carbon price, at a moderate cost of around A$40 per tonne. However it doesn’t work as a broader policy.

The challenge to policy makers is significant and will be highly politicised. The task is to find solutions to the limitations of an individual policy, or to combine policies that collectively satisfy the criteria.

Our report in 2016 will contribute to this search. For example, it may be possible to build an emissions trading scheme on the core of the current government’s policies to meet the central principles of both the government and the Labor Party. There is much at stake.

The Conversation

Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.