Rupert Stuart-Smith, Oxford Climate Society President 2017/18
The Paris Agreement (Article 2) seeks to restrict climate change to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’, with the ethically imperative goal of ‘pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’. An important question, discussed in greater detail in my previous article, is whether the more ambitious of these two goals was merely aspirational, or if this is indeed an achievable target.
By some measures, global temperature rise is already knocking on the door of 1.5 degrees. Some studies have argued that we could have emitted enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to reach that level of warming as soon as 2021. But these numbers rely on different assumptions than were made when the goals of the Paris Agreement were devised in 2015, at which time delegates were advised that global temperatures had risen by ‘only’ 0.85 degrees. With this in mind, the 1.5 degree goal in the Paris Agreement should be seen as a very real possibility, with recent studies indicating that net-zero greenhouse gas emissions must be achieved by 2045 (figure 1) or 2055 (partly dependent on our ability to reduce emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases). In other words, achieving the 1.5-degree goal will be extremely difficult and require rapid decarbonisation of every part of every economy in the world, but it is possible.
Figure 1: Future emission trajectories under business as usual (baseline), the Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement (NDC), uniform pricing on all greenhouse gas emissions to deliver a 50% probability of staying within the 2°C target (default 3.4), as with default 3.4 but with a probability of at least 66% of staying below 2°C of warming (default 2.6), as with default 2.6 but minimising the use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage as a means of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere (No BECCS 2.6), and delivering a 50-66% probability of remaining below the 1.5°C target (van Vuuren et al. 2017)
If we can understand the 1.5-degree target as being achievable and set with the intention of it being fulfilled, rather than a meaningless phrase added to placate many of the world’s countries at greatest risk from the impacts of climate change, who may otherwise have walked out of the discussions at Paris, the implications are huge. No longer will the biggest emitting countries and companies be able to drive global temperatures up beyond safe levels and then be able to claim that by the time we understood the science of climate change and came to a global consensus on its prevention, it was too late to do anything about it. We know it will be tough, and that we must be fully determined in our ambition to achieve rapid decarbonisation, but the knowledge that this trajectory is possible will greatly strengthen future claims of responsibility for causing climate change.
With this in mind, any future, not prevented impacts of climate change, including forced movement of people due to sea level rise, economic losses from extreme weather attributed to climate change, loss of life, and non-economic losses should be subject to ‘loss and damage’ claims. Those failing to play their part in preventing further climate change now, and pushing warming beyond global targets are responsible for its impacts. The fact they now know they can do something about it will simply add to their responsibility, should they fail to act now. And if they don’t, they should be liable to compensate those affected by conscious decisions to contribute to the devastation resulting from climate change – stories of which can be heard from delegates throughout COP23.
Despite the apparent logic of this, much of the developed world (perhaps unsurprisingly, given their large historical emissions and responsibility for climate change) remain unmovably opposed to developing mechanisms through the UN climate process to facilitate loss and damage claims. The latest attempts to block this process has been led at COP23 by the US, EU, Canada and Australia, whose contention that financing should be excluded from negotiations on loss and damage is apparently grounded in the fact that not every natural disaster can be attributed to climate change. The absurdity of this argument is underlined by recent and rapid advances in the science of attributing (probabilistically) extreme weather events to climate change. Since we can now model to what extent climate change influenced a particular event, we can determine with ever growing certainty how responsible for climate-related losses are those who contributed most to climate change.
If we can formalise a regime for loss and damage, and render the biggest emitters liable for the impacts of their actions, this would be a small but significant step towards addressing the vast injustices of climate change. For the developed world to continue to ignore their moral duty on this matter is simply unacceptable.
This article follows Oxford Climate Society’s side event at this year’s UN Climate Conference, on 12 November 2017, and is in part inspired by the talks given by the speakers, Professor Myles Allen and Kya Raina Lal.
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