Temperature goal the major sticky issue in COP21



PARIS, France - The climate change summit has been extended into the week as negotiators from 195 countries try to wrangle the final text of the global accord.

Perhaps the most contentious issue is the shift to a 1.5 degrees Celsius global temperature target in the final agreement, instead of the 2 degrees that was formally adopted in 2010.

The warming goal, experts said, has the potential to derail the talks should governments fail to agree on a number.

Small, low-lying island nations and those at risk from extreme weather events and climate impacts, like the Philippines, are pushing for the new proposal target of 1.5 degrees as they see it as an issue of death and survival.

"We cannot go back to Manila with such a weak text that condemns many of our people to hardship, even death," said Philippine Climate Change Commission Secretary Emmanuel De Guzman in an informal consultation. "By necessity, that means we also require an agreement that makes the under 1.5 temperature goal possible, with a mitigation goal that ensures full decarbonization by 2050."

The Philippines, which leads the advocacy group Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) composed of 30 small island nations, is being supported now by more than 110 countries in pushing for the 1.5 degrees goal.

President Aquino formally delivered the CVF's Manila-Paris Declaration calling for the full decarbonization of the world economy.

Cautious optimism
"We are cautiously optimistic that we will reach an agreement acceptable to all," said Philippine delegation spokesperson Antonio La Viña. "The main red line now in the current text is to keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius option that is there and to take away the liability and compensation exclusion in loss and damage."

For the rich and industrialized countries, this may require deep and painful carbon emission cuts from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, for instance, refused to back the target.

The latest draft of the agreement being discussed includes the passage "holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius."

Economist and climate expert of the World Bank Lord Nicholas Stern hopes that the Paris accord would move towards the low-carbon economy direction and that science "is very clear about the risks, the intense risks of climate change."

Extreme weather scenarios
"For climate-vulnerable countries like the Philippines, I think they have made a clear statement that we need to set the below-1.5 degrees target. We are seeing extreme weather scenarios now. It shows the recognition of the real dangers of climate change. That is why they have been pushing hard for it. So I think the Philippines and so many small islands have done a good job because we did not know that the 1.5 degrees would be there," Stern said.

In 2006, Stern released a report on the economics of climate change, where he stated that "the costs of inaction would be much bigger than the costs of action" if the issue of climate change is left unresolved.

Science tells it all
Scientists warned that even 2 degrees of warming remains dangerous for the planet. Earth has already warmed nearly 1 degrees Celsius.

"A 1.5 degrees C warming would be safe for small island states and least developed countries, but it means getting to zero emissions globally by 2050 to have a fair chance of achieving this goal. So by the time we leave Paris, every country should set up a plan to decarbonize its economy," Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said in a press briefing here.

Political aspiration
A 2 degrees Celsius target is a political aspiration, said Johan Rockstrom, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience center. "This is not just about limiting temperature rise but also maintaining the resilience and integrity of carbon sinks, such as the oceans and forests."

"We need global decarbonization. The language of 'greenhouse gas neutrality' opens up the possibility of relying on massive carbon sinks while continuing to burn fossil fuels. This is a very risky future. The national climate action plans forwarded by more than 180 countries need to be reviewed very regularly every two or three years," Rockstrom said.

According to Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall center for Climate Change Research, the draft agreement "is weaker than Copenhagen," adding that governments are putting billions of people and the integrity of the planet "between dangerous and deadly."

The UN climate change talks in Copenhagen was deemed a failure as the accord did not contain commitments to emissions reduction that aims to achieve the agreed 2 degrees temperature limit.

Reducing demand
"If we're serious about a 1.5 degree framing, we need to seriously think about reducing demand. Around 50 percent of global carbon emissions come from 10 percent of the population," Anderson explained. "There are huge opportunities to reduce demand, but it needs to be reduced by people who are high emitters."

For climate scientist Joeri Rogelj from the Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, there is a need for global peak of emissions by 2020 to limit warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"Overshooting would rely on the possibility to extract carbon from the atmosphere on a massive scale. Urgent action is needed to hedge against risks," Rogelj stressed.

In the latest rounds of negotiations, French foreign minister and president of the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) Laurent Fabius said countries were optimistic about compromise and that the final draft of the agreement would be presented any time on Saturday.

In the middle of the on-going negotiations, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon briefly talked to international journalists and said that "this is most complicated, most difficult but most important for humanity."

Activists clamor for climate action
Outside the negotiation halls, climate activists from various civil society groups were staging numerous 'silent' demonstrations to pressure countries in coming up with a robust, acceptable and universal climate change agreement.

"We do not want a doomed scenario. The time to act and find solution together as nations is now," said Kumi Naidoo, International Director of Greenpeace. "We need to make a systematic change. We are seeing billions of people already suffering due to climate impacts like sea level rise and extreme weather events. I think our governments need to rethink on this issue."

Drastic systemic change
"Limiting warming to 1.5°C means nothing less than a drastic and systemic change in worldwide energy consumption and pollution. However, we are still on track for three or more degrees of warming, even if all national climate plans were actually implemented," said Gerry Arances, coordinator of the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice.

"We need to establish a global carbon budget that will fairly prescribe dates of when emissions must peak and stop for all countries. And we do not want greenhouse gas emissions neutrality if it is another euphemism for net-zero emissions, or for land-grabbing, offsetting and geo-engineering," he added.

Tasneem Essop, WWF's head of delegation to the UN climate talks in Paris, said, "The climate talks are racing toward the finish line. The current draft could be stronger, but the door is still open to increase ambition over time. The clock is ticking and ministers need to resolve the final outstanding issues."