What you need to know about temperature targets

This week marked the release of the long-awaited Special Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the chances of the world limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.

The report has been covered by many prominent scholars already (you can read here Professor Mark Howden’s and Rebecca Colvin’s excellent piece) so I won’t cover here the whole report but focus on key issues.

In all my years in researching climate change, temperature targets and associated emission pathways (trends in releasing emissions) are some of the hottest debated and misunderstood topics.

There are different viewpoints on what these really mean, how they can be managed, and how to do this effectively.

 

What temperature goals are really about

In 2009, I attended the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference that focused on the science behind climate change.

Even then, the question of temperature targets was on the agenda in the main plenary in a panel that consisted of both long-term high-level climate change scientists and politicians who would be attending the Copenhagen UNFCCC negotiations.

I still vividly remember one politician’s question to the scientists about temperature targets: whether it is ok for him to negotiate for 2 degrees, or whether, if pressed, he could settle for 4 degrees or 6 degrees.

The scientists in the panel did well in explaining that it doesn’t really work that way.

We can’t just negotiate up or down on global temperature, this isn’t like the stock market where you change your preferences when you feel like it.

Once the feedback loops are in, there is little we can do if we face a 4-degree or even 6 degree world.

I still remember the awe of the scientists that someone in such a prominent role would even ask such a question.

But I think this also reflects the ideas at the time of what the negotiations were about and how far the evidence was pointing towards in terms of what happens with what scale and level of temperature rise.

I think this also reflects the disparity between the science and the policy process that underpins the climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Somehow people still think it’s just about exchanging numbers for targets when it suits them, while making sure their economies are not taking more hits than other countries.

 

How to manage rise in temperature

The bottom line is that we have known now for years that any rise in global temperature is associated with adverse impacts.

The question now is how much, how soon, and where.

There have been no clear cut answers to these questions but the IPCC 1.5 report has harnessed that evidence base, including potential timings, the extent of the impacts, and what needs to be done to stay within 1.5 temperature rise limit.

The report is full of statistics and figures, which can be hard to understand.

But the key messages are that there are still a range of strategies that we can do, in order to at least minimize the risk of ending up in a world where we face more adversity than we can handle.

Yet, we cannot keep going business-as-usual if we aim to keep global warming within the lower limits.

The report is very strong on the need for transformational change where we really re-think our economics, ways of living, and do this fast.

There are already challenges for climate change adaptation (how we deal with and adapt to impacts of climate change) in our current state, and these challenges will be certainly magnified in the future as well.

For example, in chapter 5 (pp. 13-16) there is already a recognition of limits to climate change adaptation (how far we can adapt to particular conditions) and also that of loss and damage.

Coincidently, the first book on Loss and Damage (“Loss and Damage from Climate Change: Concepts, Methods and Policy Options” has also just been released that examines the extent that we have already experienced losses and damages from human-induced climate change, and what could be in store.

The message is thus clear: the science is more solid than ever that we can still act but it needs more political will and support also from the public to continue choosing more sustainable options and at a broader scale than before.

 

Space and opportunity for innovation? 

In many ways the IPCC 1.5 report has been portrayed as doom and gloom, that the world is heading to its demise and that we are on a roller coaster that is extremely hard to stop.

Yet, the report is also hopeful that there is space for change even if we are already faced by a range of constraints, limits to adaptation, and eventually loss and damage.

The key aspect here would be to acknowledge the many ways constraints could actually proper us towards more innovation.

This we can already see in many sustainability innovations where people and companies acknowledge the limits and constraints (e.g. overuse of particular resources, polluting production processes), and use those constraints actually to change their operational procedures.

I’ve covered the power of constraints in a previous blog, but I think many of those lessons are still very valid.

I believe that much of the current discussion about what we should do about keeping within a particular temperature target comes down to 3 mindsets:

ConstraintsMindset

It is obviously the Transformer mindset that reports such as the IPCC 1.5 call for, to scale ambition because of the current constraints and limits we face, to innovate not despite of but because of where we are and where we want to head to.

We should not allow ourselves to see the world through the mindset of a victim: this will lower our ambitions and what we think is possible.

This makes sense ams on a very personal level for me as I do feel like I often still slip into the victim mindset when I am faced with constraints.

Yet, I am hopeful that the IPCC 1.5 report can function as a wake up call for the global community to see the findings as a real opportunity in transforming those particular processes and systems that are at the heart of the issue.

 

 

 

 

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