As lawyers working for climate justice, we created the Three Degrees Project based on the IPCC projection that global average temperatures will rise three degrees Celsius over the course of the 21st century. We’ve received push back that three degrees isn’t an aggressive enough target. After all, negotiators meeting in Bonn in the lead up to COP 17 in Durban are still lobbying for a two degrees Celsius cap on warming. However, the two degrees target is a political goal; the reality is that recent trends don’t support such a prospect.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), which in 1996 regarded climate change as an insignificant fringe issue, recently issued this headline: “Prospect of limiting the global increase in temperature to 2ºC is getting bleaker.” The subtitle: “CO2 emissions reach a record high in 2010; 80% of projected 2020 emissions from the power sector are already locked in.”
From the IEA’s statement:
“Global leaders agreed a target of limiting temperature increase to 2°C at the UN climate change talks in Cancun in 2010. For this goal to be achieved, the long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be limited to around 450 parts per million of CO2-equivalent….
The IEA’s 2010 World Energy Outlook set out the 450 Scenario, an energy pathway consistent with achieving this goal, based on the emissions targets countries have agreed to reach by 2020. For this pathway to be achieved, global energy-related emissions in 2020 must not be greater than 32 [Gigatonnes]. This means that over the next ten years, emissions must rise less in total than they did between 2009 and 2010.”
Read the IEA’s full statement here.
The point is not to discourage delegations in the lead up to COP 17 from negotiating for a two degrees cap on warming. It is essential to press developed countries hard in these critical negotiations. But we would be silly to put all of our eggs in one basket. More than one future is plausible. So from our vantage, which is admittedly from the sidelines of these debates, we are preparing for a different future, a warmer future. So that if in the end the political negotiations fail, we are not stuck ill-prepared for a three degrees or warmer world. If we plan for a warmer world, and the COPs successfully cap warming at two degrees Celsius, that would be a good problem to have. But let’s not shy away from planning for other plausible future outcomes. Especially given what’s at stake.