Why has the UNFCCC – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – been unable to produce outcomes that actually decrease global greenhouse gas emissions?
James Dyke is an Associate Professor in Earth Systems Science, and Assistant Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Fellow of the European Geosciences Union, and serves on the editorial board of the journal Earth System Dynamics
Cross-posted from James Dyke’s blog
Are we going to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C since pre-industrial times? Back in June I gave a talk at a TED event about carbon offsets and net zero in which I answered “no”. This week I was told that my talk at TED is being circulated by some within the COP27 negotiations as evidence that scientists say that 1.5 is now impossible and so the Paris Agreement should be watered down.
It’s no surprise that I am being used as a useful idiot for fossil fuel interest who continue to impede effective action on the climate crisis. I would like to think that I’m not solely responsible for the collapse of the climate negotiations. There has been a recent spate of articles and reports about 1.5. See the Economist, the Guardian, UNEP, and UK Met Office. Just this week, Scientific American asked: The World Will Likely Miss 1.5 Degrees C—Why Isn’t Anyone Saying So? It is the case that I have been saying so, and for some time. Last year I co-authored an article that was very sceptical about overshoot scenarios that propose we will deploy large-scale carbon dioxide removal to drag temperatures back down to 1.5 by the end of this century. In July this year I had an article published that put the matter quite bluntly: We need to stop pretending we can limit warming to no more than 1.5°C. I don’t get to choose article titles, but that doesn’t let me off the hook with this one. It should really say We need to stop pretending we want to limit warming to no more than 1.5°C. Because there is still some carbon budget left for a 50% chance of keeping global warming to within 1.5°C. We could do it. We just won’t.
Academics who work on climate change do not have a crystal ball. Their assessments of large scale social and political change are as limited as any non-specialist. But I think we can safely assume that the chances of transformative climate policies emerging out of Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, the venue for the COP27 climate negotiations, are effectively zero. So I struggle to understand how anyone can continue to argue that 1.5 is still alive. I certainly don’t believe any politicians involved in COP27 have any intentions of implementing the transformative policies that 1.5 now demands.
1.5 has come to be interpreted as representing the highest ambition of the 2015 Paris Agreement which sought to limit warming to well below 2°C. 1.5 was never a target, it’s a threshold beyond which intolerable suffering will be rained down on those most vulnerable to global warming. These are the people living in low lying island nations, the coastal communities in the world’s least wealthiest nations, the subsistence farmers who rely on regular monsoons, the mountain living folk who are sustained by glaciers. Millions of people’s lives will be made worse when warming passes 1.5°C. More greenhouse gas emissions means more warming means more loss and damages, more destruction and death. The last thing we do when we pass 1.5 is disavow its importance. But this is exactly what some negotiators in COP27 are trying to do. They are arguing that because scientists say warming beyond 1.5 is inevitable, we should now fall back to 2°C, or even what some may argue is the more politically realistic 2.5°C. This makes absolutely no sense (unless you are actually motivated to try to extract as much coal, oil, and gas out of the ground as you can). The harm beyond 1.5 doesn’t disappear if you just set a higher threshold.
What we must do at this moment is reflect on why the UNFCCC – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – has been unable to produce outcomes that actually decrease global greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Agreement was a major achievement of the UNFCCC, but this took over 20 years of international negotiations. There was never much hope radical climate action could be supported via the UNFCCC process as it involves the major producers of fossil fuels and so the most powerful forces of delay. Rather than surface such conflicts, they were instead buried deep within the byzantine structures and outputs of the UNFCCC. The end result is that we are now entering a much warmer and more dangerous world. Loss and damages will increase along with more human suffering and more destruction of the natural world. There is no way to spin this other than a colossal failure.
One thing that can be salvaged from this situation is that we now have an opportunity to learn from this failure. That can be a source of hope that could be developed at COP27 and beyond. It’s a hope grounded in reality in terms of where we are and what needs to be done to avoid catastrophe. We are not going to limit warming to no more than 1.5°C, but we are still able to get as close to it as we can. This will not only limit suffering but keep us as far away from potential tipping points in the climate system that could take matters out of hands and drag us much further and faster into dangerous global warming.
If the UNFCCC cannot produced transformative change then we must urgently organise and generate effective action using other means. We can’t take back the emissions we have poured into the atmosphere, there are no time machines. But there is still a future that we can choose for ourselves.