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.

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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 202.

    166. RaggleTaggle
    Yes I appreciate that, it's the BBC's angle that I object to, I expect them to be independent and objective.
    The USA has a cyclical history of drought caused by well understood oceanic events. Any serious reporter should know that and not try to peddle spurious comment as meaningful insight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    if you're even considering the legitimacy of the MMR/autism link, then I’m afraid reasoning etc

    I would never have bothered about it
    Until the state took a direct interest to suppress it

    Lots of theories out there about things from the fake moon landing to flouride in the water supply

    Why is the state so terrified of alternative MMR theories in particular?

    Is it because they may be true?

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.


    ..hmmm.. but it wasn't a problem when Greenies were getting marked down for their opinions on this was 'proof' the Contrarians were correct.. Its logic Jim, but not as we know it

    I'm an atheist.. neocons constantly referring to environmentalism as a new 'religion' merely illuminates how many of them struggle to comprehend anything without a religious basis.. Does not compute!

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    198 penguin337 - Reading the first line of your comment, I immediately thought of the MMR/autism controversy as a good counter-argument to that, where "suppression" is required in order to stop false information from being banded around as fact. Strange that you referenced it, if you're even considering the legitimacy of the MMR/autism link, then I’m afraid reasoning with you is a lost cause.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    You must remember that government suppression gives alternative theories legitimacy
    Your government is desperate to suppress alternative GW theories, the BBC got rid of David Bellamy because he wasn't "on message"

    I've seen a load of fluoride theories the government doesn't care about but if you ever mention the MMR jab

    they are petrified of you. Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    I'll know that the world is REALLY coming to an end when Al Gore and his rich pals start handing over their wealth to the poor and needy

    Until that time comes my bullsh**-o-meter will stay on full alert

    What else can I say except I will pray for things to cool down a bit

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    @195 "-4" that means there are 4 creepy religious trolls on alert.... solid work guys.... keep alert !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    @194 "..loosely attached to something vaguely attached to meteorology who get funding to publish what they are told to..anyone heard of "rigour".. look at who trolls here.." - Johnny old boy

    .. for a moment there I thought you must be talking about WUWT and its fanboys...

    Richard Black works for the BBC.. what has that got to do with the rigor of the scientific Institutions studying AGW?

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    @192 "climatologists" ..that will be whoever-whatever scientists loosely attached to something vaguely attached to meteorology who get funding to publish what they are told to. RB is a zoologist for goodness sake. you lot talk as if its a science !! its not !! its a talkshop , there is no science to be seen, anyone heard of "rigour" ? not in "climate" science..its a joke. look at who trolls here..

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.


    A graph listing the temperature for the last 65 million years, including periods not compatible with modern industrialised society, indeed the majority before Homo sapiens evolved?... /facepalm

    Since the debate is focused on anthropogenic forcings, where is the 'average' CFC signature on your chosen graph, proving humans can't effect the planet, because its too big and complicated..Not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Among climatologists, well over 99% are in agreement over how bad the situation is and who's causing it. The only arguments come from the fossil fuel industry and the media who want a fight.

    Among climatologists, there's also a lot of agreement that another 2C is way too much. We need LESS.

    The US just wants others to bear the costs while the US goes on raking in profits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    @189 as are you - the current climate is below average temperature

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    @11 wrote:

    jonny old boy has a point; atolls can actually grow bigger with sea level rise assuming the coral is hermatypic. How do those of you that have voted him down think that coral atolls formed in the first place?

    Answer: slowly but faster than SLR. That will not be the case this time around. Ask a scientist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    @188 'can't spot it', because you are cherry picking your data, which was the point of Richards post -

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    #80 Richard Black, I'm disappointed that you find discussion of the evidence to be tedious. [I assure you I don't get paid to be tedious.]

    You want to talk about temperatures since 1998? Why not look at the HADCRUT4 Global Mean since 1998 [their most recent "adjusted" temperature record].

    Where is the disaster? I can't spot it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.


    I'm not anti-capitalist, I just recognise the system needs a serious rethink..people tend to assume that a few 'bad apples' cause the moral hazard problem however the system is tilted in that direction..indeed technically, corporations have a legal obligation to exploit it.
    Unfortunately due to recent history, just using the word 'capitalism' automatically sounds 'leftie'

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    @181 Agreed. We should err on the side of caution as we only have one planet to live on. More work needs to be done for sure..

    @183 True, and many make their information available. I wonder if there is a data available to plot the number wingnut hat wearers against the number of secret global commie conspiracies. Would probably show a believably steep increase since the www arrived.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    184 Arcid - That's the problem with a lot of the loudest activists. Anti-GM campaigners go on about "Monsanto corporation holding farmers to ransom." Well yes, that is a problem, but it's not a fault of GM crops, rather a fault of the companies. People can be anti-capitalist if they like, I just don't see why they have to tag that along with serious issues, as it just dilutes their argument.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    #181 Agreed that it makes sense to be careful, the sad thing is that a lot of the activists etc care more about idealogical purity than solving a problem/taking precautions. There are plenty of good reasons to get the power infrastructure off fossil fuels regardless, but there are a lot of groups that seem to insist you must "believe" and suspend all critical thinking regarding "environment" tag

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.



    I would suggest that the majority of reputable scientific Institutions are going to assist genuine 'sidewalk Einsteins' making polite requests.. Individuals wearing a hat saying 'Extreme wingnut and proud of it', while demanding the Institution admit their work is all a conspiracy ordered by the secret global commie conspiracy, for a blog article; might merit a somewhat cooler response


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