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."

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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Are we to believe that a complex climate can be accurately described by a "simple equation" ?

    How can alarmists one hand clearly demonstrate an appreciation for the complexity of the system and then on the other hand suggest it can all be controlled by the tweaking trace amounts of CO2 that will allow us to control extreme weather events and precise global temps

    This is a farce

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    #99 I've only been able to have a quick look at the link but it does look better than I thought, I still have my doubts about it as a groundside power source but it would definately be worth pursuing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    92 penguin337 - Haven't I already explained to you in a previous article that ozone makes up just 0.0006% of our atmosphere, yet blocks out nearly all of the most harmful UV light? So why do you continue to use an argument that is clearly false. Is it the best you've got?
    I suggest you read up a bit on chemistry, to see how such "insignificant" amounts can affect things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Politicians/experts garble at these expensive posings but nothing will happen.. As the world population spirals out of control, back of fag packet sums show that world emissions will continue to grow and there's nothing we are willing or even able to do about it. UK's posturing politicians force fuel poverty on millions while China builds a dirty coal fired power station a week.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    @113 That's not what I said. I said "Neither link talks about FOI - your links don't back up your claim".

    You do this a lot Lammy

    However, Us contrarians / deniers shouldn't have to resort to FOI to receive data our money has already paid for, should we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    food prices rises and catastrophic crop failures in the US are just the start - America is not exempt from the effects of its own policies and failure to act when it could still have made a difference to all our futures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    98 blunderbunny - Here's a real-world analogy.
    UK road deaths each year since 2003:
    03 3508
    04 3221
    05 3201
    06 3172
    07 2946
    08 2538
    09 2222
    10 1857
    11 1901

    Road deaths have increased since 2010. So road deaths aren't really declining, they're on their way up - cars are becoming more dangerous! Wouldn’t you agree? (Or maybe, 2010 was an anomalous year and other factors affected the death toll.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    @92 penguin: to turn your statement around for a moment:
    [I] believe that 0.035% CO2 is a[n] [in]significant amount.

    Can you explain why radiative transfer physics combined with a simple rate equation makes this insignificant?

    Of course you can't - if you could you would know why your statement is so risible!

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    "may be absolutely fine in Paris and indeed beneficial in Yakutsk." - 2C was a bit of a compromise figure i know, but i thought one essential aspect was that the likelihood of triggering dangerous feedback loops was high.

    so even yakutsk will not be benefitting in the long run if we commit to emissions that melt the greenland and west antarctic ice sheets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.


    On the contrary FOI requests are very much the interest of Contrarians seeking scientific data on climate

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Obama declined to attend summit, underscoring his low priority for climate change. 2009 Copenhagen Cconference - Obama said: all considerations must be SUBORDINATED TO INTERESTS OF AMERICAN CORPORATE * FINANCIAL INERESTS. Pollution & climate change will be dealt with only when political stranglehold of wealthy is broken by a unified & politically conscious movement of the working class.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    @110 Neither link talks about FOI - your links don't back up your claim

    how about answering my #77?

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.


    What really happens when Contrarian Wingnuts are given FOI scientific data? .. They simply lie that the official data agrees with them and use it as a cloak of respectability..why would anyone expect otherwise from political jihadis

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    At the summit, US delegates attempted to change language regarding “common but differentiated responsibility,” which places onus for addressing climate change on the developed countries that have CONTRIBUTED TO IT. (This would be proper, fair, responsible.) American negotiators wanted to make such responsibility contingent on concomitant action by DEVELOPING nations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.


    Your suggestion that 0.035% is too little to be a problem is the most ridiculous argument I've ever seen.

    Try ingesting 0.035% of your own body weight of anyone of potassium cyanide, arsenic, botulin toxin, box jellyfish venom, atropine, etc etc.

    The 0.035% may or may not be a problem. The argument that "it is a small number so cannot be important" is laughable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Clinton wasn't finished yet! She ended her remarks by calling for new type of cooperation among
    - nonprofits,
    - civil society organizations,
    - faith groups,
    - individuals, ALL OF US!
    This call to shift responsibility for dealing with ecological crisis represents rejection of ANY responsibility on the part of the American corporate elite or Obama Admin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Clinton pointed to $20M in US funding to unlock millions of dollars in PRIVATE money for clean energy projects in Africa, as well as supporting consumer research & creating incentives for manufacturers. Advice - think differently about how we recognize needs of workers, use private sector.
    Did Hilary lose her way? Did she believe she was attending an investment forum vs. climate summit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    In her speech, Clinton - after referencing Steve Jobs - exhorted attendees to think about “harnessing power of the market”. She claimed private sector investments, using targeted resources & smart policies, have catalyzed more balanced, sustainable growth; in other words, climate policy of the Obama Admin amounts to zilch - do-nothing under guise of supporting “green economy".

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    South Dakota is the ONLY US state where a state max temperature record has been equaled this century so far. NONE have broken ! Its a curious Alarmist world, one where records are being broken.. but they aren't !? How strange. Furthermore the 30s saw the most State records broken and then it trended downwards , flattened out then trended down again. How can this be possible in the alarmist world ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Rio+20, 20 - 22 June 2012 "The Future We want":
    Hilary Clinton - remarks to conference, underscored any effort to address pollution & climate change as SUBSERVIENT TO interests of the corporate elite - particularly US. She asserted - the most compelling products of conference are examples of new thinking: What sorts of new thinking does Clinton, & Obama administration have in mind?


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