On course for 3.6 – 5.3 degrees Celsius

by | Aug 12, 2013

A little earlier in the summer, the International Energy Agency published an excerpt from the forthcoming 2013 World Energy Outlook. Included in it was their latest calculation of the global average temperature increase that current policies put us on track for: a long-term rise of 3.6-5.3 degrees Celsius, most of which will kick in before the end of the 21st century.

So have we lost for good the chance to limit warming to 2 degrees C? A lot of people in the climate process privately think so. But there’s also a general sense that whatever happens they mustn’t say so publicly, lest it contribute to a sense of hopelessness and despair.

This ambiguous stance will be much on show over the next couple of years, in the run-up to the 2015 Paris climate summit at which countries are supposed to agree their targets for 2020 onwards.

It’s far from certain that the deal there will even include numbers on emissions at all (at least if the last meeting of the Major Economies Forum is anything to go by) – but what does seem certain, according to everybody involved, is that even if numbers are included in the deal, there’s no way they’ll add up to 2 degrees.

Instead, the focus will be on setting up a mechanism for ratcheting initial pledges up through a regular review mechanism – allowing policymakers to say that the door to 2 degrees still remains open, if only just. In other words, everyone gets to keep pretending that we’re doing something about the issue, and the UNFCCC circus goes cheerfully on.

As for emissions, they’re still rising, according to the IEA – by 1.4% last year in the case of energy sector CO2 emissions, taking us to an all-time high. We’re still creating the problem a lot faster than we’re solving it.

Still, one idea doing the rounds that gives a small iota of hope for the future is the notion that when countries offer up their voluntary emissions reduction pledges, they should at least make clear their reasoning about (a) the overall level of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere that they’re aiming for, and (b) what level of action they assume that everyone else is doing.

That’s interesting, because it opens up the whole issue of fair shares – and could start pushing countries to talk more openly and seriously about the issue of equity in global carbon budgets. Maybe.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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