Climate: 2C or not 2C?

Anti-climate tax protestor Climate "sceptics" are making it hard for the US and other governments to progress

Comments by the US climate envoy last week discussing the value of the 2C target in international climate change negotiations have provoked quite a response.

Todd Stern, who leads the US negotiating team in the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) and performed the same role at the recent Rio+20 summit, told an audience at Dartmouth College that insisting on the target in negotiations would lead to "deadlock".

The approach needed more "flexibility", he said.

The negotiations he's referring to concern the Durban Platform - an oddly-chosen name for a process agreed at last year's UN talks in South Africa.

Governments agreed to conclude negotiations by 2015 on a new global deal that would include to different extents every nation, to come into effect in 2020.

As I reported earlier this week, the comment went down very badly with the blocs pushing for faster action on climate change - the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) and the EU - with Marshall Islands minister Tony de Brum describing this flexibility as "a death sentence".

Later, the African Group of countries weighed in, spokesman Seyni Nafo saying: "This is not a game with numbers; its a question of people's lives, and so I am not sure there is much space for the 'flexibility' Mr Stern has spoken of."

Grasshopper on corn US farms are facing their worst drought for half a century - an impact of climate change?

But Ed King of the Responding to Climate Change website asked whether Mr Stern didn't have a point, given the difficult internal politics of the world's two biggest emitters.

"The aim is to avoid a 2C rise not just for 2015 or 2020 but stretching into the next 100 years," he writes.

"For that to be achieved the USA (and China) has to be on board."

In the middle of this comment storm, Mr Stern's office issued a statement designed to be a clarification.

"Of course, the US continues to support this [2C] goal; we have not changed our policy.

"My point in the speech was that insisting on an approach that would purport to guarantee such a goal - essentially by dividing up carbon rights to the atmosphere - will only lead to stalemate given the very different views countries would have on how such apportionment should be made.

"My view is that a more flexible approach will give us a better chance to actually conclude an effective new agreement and meet the goal we all share."

I say the statement is "designed to be a clarification" because actually, I'm not sure it is.

Certainly, countries have very different views on how "carbon rights to the atmosphere" should be divided up.

Climate change glossary
Select a term to learn more:
Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.

We've seen that in abundance at successive UN climate talks dating back at least to 1997 and the agreement of the Kyoto Protocol.

So to that extent, Mr Stern's suggestion of not worrying too much about trying to build a 2C guarantee into the 2015 deal but instead starting "with a regime that can get us going in the right direction and that is built in a way maximally conducive to raising ambition, spurring innovation, and building political will" makes some sense.

However, as he acknowledges: "This kind of flexible, evolving legal agreement cannot guarantee that we meet a 2C goal."

Which begs the question; what use is such an agreement if it doesn't?

It's worth returning at this point to the basic point of the UN climate convention: "The ultimate objective is to achieve... stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

In some ways it's a badly phrased objective, because greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that are "dangerous" for inhabitants of drought-prone East Africa or low-lying Tuvalu may be absolutely fine in Paris and indeed beneficial in Yakutsk.

Todd Stern Todd Stern leads the US climate team - but is his real job leading the laggards?

But there it is. And the importance of the 2C figure is that it's come to represent a kind of general, averaged-out notion of what "dangerous" means.

Many countries argue it's too lenient. A majority favour 1.5C; a few hold out for 1C.

No government - in public, at least - argues it's too strict.

So as far as there is a general consensus about these things, when Mr Stern advocates a negotiating process that "cannot guarantee" a 2C goal, one way of seeing that is as an acknowledgement that governments shouldn't aim to fulfil the basic objective of the UN climate convention; which is obviously political dynamite.

And yet elsewhere in his speech, he is extremely forthright in arguing that "dangerous anthropogenic climate interference with the climate system" has to be avoided.

For all the protestations of "sceptics", he says: "The atmosphere doesn't care. Its temperature will continue its implacable rise, with all the consequences that entails, unless we act to stop it."

On the evidence of warming - the succession of hot years, the Arctic sea ice melt, ocean acidification, and so on: "They warn of droughts and floods and extreme storms.

"They warn of water shortages, food shortages and national security risk. They warn of what 11 retired generals and admirals wrote about in 2007 - climate change becoming a 'force multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world'.

"And they introduce the threat of catastrophic, non-linear change."

... all of which is exactly why most governments are not only supporting the 2C target (if not a smaller figure), but remain determined to get a deal in 2015 that ensures it's achieved.

Arctic ocean Melting Arctic ice is a "warning" of impacts to come, Mr Stern said

The most intriguing question - and despite making some enquiries, I've turned up nothing definitive on this - is whether the US is alone in proposing an approach to negotiations that doesn't explicitly aim for 2C.

Since the Copenhagen UN summit of 2009, the US has formed part of what's been dubbed a "coalition of the unwilling", which also, to varying degrees, has included China, India, Russia, Canada, Japan and some of the Gulf states.

Submissions that the US and China sent to the UNFCCC in March, outlining ideas for moving forward on the Durban Platform, don't mention the 2C target at all.

An omission - or something more meaningful?

Meanwhile, submissions from India and Saudi Arabia claim that in order to meet 2C, it's necessary only for the traditional developed countries to restrain emissions - even though the science makes clear that at some stage, all countries will have to take a hit.

The uncomfortable reality is that India, Saudi Arabia and other fast-developing countries can still point at the US and its fellow early industrialisers - the UK, Germany, Japan - and legitimately argue that none has yet been willing to make emission cuts that their historical responsibilities justify.

And without that leadership, they won't follow.

To Mr Stern, the implication of all this is that a process based on slicing up "rights to the atmosphere" can't work.

Politically, he may be right. But it's hard to see any path to a world free of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system unless governments do find a way of apportioning these rights.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 62.


    Using strawmen so you can appear to win arguments again I see.

    The poster at 12 obviously wasn't claiming indefinite growth, And the poster at 20 was just pointing out that atolls can't drown.

    Anyway if rising temperatures causebthe symbiodinium to die then it's lucky that the global mean temperature hasn't risen in the last 14 years

    How you manage to square that circle I will never know

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    25. Notrocketscience1 "...bamboozle me..." No one expects to change your mind since you ignore the science and make assertions that any one who cares to can refute by looking at satellite images available to anyone who wants to look for them. All of your comments are clearly meant to bamboozle those with little or no science background. Have you thought of applying for a grant from Hartland?

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    20. jonny old boy

    You seem to be ignoring the fact that rising temperatures are causing corals to loose their zooxanthellae and thus die.

    Perhaps you would like to tell us how the atolls are going to maintain themselves if the coral die?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    12. englishvote
    Kenneth Boulding had the rational view:

    “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”

    ― Kenneth E. Boulding

    But then you don't appear to believe physics describes the world we live in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    We see [and hear] much ado about nothing in the global-warming press, but I have yet to hear what temperature environmentalists would like the earth to be. Or even what temperature they think it ought to be.

    If they could only make their mind up about that, then it might save us all some breath and keystrokes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.


    Unfortunately experience shows that the governments of developing nations offered suitable.. *cough*..'aid packages'..*cough*.. have a rather depressing history of trading their fishing rights and quotas to external commercial interests.. so it may be a little early to relax on Somalia, particularly looking at some other African fisheries.. hopefully Somalia will resist the temptation

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    @48 & 52

    That Uranium figure is a current usage guesstimate..rather than as global tech.. not to mention the gigantic jump in accident probability using it as global tech

    "may".."if".."try".. - Arcid

    Fusion & Thorium are not commercially proven.. over half a century is a very long time to have massively tax funded nuclear R&D still asking for subsidies for theory tech

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Somalias fishing is doing GREAT
    The best fishing in decades


    No government working with big business can destroy the resource

    The EU on the other hand, with all it's scientists and experts, has been an unmitigated disaster for fish stocks

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Not caffeine based, sorry
    Nicotine based insecticides and other insecticides

    Since around 1980 insect populations have nosedived in the UK

    Driving to Inverness would create so many bugsplats you had to stop half way there, clean the windshield and refill your empty bottle

    Now you're lucky to get two bugsplats over the entire journey

    Only one thing can annihilate life at this rate. Man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    @51 penguin337

    Everything you mention is not inconsistent with the statement that Humankind is destroying its environment. As I said earlier I'm no climatologists, but I'm no fool either and if the experts are telling me that it's global warming then I'm going to accept that until I see evidence to the contrary. As yet I have neither seen or heard any evidence that categorically refutes this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Just to add to what I said in #48 Nuclear waste may not be as much of an issue as is currently thought. We're going to keep on trying for fusion (in my opinion get it working), but there are designs already for fusion generatorw which could effectively use nuclear waste as a "supercharger" plus designs like the travelling wave reactor, which if sucessfully implemented could use current "waste"

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    and they tell me things are very wrong

    and it's not Global warming

    It's pollution, capitalist greed and pesticides

    The EU has wiped out fish stocks- government
    the government allows caffeine based insecticides which have had a horrendous effect on insect life, and bird life by proxy
    Every second garden is a concrete desert
    Diesel engine fumes make smoking look safe

    and on and on and on..

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    9th August 2012 - 22:38
    " ad-hominem attacks"

    Amusing, the hypersensitivity of the sceptics to perceived ad-hominem attacks, especially since they use the tactic.
    You might like to check the definition of ad-hominem. A comment reflecting on someone's trustworthiness as a authority is only "ad-hominem" if it is false.

    " adaptation?"


  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @ Entropic Man

    So if the predictions on temperature rises tend toward the higher values then in addition to mitigation we should be considering adaptation?

    I don't think we need to be experts. I see fewer bees, hear less song, witness the weird seasons and the strange smell of my air. I trust my senses [Consciousness aside] and they tell me things are very wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    #26 I'd echo #30, and also say that estimates of extractable uranium and reprocessing technologies makes it look like current nuclear technologies could power things for 1000+ years, but also don't forget that there are more plentiful radioactives that could be used with some research (Thorium for example is 4 times as common, and currently a problem in China as they have a load that can't be used

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    15 Minutes ago
    "So should the target be lower...? I should point out here that I know nothing of climate theory and will defer to the experts."

    I'm not an expert, though I have some idea..IMHO its too late to prevent damaging temperature and sea level changes, long term effects of CO2 increases already produced or inevitable.
    Some mitigation is still possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.


    Clarification to my last post - If you are living in a hot country or say Iceland with plentiful geothermal, there are much bigger advantages to household power generation.. I was rather Britcentric in that response
    *looks suitable embarrassed by parochial post*

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    It's far too late to be worrying about 2c. Think I remember reading somewhere that 4C is now inevitable. It's gonna be very, very unpleasant. Even for wingnuts!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    It is still a fact that greater efficiency can be found through major power generation infrastructure, household power generation can offer useful cost saving but its currently more cost effective for households to concentrate on efficiency tech, than bolting a small wind turbine, etc to the roof
    Point take on commercial cartels, which is why markets always need regulation

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    @42 Entropic man

    "As for defending 2C, we're already past the point at which it can realistically be achieved.".

    So should the target be lower or are you suggesting something more drastic in order to prevent the point of no return? I should point out here that I know nothing of climate theory and will defer to the experts.


Page 8 of 11



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.