On 1.5 degrees C…

13 December, 2022

Colin Nolden

Reading time: 7 minutes

Is it too late to reach the 1.5 degree target set out in the Paris Agreement? Colin Nolden finds it hard to remain optimistic…

Try booking a train on Boxing Day in the UK and you’ll soon find out that none are running. Well, not entirely. One small railway line managed by indomitable Gauls still holds out: The Eurostar. And airports are still being served as planes are still flying. Obvs.

If this is not just the present, but also our future, then Mia MottleyOpens in a new tab, Prime Minister of Barbados, is right: “We’re at 1.2 degrees now. If in 5 years we’re at 1.5, then we’re… we’re… I won’t use that word now.”

Her statement on Day 1 of COP27 encapsulates the frustration of many attendees and observers before, during and after the event. 5-lane motorways were hastily constructed in the run-up to motor delegates to the brand new conference centre plonked in the desert on the edge of Sharm el-Sheikh, which itself is an entirely artificially irrigated holiday resort for those who worship heat, Botox, and carcinogenic tans. The opening days of the conference itself were marred with water and food shortages – all of which appeared to be flown in (water bottled in Italy!) for the duration of the event. The venue was cooled by gigantic air conditioning units with not a solar panel in sight.

Yet little attention was paid to lowering energy demand and resource use, which according to the IPCC is the most cost-effective, timely, and lowest-risk option to decarbonise. Instead, the net-zero pledges of most countries contain a range of supply technologies which have yet to demonstrate their contribution to decarbonisation at scale. Some petrostates suggest that as much as three quarters of their primary energy demand will be zero carbon in 2050 by capturing emissions using Carbon Capture and Storage. However, current Carbon Capture and Storage and Direct Air Capture capacities amount to around 4 hours of global emissions and are projected to amount to around 16 hours in 2030, according to Sven Teske from the University of Technology Sydney.

At the same time, poor countries (Least Developed Countries – LDCs) borrow at 12-14% while rich countries (the G7) borrow at 1-4% because the World Bank uses per capita income as a proxy for borrowing conditions. According to Indian economist Joyashree Roy, LDCs need 7% growth per year to escape their plight but if they are borrowing at +10% cost of capital, this growth will not be powered by renewables. Africa in particular is in desperate need of clean development. Africa is responsible for only 4% of global emissions (and 2% of historic emissions) but home to 600m without access to electricity.

According to Joyashree, demand-side interventions are necessary to shift investment patterns and create new economic opportunities that are synergistic with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But all this depends on infrastructure access and empowerment to make the right choices, which in turn are determined by the flow of finance. To put us on track for 1.5C, these flows need to quadruple to $4-6trn per year, according to Macky Sall, Senegalese President and current Chairperson of the African Union. IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee, goes one step further: access to capital is the key determinant of limiting global warming to 1.5C. Concessional access to finance was provided during COVID, as Mia Mottley pointed out, so why can it not be provided to prevent climate catastrophe?

On the plus side, outgoing COP26 President Alok Sharma suggests that 90% of global emissions are covered by a net-zero target. Almost 1/3rd of the global population who accumulate 55% of global GDP are covered by Emissions Trading Schemes, according to Stefano de Clara, Head of the International Carbon Action Partnership. Then again, the current average carbon price stands at $6/t. This needs to increase to $75/t by 2030 to limit warming to 2C, not to mention 1.5C, according to Dora Benedek from the International Monetary Fund.

To keep 1.5C alive, we need to reduce emissions by 30-50% by 2030 (Dora Benedek again). Without a massive increase in the cost of carbon, emissions are expected to be only 12% (6GtCO2eq) lower in 2030 compared to today. But focussing on the cost of carbon is not sufficient to foster a just transition. To achieve this, we need to focus on both the inside and the outside of Kate Raworth’s famous doughnut.

On the outside, quick wins are possible regarding methane emissions which are responsible for around 0.4C of the 1.2C we stand above pre-industrial levels. Around 0.1C of warming can be addressed by cutting gas flaring and coal related methane emissions at no cost, according to US Deputy Climate Envoy Richard Duke. Addressing such emissions also deliver invaluable co-benefits on the inside of the doughnut. 15% of all deaths (7million a year) are due to polluted air, according to Jane Burston of the Clean Air Fund. Companies are having to pay a pollution premium to attract talent to polluted cities.

To allocate the $100bn – a finance pledged in Paris which never materialised – as well as the trillions needed to implement NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) and SDGs, Heike Henn, of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, proposes using Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Although its rulebook was finalised at COP26 in Glasgow, of its three mechanisms, Articles 6.2, 6.4 and 6.8, only the first is currently operational.

Article 6.2 enables the bilateral exchange of carbon credits (Internationally Transferrable Mitigation Outcome – ITMO) by selling them from a transferring partner to an acquiring partner. The former subsequently needs to adjust its reported emissions upwards, as it can no longer claim this emission reduction itself. The latter needs to adjust its reported emissions downwards, as it can now claim this emission reduction which has been purchased at a cost. However, what we are already seeing is poor countries (transferring partners) lowering their ambition in their NDCs as they cannot achieve an overall reduction in emissions and simultaneously make money by selling these emission reductions using Article 6.2.

Figure 1: Article 6.2 enables exchange of carbon credits (Internationally Transferable Mitigation Outcome – ITMO). Transferring partners sell carbon credits and adjust reported emissions upwards. Acquiring partners receive carbon credits and adjusts reported emissions downwards. However, poor countries are lowering their NDC ambitions as they are unable to simultaneously reduce emissions and capitalise on selling carbon credits through Article 6.2.

Article 6.4, in contrast, has the potential to increase ambition if countries form alliances and agree on a sharing mechanism to convert the 1.5C target into demand for mitigation action distributed dynamically among alliance members over time. If it is operationalised as a tool to achieve higher ambition within such an alliance according to Article 6.1, it can support the application of the CBDR-RC (Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities) principle according to Article 2.2 and verify the achievement of mitigation ambitions according to Article 13. “Getting to net-zero is a heroic task”, according to Dirk Forrister of the International Emissions Trading Association, “and you won’t get there by going alone”. As I’m writing, Article 6.4’s infrastructure is already being developed. The Climate Action Data Trust, for example, can significantly lower transaction costs of carbon market transactions through automated Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV) and tokenisation to create digital carbon assets.

Where does this leave 1.5C? “I find it hard to stay optimistic”, said Nicola Sturgeon on day 1 of COP27. I echo this sentiment. Yet we need to remind ourselves that the combined net-zero targets, if implemented, can limit warming to 1.7C and increase, yes INCREASE, global GDP by 0.4% per year, according to Fatih Birol from the IEA. By investing in infrastructures which lower energy and material demand, for example by improving building fabric, switching to electric heating, prioritising public transport over private mobility, and by taxing the most polluting lifestyle choices such as flying, we can make progress on both sides of Kate Raworth’s doughnut and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Banner photo credit: Garidy Sanders on Unsplash