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The Two-Degree Delusion - The Dangers of an Unrealistic Climate Change
The Two-Degree Delusion
The Dangers of an Unrealistic Climate Change Target
By Ted Nordhaus, February 8th 2018
Global carbon emissions rose again in 2017, disappointing hopes that the
previous three years of
near zero growth marked an inflection point in the fight against climate
change. Advocates
of renewable energy had attributed flat emissions to the falling cost of
solar panels. Energy
efficiency devotees had seen in the pause proofthat economic activity had
been decoupled from
energy consumption. Advocates of fossil fuel divestment had posited that
the carbon bubble had
finally burst.
Analysts who had attributed the pause to slower economic growth in a number
of parts of the world,
especially China, were closer to the truth. The underlying fundamentals of
the energy economy,
after all, remained mostly unchanged—there had been no step change in
either the energy efficiency
of the global economy or the share of energy production that clean energy
accounted for. And sure
enough, as growth picked up, emissions started to tick back up again as
Even during the pause, it was clear that the world wasn’t making much
progress toward avoiding
significant future climate change. To significantly alter the trajectory of
sea level changes or most
other climate impacts in this century or the next, emissions would not just
have to peak; they would
have to fall precipitously. Yet what progress the world has made to cut
global emissions has been,
under even the most generous assumptions, incremental.
But at the latest climate talks in Bonn last fall, diplomats once again
ratified a long-standing
international target of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius above
preindustrial levels. This
despite being unable to commit to much beyond what was already agreed at
the Paris meeting two
years ago, when negotiators reached a nominal agreement on nonbinding
Intended Nationally
Determined Contributions, which would result in temperatures surpassing
three degrees above
preindustrial levels before the end of this century.
Forty years after it was first proposed, the two-degree target continues to
maintain a talismanic hold
over global efforts to address climate change, despite the fact that
virtually all sober
analyses conclude that the target is now unobtainable. Some advocates still
insist that with sufficient
political will, the target can be met. Others recognize that although the
goal is practically
unachievable, it represents an aspiration that might motivate the world to
reduce emissions further
and faster than it would otherwise. For still others, the target remains
within reach if everyone gets
serious about removing carbon from the atmosphere or hacking the atmosphere
in order to buy
more time.
But it is worth considering the consequences of continuing to pursue a goal
that is no longer
obtainable. Some significant level of future climate impact is probably
unavoidable. Sustaining the
fiction that the two-degree target remains viable risks leaving the world
ill prepared to mitigate or
manage the consequences.

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