Climate Negotiators Confront a Key Question: How Hot Will the Planet Get?

Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, a small island nation deeply threatened by climate change, at the UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.

Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, a small island nation deeply threatened by climate change, at the UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. Doug Peters / UK Government via Flickr

As the second week gets under way, how is the Glasgow climate conference going? How is the planet faring? Is it on target for capping warming at 2.7 degrees C (4.9 degrees F) by later this century? Or are we headed for 2.2 degrees C or 1.8 degrees C? Or is it still a doomsday 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) or more? All those numbers have been in circulation in recent days. So what should we believe?

The most widely quoted figure for our climate destiny is 2.7 degrees C. This, say UN scientists, is the likeliest outcome if countries meet promises for the coming decade made prior to the conference in their pledges of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

This prediction assumes no further curtailing of emissions after 2030. The British hosts say that is unduly pessimistic. Countries that switch to low-carbon energy to meet their obligations in 2030 are unlikely to revert back to fossil fuels afterward. Moreover, in the run-up to the conference, most of the world’s industrialized nations made longer-term pledges to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050 or 2060. But what could they deliver?

“Net-zero pledges are still vague, incomplete in many cases, and inconsistent with most 2030 NDCs,” warns the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Net-zero could also become cover for dubious carbon accounting that allow countries to carry on burning fossil fuels. But taken at face value, and provided countries make early progress toward meeting them, current net-zero pledges could bring warming down to around 2.2 degrees C (4 degrees F), the UNEP says.

And there is more.

The first week of the conference saw fast-industrializing India, already the world’s fourth largest emitter and soon to be its most populous nation, promise to join the net-zero club by 2070, provided it gets financial assistance. Meanwhile, dozens of nations promised variously to end deforestation, reduce their emissions of methane — the second most important greenhouse gas — by 30 percent, and banish coal from their energy mix.

Malte Meinshausen, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change author from the University of Melbourne, calculates that the new promises give the world, for the first time, a better than 50 percent chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees C. He and colleagues estimate that “if all NDC and long-term pledges are fully fulfilled and adequately supported,” then, “together with targets announced in the last few days,” the best estimate of peak warming this century is 1.9 degrees [C].”

Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental body, went one better, suggesting prospective warming of just 1.8 degrees C.

There are a lot of “ifs” in those calculations. But even this best-case scenario remains, as Meinshausen put it, “a long way from 1.5 degrees” — a target many scientists say is necessary to avoid extreme climate destabilization. Given that we are already at 1.1 degrees C, this means that to meet the ambition set in Paris still requires the world to double down on its efforts enough to reduce warming henceforth from 0.7 degrees to 0.4 degrees.

Can it be done? One of the least noticed results of the circus of pledges made to date at the conference is that most bypass the UN negotiating system that is theoretically running things and ensuring the integrity of promises. They are largely unilateral statements of intent, often imprecise in their meaning, and with little means of independent oversight or enforcement. If the United States fails to meet its methane promise, or Vietnam shirks its promise to end coal burning, there will be no accountability and few repercussions.

Already, some pledges look open to question. Within 48 hours of Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo committing his country to ending net deforestation by 2030, his environment and forestry minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, contradicted him, saying “forcing Indonesia to zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair.”

And as of now, net-zero remains an aspiration. “None of the countries that has a net zero target has implemented sufficient short-term policies to put itself on a trajectory towards net-zero,” Niklas Hohne from the New Climate Institute, which monitors carbon-cutting plans, told the BBC.

Delegates say that for the plethora of ad hoc promises in Glasgow to carry weight, they need to be included in formal pledges within NDCs; they need assured finance, often from rich nations; and they need to be backed up by a rule book for accounting and policing the pledges. Securing those essentials is the work of the second week of the conference.

One key outstanding issue being widely discussed among delegates is the wording of what is known in conference jargon as Article Six, which should set out how countries can collaborate with each other to meet their pledges. It sounds technical, but is deeply political and again could be resolved by leaving UN processes as passive bystanders.

As first drafted in Paris, Article Six referred only to nations sharing technology, finance, and know-how. But it has since become a potential framework for global carbon-offsetting markets, raising concerns about double counting, land grabbing, and outright fraud. Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International and a veteran of almost every previous climate negotiation, recently dismissed offsets as “an accounting trick to keep emissions off the ledgers of polluters.”

Equally troubling for some delegates is the direction of the search to find finance for helping developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change. The original plan was to funnel the money through UN-approved bodies to ensure the money was well spent. But most money is bypassing this route, through government-to-government and private finance.

As we reported here on Friday, this laissez faire approach to potentially trillion-dollar flows of finance is sounding alarm bells. Not least because, contrary to what was first intended, only around a quarter of this climate finance is going to adaptation to protect vulnerable communities and nations from climate change. Hundreds of millions of people face being deprived of help in adapting to what awaits them.

Which leads inevitably to what negotiators term “loss and damage” — the storm destruction, flooded land, decreased agricultural output, surges in deaths from heat stroke, and flows of climate migrants and refugees that adaptation finance cannot — or does not — protect against.

For years, developing countries on the front line have called for climate conferences to establish a separate fund to compensate nations hit by such permanent detrimental effects. Yet in Glasgow, rich nations were reportedly continuing to push back against any admission of liability on Monday. The issue could become a red line threatening other deals.

And if matters are not resolved in Glasgow, aggrieved nations will take their case elsewhere. A coalition of island nations, led by Tuvalu in the South Pacific and Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean, is planning to take developed nations to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to sue for what one delegate in Glasgow called “compensation, not charity.” That would be another sign that, for good or ill, much of the climate action is starting to happen outside the UN negotiating framework.

Follow all of e360’s daily coverage of the UN climate summit in Glasgow.