In race against time: Why the 1.5C temperature goal matters to climate-vulnerable countries

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MANILA— Are the world leaders prepared to galvanize strong action on climate change?


In about three months from now, all eyes are on Morocco for the next international climate summit, also known as the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22). Last year’s meeting in Paris was considered as a huge milestone in the world’s effort to tackle global response to climate change. All 196 countries adopted a goal to keep the rise of temperature well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.


In November, nations will meet in Marrakech, known as The Red City, to agree on the details of the Paris Agreement. It might not attract as much high-level political interest and celebrities, but for climate action, it will be much more important.


“ In the next climate talks, we need to clarify and make sure that the Paris Agreement is translated into action. We need to see to it that the 1.5 C goal is still possible. So all nations must then focus on how we should deliver our commitments,” said Shiferaw Teklemariam Menbacho, Ethiopia’s Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which chairs a group of 43 climate-vulnerable nations called the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF). The group, which represents over one billion people from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific, insist on a long-term goal for 1.5 degrees Celsius or lower.


But along the way, it will be a rocky ride.


Early this month, the 2015 State of Climate Report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed that 2015 was the hottest year on record, and the annual global surface temperature was over 1 degree warmer than the average. The considerable warmth, protracted strong El Nino, and new record levels of greenhouse gases provided climatological highlights for the year.


The report, which was based on the work of over 450 climate scientists and meteorologists in 62 countries, also showed that the global sea level hits record high and continues to rise at approximately 3.3 millimeters a year.


This study would likely add to the on-going debate over climate policies such as the Paris Agreement.


This week, government officials and scientists convened by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC) are holding a meeting in Geneva to start assessing the scientific and economic viability of avoiding global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The findings are yet to be published in 2018.


At the G20 summit next month, climate change and clean energy at are the top agenda of the leaders of the world’s largest economies. G20 countries represent roughly 80 percent of global GDP and roughly 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.


“ The summit must include a commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies no later than 2025. It must scale-up financing, moving away from polluting, inefficient activities towards climate action,” according to the World Resource Institute. “ If all G20 countries agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement before the end of the year, ensuring its entry into force before the upcoming political transitions in the United States and China, is another significant indicator.”




Grappling with the impacts: 1.5C vs 2C


Climate scientists have pointed out in many studies that the world is already 1 degrees Celsius and we are already experiencing significant climate impacts.


For countries such as the Philippines, Maldives, Vanuatu and other small, low-lying islands, lower temperature target means survival. For millions of people, climate change is also a human rights issue, threat to human security.


“ We are seeing a stark increase in risks and we are experiencing substantial damage from the effects of climate change like fiercer typhoons and sea level rise. The lives of our people are at stake if we don’t act together to solve this climate crisis. We need to do something in order for humanity to survive,” said Maldives Minister of State for Environment and Energy Abdullahi Majeed, who was in the Philippines to participate in the Climate Vulnerable Forum leadership event.


Majeed said the average height of small countries like Maldives is only 1.2 meters above sea level, making it more challenging for the people in the islands to survive.


According to the Climate Analytics, a nonprofit Germany-based climate science and policy institute, the 1.5 degrees limit is “technically and economically feasible to achieve” but urgent emission reductions are needed, requiring political will and engagement.


The rapidly changing climate become clearer and clearer, and that it is far worse than is currently projected, according to Mary Jane Mace from the Climate Analytics.


In her presentation before some ministers and senior government officials of the member countries of the CVF, Mace said the difference in impacts even between 1.5 degrees C and 2 degrees C of warming is significant due to the following points:


  • Tipping points – a 1.5 C limit in temperature in increase would reduce the risk of crossing tipping points for the Earth’s system. These include: irreversible melting of the polar ice sheets and glaciers, leading to multi-meter sea level rise; dieback of tropical and boreal forests, permafrost collapse leading to methane releases that enhance warming;
  • Survival of some of the world’s tropical coral reefs is only assured by limiting warming to below 1.5°C; disappearance is virtually certain at 2°C due to temperature induced bleaching;
  • Unique and threatened system risks and extreme weather event risks increase from moderate to high between 1.5°C and 2°C;
  • Extreme precipitation events - intensity likely to increase globally with warming between 1.5°C and 2°C above pre industrial levels;
  • Crop yield projections - higher reductions in crop yield are projected over tropical land area for wheat and maize for 2°C increase;
  • Arctic ecosystems - only a warming of well below 2 °C may ensure that significant areas of end-of-summer sea-ice remain in the Arctic.


Mace said the first key step to limiting global emissions to their peak and starting reduction toward zero is rapid replacement of fossil fuel energy sources with renewables. Another is the significant improvement in energy efficiency in key sectors like transport, industry and buildings to reduce the overall primary energy needs.




A stronger voice for climate vulnerable nations


Only though increasing ambition, working collectively on climate change can the global community ensure the protection of the people across the world, said Philippines’ Climate Change Commission Vice Chair Emmanuel de Guzman.


“ We must deliver. We need to translate our commitments into action and that’s what we must do post-Paris era. We are elated that the voice of the vulnerable countries are increasingly visible and dynamic,” De Guzman said.

On Monday formally turned over the CVF presidency to the minister of Ethiopia after days of high-level leadership meetings in the Philippines.


Through the leadership of the Philippines in the past climate negotiations, the 1.5C goal advocacy was adopted in the Paris Agreement. It was also able to increase the CVF member countries from 20 to 43 climate-vulnerable nations, and garnered the support of more than 100 countries in support to the 1.5C goal. The Philippines is also putting up a South-South Center of Excellence for climate information and services that will benefit the most vulnerable nations to climate change.


“ Countries look up to the Philippines for its climate leadership. We showed to the world that the voice of climate-vulnerable countries is very strong, very clear. The influence of the Philippines should be astounding to a lot of officials of the Duterte administration considering how influencing our country is in the climate talks,” said Renato Redentor Constantino, executive director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC). “ The clamor is for the Philippine leadership to continue because of the way we redefine the objectives of climate action.”


Constantino said he sees the continuing role of the Philippines in Marrakech as a leader of climate action leading the most vulnerable countries.


Indeed, COP22 in Marrakech is all about action and implementation. Critical decisions must be discussed to ensure the implementation of the Paris Agreement, and that the concerns of climate-vulnerable countries are addressed. It is important that all nations are on board to decide on the fate of the planet.