At UN Climate Talks, Some See 1.5-Degree Goal Fading

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May 20 — At United Nations climate talks in Bonn this week, observers and participants have been discussing whether the ambitious long-term 1.5-degree goal included in the world's first global climate change pact—reached just five months ago in Paris—is even feasible.

Informal debate during the first week of the May 16-26 Bonn talks swirled around that element of the Paris Agreement. The text calls for taking steps needed to limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels—but with an aspirational call to “pursue efforts” for arresting temperature rise at 1.5-degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Most expert observers say the official 2-degree target is within reach if countries act fast. But observers are divided on the 1.5-degree target.

Patricia Espinosa, who will become the fifth executive director of the United Nations' top climate change body starting in July, told Bloomberg BNA in a May 19 interview that the 2-degree goal is “still possible but it will be very, very difficult” (39 INER ???, 6/1/16).

That's a view most delegates and most environmentalists share, provided steps are taken quickly.

‘Every Minute We Wait ...'

Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists told Bloomberg BNA that, “Every minute we wait before taking action makes the global warming target more difficult and more costly.”

Most climate models show average worldwide temperatures have already risen around 1-degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels, and that greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere would raise temperatures another few fractions of a degree even if worldwide emissions were somehow halted.

In a report released May 20 on the sidelines of the Bonn conference, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said the world is behind pace for both the 2-degree and 1.5-degree pathways, but that both were within reach using what is called a “Bridge Scenario”—five key policy recommendations that could help worldwide greenhouse gas emissions peak by 2020, the year the Paris Agreement is scheduled to go into force.

The measures include increased energy efficiency, reduced use of coal, heavy investment in renewable energy, reductions in methane emissions, and a reform of fossil fuel subsidies.

‘There are Options.'

“The goal of peaking greenhouse gas emissions in the near term is part of the Paris Agreement, but we don't see that happening as things are now,” Takashi Hattori, the head of the IEA's Environment and Climate Change Unit, said in a briefing. “But there are options available.”

According to Teresa Anderson, a climate campaigner with ActionAid, there are still pathways to limiting warming to 1.5-degrees that did not include largely unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage—which would pump and permanently store greenhouse gases below the surface of the Earth—or bioengineering. But they would require significant changes to the economies of industrialized countries and would dramatically reduce the size of the global marketplace.

‘We Have the Technology.'

“It is unwise to even consider unproven methods,” Anderson told Bloomberg BNA. “But if we take dramatic action now, they are not necessary. We have the technology we need. What is missing is political will.”

But scientist and activist Bill Hare, one of the co-founders of Climate Analytics, disagreed strongly with Anderson's conclusions. On May 19, Hare called ActionAid's modeling “unscientific bullshit” before storming out of a briefing on the subject. On May 20, Hare said in a brief interview that a 1.5-degree limit on global warming was “impossible” without relying “heavily on carbon capture and storage and other technologies.”

And two different UN officials, speaking separately and informally, told Bloomberg BNA in recent days that there were no longer any viable pathways to 1.5 degrees of warming and that countries would do better to focus on limiting warming to 2 degrees and work on initiatives to adapt to that level of warming.

“Nobody wants to admit that the aspirational 1.5-degree goal was out of reach when it was agreed to,” one official said, asking not to be identified. “But continuing to keep it on the table risks delaying the process and making 2 degrees more difficult.”

Rulebook Negotiations Begin

During official action at the Bonn talks, negotiations on a “rulebook” for implementation of the Paris Agreement finally began May 20.

The Ad-hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement, or APA—the main negotiating platform for issues related to the Paris text—had met for the first time May 16, but debate was stalled by a battle over priorities.

That was finally resolved, and a package of issues will be on the agenda next week, including funding to help poor countries adapt to a changing climate, transparency on national emissions reduction efforts and financial issues, and capacity building. All of those areas are prioritized by poor and developing countries.

Though the Paris climate summit concluded six months ago with the world's first global agreement on climate change it still tabled around 75 issues to be addressed at a later date. The process of resolving those issues is at the core of the Bonn talks.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric J. Lyman in Bonn in Brussels at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

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