doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.163 Published online 11 December 2015

Paris climate talks: What the half degree imbroglio means for developing countries

Darryl D'Monte

Capping temperature rise limit at 1.5ºC might compel rich nations to ratchet up their funding and provision of technologies to poor countries.
© S. Priyadarshini
The UN climate summit in Paris has ended with a whimper, given that participating countries submitted voluntary commitments and no agreement was reached on the upper limit of temperature rise that could be considered safe for life on earth.

The long rounds of negotiations have produced nothing of major consequence, thereby negating strong scientific evidence on imminent climate change. This includes inputs from previous summits, the abortive Copenhagen meet in 2009, texts and subtexts, square brackets of unresolved clauses and endless dithering on semantics.

A new bone of contention among many countries has been fixing the tipping point of global temperature beyond which there will be catastrophic consequences. Till Paris, countries have been referring to 2°C rise above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. However, at the Conference of Parties 21 (COP21), small islands and other vulnerable countries vociferously argued on reducing this to 1.5°C. They were backed by international NGOs.

Developed countries like Canada, Germany and France also joined the bandwagon and introduced another variant: “well below 2°C”, which does not provide a scientific definition. India and China were seen as “spoilers” for having agreed to consider all the three options. The most likely middle path, therefore, was to keep the rise “well below” 2ºC and target 1.5°C, a concession to the smallest, most-threatened countries.

According to an expert UN body, if the limit is dropped by half a degree, most land and marine species will be able to keep pace with the speed of climate change. Around half of the coral reefs may remain; sea level rise may stay below 1 metre; some Arctic sea ice may survive; and more scope for adaptation would exist, especially in agriculture.

Onus on India

It has fallen on Indian experts to remind the world what the implications of reducing the limit to 1.5°C will be. This higher ambition constricts the economies of India and other developing countries by forcing them to cut their emissions further.

According to T. Jayaraman of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, this new target would compel rich nations to ratchet up their funding and provision of technologies to poor countries to undertake higher mitigation measures.

The latest report of  the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says, for a 50% probability of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C, the total carbon dioxide emissions allowed from 2011 till 2100 amount to 550 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has calculated that going by the current “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCS)  of all countries, the world’s emissions  between 2011 and 2025 will total 542 Gt CO2 and for 2011-2030 will add up to 748 Gt CO2.

The world is already set to cross 2.7°C with the current levels of commitments of some 186 countries which submitted their plans at Paris.The US and the EU are estimated to emit 128 Gt CO2 between 2011 and 2030, which amounts to nearly a quarter of the carbon budget. All industrial countries will emit 187 Gt CO2 between 2011 and 2030 – 34% of the total.

India will likely emit only 58 Gt CO2 until 2030 – 10.5% of the available budget of 550 Gt CO2. Even at higher growth rates of GDP (using the figure quoted by the Indian government in its INDC), this may go up to 87 Gt CO2 – 16% of the budget of 550 Gt CO2.

Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General of New Delhi-based Centre for Science & Environment, points out that India’s emissions will be less than half that of rich countries, though India has approximately the same population as all these countries put together. Under the present dispensation, industrial countries will continue to misappropriate the remaining carbon space even in the future, he says.

In an equitable framework, argues Anand Patwardhan of the University of Maryland and IIT Bombay, rich countries will have to reach zero emissions within five to ten years. “In the absence of such commitments, a 1.5°C temperature target would remain a hollow shell – devoid of any real significance,” he says.

The lower temperature target remains a goal to be referred to, not committed to. US President Barack Obama met five of his counterparts from small island countries and spoke of understanding how “vital” their concerns were. The US climate negotiator Todd Stern first said that these concerns were legitimate but later clarified that the US was not in favour of changing the target but retaining it as a desirable objective.

Oxfam International, an NGO known for its commitment to development, said that the summit will not lead to action unless the goals are high, which is why many international organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth International cited the lower target.

Loss and damage

A new issue – the controversial “loss and damage” clause due to climate change – was brought up at the Paris summit. The argument by poor countries is that they should not bear the consequences of the build-up of around 160 years of industrial emissions that lead to events such as the current inundation of Chennai or that of Mumbai in July 2005, partly caused due to climate change.

At every summit, though surprisingly not in Paris, insurance companies have been vociferously drawing attention to their plight because the claims for loss and damage rising exponentially.

While the Paris accord paid lip service to the principle of acknowledging loss and damage, developed countries made sure that they do not have to foot the bill, which can run into billions of dollars year after year. Just the cost of compensating for migration from small island countries, such as Maldives which are likely to go under water in a few years, will be astronomical.

Accepting the 1.5°C limit may come as a convenient tool to assuage the fears of these small vulnerable and least developed nations. The US and EU, along with other developed countries, can claim that they are acknowledging the needs of these vulnerable countries, without making any substantial investments towards this.

Related links:

1. Nature Special: Paris climate talks 2015

2. Nature Video: Paris climate talks: The anatomy of an agreement

3. Nature News: Paris climate pact takes shape in new draft

4. Nature News: Social scientists give climate talks a human touch

5. Nature News: Six issues to watch at the Paris climate talks