It’s tough watching the small-island states trying to salvage something from the COP21 negotiations in Paris. If anyone watched the leaders’ opening speeches on Day 1, they would have heard the sorry admission from Kiribati’s leader that its future was all but over. Fiji has already offered permanent refuge to Kiribati and Tuvalu citizens once the inevitable sea-level rise makes their islands uninhabitable.
It’s therefore not all that surprising that the 44 member countries of the Aosis (Alliance of Small Island States) group has challenged some of the world’s biggest emitters to pledge to a more ambitious target of limiting warming to 1.5C rather than the formerly agreed 2C. A number of other vulnerable nations have made similar calls for a re-evaluation of the 2C target in the negotiations in Paris. Some leaders from developed nations made similar murmurings: in his opening address, French president François Hollande said we should aim for “1.5C if possible”; Obama stated that “We want to get to 2C or even lower than that.”
That’s all very well-intentioned from developed leaders but the sad reality is that their pledged commitments don’t even come close. The ambitious talk is not reflected in the commitments on the table. In fact, they’re not even close to our 2C target–if we collectively carry through on our Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), we’re estimated to reach about 3C warming. Nonetheless, it has been reported that the debate on the 1.5C versus 2C target is still very much alive and will be a major feature of the Paris negotiations. Is the Aosis group wise in reigniting this discussion; just how realistic is a 1.5C target adoption?
There is no doubt that a 2C warming will bring devastation to many–heartbreakingly, to those least equipped to adapt and have contributed least to global emissions. These nations are more than justified in calling for more ambitious targets; their voices need to be heard in highlighting how serious the consequences are. Rocking the boat is good, but I think they have to be careful not to tip it.
In reality our INDCs currently project to a 3C warming. Managing to push these pledges to a collective commitment that gets us close to 2C in Paris would be a monumental result (personally, I don’t think this is going to happen in the coming weeks, although I do believe that 2C is still achievable). The imperative outcome of COP21 should be to reach some reasonable form of international agreement that we can then build on. It’s not going to be perfect or fall in line with a 2C budget, but that doesn’t block us from getting there. The absolute worst result for Aosis and other highly-vulnerable nations is to walk away with no deal at all—no mitigation commitments, no climate or adaptation finance, no climate refugee support. I fear that spending too long re-negotiating for a 1.5C target could overshadow the talks that will help us seal such a deal.
2C was adopted as the official target for UN climate negotiations; it was one of the few decisions that world leaders actually managed to agree on in Copenhagen in 2009. I’m not implying that politicians never falter on their promises, but I’ve rarely seen them doing so on the side of generosity. The world’s largest developed emitters won’t raise their INDCs to a level that makes 1.5C achievable, and I suspect that other big emitters such as China and India would also be strongly opposed to doing so. They would perceive it as a potential barrier to their national development pathways.
The push for a 1.5C target could work as an effective tactic for the Aosis group in raising the ambitions of the large emitters closer to 2C. Acknowledging that even the adopted 2C target would be a compromise for many vulnerable nations might be a driver to close the gap between it and our current 3C pledges. Furthermore, failing on the mitigation side, it might present an even stronger case for additional adaptation and loss and damage finance. From this perspective, it might work out well.
However, if the plan is to make this UN target a main feature of the negotiations, we risk walking away from the two-week process with nothing. You can guarantee that it will be incredibly divisive with stubborn actors on both sides, and could potentially detract from the other discussions such as climate finance, loss and damage and an agreed deal which are all so vitally important. We can’t afford to spend another two weeks bartering over the final target, and especially not when we’re so far off from reaching either of them.
What would I do if I were a negotiator for one of the Aosis or other highly-vulnerable states? I’d certainly make my voice heard, make it known that even achieving 2C would still be devastating for my nation in the hope that this pushed leaders into raising their ambitions closer to this figure, and push the case for adaptation, loss and damage finance to the end. It’s the least the people of these nations deserve—the world owes them so much more. It breaks my heart that they probably won’t get it. But at least with a reasonable adopted deal they still stand a chance of salvaging something. I hope the boat isn’t rocked too hard that they’re left with nothing.