on 11th November 2017

The power of the 1.5°C limit: preparing the ground for greater ambition

Including the 1.5°C limit in the Paris Agreement was a major political achievement. Many civil society organisations, including CARE, strongly supported calls of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) and other countries for this goal, concerned in particular with the adverse impacts of climate change on the poorest and most vulnerable.

As Loren Logarda, Chair of the Finance and Climate Change committees in the Philippines put it recently, “1.5°C isn’t merely a symbolic or “aspirational” number to be plugged into international agreements; it is an existential limit,” and it must be taken seriously! Despite the still glaring emissions gap, the 1.5°C limit is leaving its footprint in the climate policy debate, a perspective which must receive more attention.

1.5°C limit triggering scientific research

The Paris agreement has triggered the science-policy community to have a much closer look at the 1.5°C limit, e.g. through the September 2016 Oxford science conference which focused on 1.5°C. Various scientific journals have also initiated special editions related to 1.5°C; one overarching trigger for a reorientation of research is the 1.5°C Special report by the IPCC.

Emission pathways analyses take a much closer look at what is required under different conditions to stay within 1.5°C, with varying results. This includes studies with more positive messages (although the devil lies in the detail) about the possibility of staying within that limit, and clear proposals sets of key strategies and near-term steps before 2020 to get us on a 1.5°C pathway. There are also examples of new research on 1.5°C consistent pathways for specific countries (i.e. Germany) and regions (i.e. EU) which also increase pressure to shift away from particularly polluting technologies such as coal-based electricity. The social and economic opportunities as well as avoided climate change impacts – for example significantly lower impacts on agriculture, different crops and weather systems – have also been highlighted, e.g. in the Low Carbon Monitor, Nature articles and other research.

1.5°C limit as a lens to analyse the impact of country contributions

The 1.5°C limit has already made a difference in terms of analysing countries’ contributions to global climate action. While the 1.5°C target was absent from the pre-Paris UNFCCC synthesis report on the aggregate effect of INDCs, the 2016 INDC update report took a much closer look at this, also highlighting the ambition gap.

Though the UNEP Emissions Gap report published in November 2015 looked at scenarios for “an aspirational target” of a 1.5°C limit, the 2017 report released on 2 November, gave much more prominence to 1.5°C analysis. Additionally, The International Energy Agency (IEA) has widened the scope of its analysis and civil society research work, such as the Equity Review, has put the 1.5°C limit at the centre of the discussion.

1.5°C limit triggering increased political ambition and influencing long-term planning

On the national level, there are, unfortunately, too few examples of countries who have recognised that the 1.5°C limit requires additional efforts. The Marrakesh Declaration, adopted by the 53 countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum, includes the unprecedented commitment to 100% renewable energies between 2030 and 2050, specifically framed as a means to “trigger increased commitments from all countries for urgent progress towards the 1.5°C or below goal.”

Countries such as Sweden or New Zealand have adopted more ambitious policies or objective for carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier than before Paris. Various countries have submitted long-term (mostly 2050) strategies to the UNFCCC which reflect 1.5°C scenarios, even though they do not follow-through with increased ambition, but it is a first step. Examples include Mexico’s report, Canada’s strategy or Germany’s 2050 plan. The latter one notes that the new goal of the Paris Agreement goes beyond the 2°C limit and states that the current EU 80-95% reduction target for 2050 would have to be re-evaluated in light of the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal. The current negotiations on a new government and controversial debates on a coal exit will be a litmus test for whether its objectives are taken seriously.

The 1.5°C limit drives up ambition of non-state actors

A particularly promising example of the impact of the 1.5°C limit is how non-state actors approach the need to act on climate is reflected in the C40 work. In December 2016, the C40 – a group of major cities from various countries – released a report, “Deadline 2020,” which identifies how C40 cities can stay within their share of carbon budget consistent with 1.5°C consistent.

COP23: Next steps at the global level

The basic message is already clear: countries’ plans do not add up to what is needed and more ambition is required! There must be a rapid shift to 100% sustainable renewable energies, and other known solutions, instead of shifting the focus to unproven and high-risk negative emissions technologies. For all solutions, following the guiding principles of the Paris Agreement, such as human rights, and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals should be a key parameter. At COP23, governments must take next steps to make the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit a reality, this includes an ambitious “Talanoa” Facilitative Dialogue 2018 process.

We need to act much further and faster, together.

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