Annalena Baerbock
Mojib Latif
Christoph Bals

Climate change – will Paris rescue the 2°C climate target?

Dialogue forum on 24 February 2015

The UN Climate Conference in Paris in December 2015 is to be a milestone. Policymakers aim to limit global warming by the end of the century to two degrees Celsius. Time is running out: if too much time passes, it will become increasingly difficult to observe this limit. What are the odds on binding targets? Are there any alternatives? Green politician Annalena Baerbock, Christoph Bals of Germanwatch and Prof. Mojib Latif from the Kiel Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research came together to discuss these issues.

"The climate problem is a symptom of the fact that the human race does not treat Planet Earth with enough care," explained Latif. If we do not manage to secure our prosperity with significantly fewer resources, we face the threat of catastrophic conditions and food shortages. Climate change is caused by the high CO2 emissions that inevitably result from burning oil, coal and gas and that accumulate over the years in the atmosphere. "Today we have a CO2 content that mankind has never seen before and are in the midst of an experiment with an uncertain outcome," commented the climate expert.

Risk of over-acidified oceans
Latif also does not know exactly how the climate will continue to develop. As a natural scientist, he relies on the facts that are currently available, such as the increase in temperature and sea levels, and also on models that predict warmer temperatures. "We have to live with the inherent uncertainty of the models, but we're taking a big risk if we don't change our behaviour." Latif does not dispute the commonly raised criticism of the models. "The fact that the temperature increase has slowed down in the past 15 years is due to natural climate fluctuations." The warmest year on record was 2014 and there is no change in sight for 2015. "There is another problem that is often overlooked," the ocean expert pointed out. "The increasing acidification of the oceans by the CO2 from the atmosphere. As a result, the calcification of shells, crabs and calcareous algae is in danger, and the organisms are dying off. "As they are at the beginning of the food chain, the global food supply is also threatened.

As regards the climate negotiations in Paris, the climate expert appeared sceptical: a possible agreement will first come into force in 2020. "This is all far too slow for me. I don't think we have this amount of time to avoid exceeding the two degree limit. Each year that we lose makes the reduction more difficult."

The taboo issue of coal-fired power plants
"With the upcoming climate summit in Paris, the interest in climate change that was for a long time pushed into the background seems to be growing again," advised Baerbock. In general, however, the politicians are struggling with the issue. "If we want to keep our promise to achieve a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 to below the levels of 1990, we would actually have to take coal-fired power plants from the grid. However, no-one dares mentions this necessity," admitted the climate policy spokeswoman for BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN. Nevertheless, targets are also important for ensuring that the discussion proceeds at all. Baerbock also does not believe that a binding agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol with its CO2 reduction targets will be adopted in Paris. "The best thing that can happen is that the states will continue to commit to the two-degree target and explain what they are willing to deliver." These commitments should then be reviewed and readjusted in five-year intervals.

Christoph Bals made clear how much depends on the two-degree limit: "It was only the largely stable climate of the past 10,000 years that provided the basis for human coexistence on our planet. If we now catapult ourselves from this stable equilibrium, we must expect severe consequences." Like Baerbock, he also advised against expecting too much of Paris. "The goals of the climate conferences are huge undertakings because the global prosperity model is based on fossil fuels. Rebuilding it requires a marathon and not a sprint. "We should not indulge in the illusion that one climate summit can turn the tide. It is more realistic to organise a minimum consensus. "I hope that with Paris we are moving towards a path that at least comes closer to the two-degree target," said the political CEO of Germanwatch. What makes him optimistic is that renewable energies can now compete with fossil fuels. This opens up completely new opportunities. "Last year, 70% of global spending for energy development was invested in renewables, only 30% in fossil fuels," explained the political expert. 

Rejection of geo-engineering approaches
The snail's pace of the international negotiations is decidedly too slow for Latif. Even if we stop all CO2 emissions today, the temperature would still continue to rise by about 0.5 degrees in the coming decades. "The solutions are on the table, it's just the will alone that is lacking, and ultimately it's all about money." With sufficient funds, the problem would be solved in ten to fifteen years, he is convinced. At the same time, he warned against geoengineering methods such as the underground storage of CO2. "It's not safe enough in my opinion, and it reduces the efficiency of power plants. Such methods impede the requisite structural changes."

For Baerbock, the climate conferences resemble the disarmament conferences. "There too, progress only advances in tiny steps. However, no one would suggest ending the talks as a consequence." Even the climate negotiations make continuous progress. And we must not forget that the industrialised countries have pledged to increase their payments into the different climate funds to 100 billion dollars annually by 2020. This will allow the least developed countries to adapt better to the impacts of climate change. If the climate negotiations were to be shelved, then such commitments would become redundant and technology transfer would come to a standstill.

Regulation needed
For the Green Party member of the Bundestag it is clear that climate change cannot be accomplished without limitations, such as on individual mobility, and without decoupling growth from CO2 emissions. "Without regulatory policies, it will not work, appeals alone are not enough." The costs threatening us from climate-related natural disasters must also be factored in. The one-sided focus on the costs of climate change and the energy turnaround is simply wrong.

Bals pins her hopes on the formation of pioneer alliances at the most diverse levels and the development of strategies to curb climate change. Such as Germany's energy policy. "If we as an industrial nation can assert the energy turnaround as a successful model, this will have a huge impact on others." The turnaround in Germany can achieve historic dimensions.

The key to sustainable, climate-friendly energy production lies in the renewable energy sources. And even if the Paris summit does not bring about a turning point in the climate negotiations, it will hopefully create the conditions to save the Earth from a heat collapse.

The next dialogue forum on 3 March will address the question of "Floods, drought, storms - are we prepared?".
CB, 5 March 2015