Who controls the numbers? Small Island Survival, 350ppm & 1.5°C

What difference can a degree or two make? Well the answer, as I’m sure that you will know is a lot. The image below taken from the IPCC’s fourth assessment report (AR4) gives a simple (although now out of date) picture of what a degree means.

The impacts and extent of climate change is subtle and effects unevenly distributed, a degree for one country such as the UK or the US may not be an existential crisis but for people living in small island developing states (SIDS) is certainly is. These states, drawn from all oceans and regions of the world: Africa, Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Pacific and South China Sea make up 5% of the world’s population and a great proportion of the worlds cultural diversity. It’s no secret that these states are the most vulnerable to climate change but for these countries the numbers that are negotiated literally in no uncertain terms mean the life of death of their homeland, and their culture. At Copenhagen some of the most moving and courageous speeches were made by these states and I would urge you to take a look at the following two speeches by Tuvalu and The Maldives who have fought the corner for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) for a long time.

These are some of the issues such states have to deal with:

  • Sea level rise: many islands are only a few meters above sea level with precious little fresh water. Coasts are only able to adapt so slow levels of sea level change.
  • Many islands are made exclusively of coral reefs on top of old sea mountains (Atolls). These islands rely on coral reefs for food (Fish) and protection from erosion. When corals are physically stressed they kick out the algae that feed them and die. This is known as bleaching and happens when they are too hot, or don’t get enough light. In addition corals skeletons rely on how acidic the oceans are. Changes in the oceans from increased CO2 in the atmosphere may stop skeletons of corals growing or even cause them to dissolve.
  • Many islands in the Caribbean the Indian and the Pacific Ocean lie in tropical storm track (hurricanes = Atlantic, typhoons = Indian, cyclones = Pacific). These storms cause great damage and loss of life, for example in Haiti last year.

For them numbers matter in a big way, the two big ones being 350ppm CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere and 1.5°C. Today I was lucky enough to attend a very interesting side event (A meeting about a topic not directly involved in the UNFCCC talks) by the prestigious Potsdam Institute for climate change. The event was focused on the 1.5°C limit which is largely thought of as the survival limit for small island states as well as for the livelihoods for low-lying deltaic countries such as Bangladesh. This event was amazing because it summarised the latest published and yet to be published research on the feasibility of a 1.5°C limit (i.e. what we can and cannot emit), the economic cost of achieving this world, the impacts of not doing so as well as the current direction of negotiations. Literally a commentary on the future of the home for over 0.3 billion people held in a room with less than 25 people present, mostly NGO representatives and a few members from delegations.

Here’s the gist of what I heard.

Currently the Copenhagen Accord fails to come close to the 50% chance of achieving the 2°C target agreed in the document (see previous post). It’s hard to see how this will get better if a bottom up approach to emissions reductions (countries set their own targets) is adopted in the long-term as advocated by the USA and other Annex I (developed) countries.

The Potsdam Institute has been working on global emissions pathways that would enable small islands to survive, they call these the 1.5°C/350 scenario and the Star Wars-like ICP-3pD scenario (soon to be published in the Energy Journal). The first will peak at 1.5°C with 350ppm in the atmosphere some time after 2100. The second is slightly higher, in the 400′s. What they found is that the only way these are possible is using negative emissions. That’s right, actually sucking CO2 from the air before the end of the century. This may sound silly but its possible if we burn plant material then place it underground using CCS (see this free paper for more detail) and its thought this will be technically possible, think I-phone technology curve or jet engines. Another example is the rapid development and spread of the wind industry by the Danish Government, current world leader in the sector. In fact they did the maths and found that these carbon negative scenarios would cost economies roughly 1-2 years growth in 100 years. Less than the occasional banking crisis! However for this to be possible emissions must peak before 2020 and then fall on average 3-4% per year, still perfectly doable you would think.

However, no matter how many times AOSIS puts 350ppm or 1.5°C into the negotiating text, developed countries remove them using the argument that they are unfeasible or impossible or too costly (Ahem… Johnathan Pershing of the USA). Now this is where it gets interesting, who’s doing their modeling? Well their own research institutions of course (Stanford). Today we were told otherwise by top scientists and economists, we were also told that in fact the models quoted by the US government were designed not to be able to incorporate negative emissions, i.e. the model limits make it physically impossible to evaluate 1.5°C. That’s not the same as 1.5°C being physically impossible or too expensive as the US and company like to claim. Maybe they are just naive, however I think not, this is a clear example of the battle over scientific information affecting the negotiations. In other words who’s scientific advice is better? Academic Imperialism might be another description. In our interviews for FIG so far we have already heard about the lack of research institutions in developing countries being a problem. It seems here that science and the results of research institutions are being exploited in a partisan way, which although hardly unexpected is rather sinister considering that it is being used to justify the wiping of so many peoples livelihoods from the earth. Here is another rather glaring information gap, an inequality in scientific advice and for that matter scientific institutions. It’s important that this counter message gets out, it can be done and it is affordable but only if we act now with global emissions peaking before 2020. 1.5°c and 350ppm are the only desirable targets with the added benefit that the European 2°C target would then have a 95% probablility of being met.

Here’s the possible future for SIDS without it:

2C: Corals may no longer grow. Hurricane numbers drop but strength increases. El Nino increases and so does the economic ruin it causes.  Sea level rises of 2-5m by 2300, 1m by 2100. Changes is ecosystems etc etc.

You get the picture.

When you are here and you speak to individuals, the sometimes inaccessible, unemotive numbers suddenly have gravity. They can make you heart heavy and your stomach drop. Today upon asking a female delegate from Micronesia how she felt she replied in a horribly resigned manner “I think we are pretty screwed” the sad thing is that about sums up the situation. Academic inequality (the knowledge gap) is taking 1.5C off the negotiating table and it’s just not on.

Sam writes for UNfair Play a collection of climate campaigners who volunteer for the most vulnerable and under-represented nations at UNFCCC conferences. Read more about their experiences at UNfairPlay.info.

2 Responses to “Who controls the numbers? Small Island Survival, 350ppm & 1.5°C”

  1. Harold Forbes


    Nice post and it highlights some of the very real difficulties in the negotiations. My belief is we need to start focusing on the need to shift our shared imagination that this problem is actually solvable; all we need to do is agree to solve it. That is more difficult than it appears because we are asking people to make changes today that they themselves may not see any benefit from but it really does strike right to the heart of what it is to be a human. The problem lies with our social and financial systems that tell us that destroying the future is “rational” behaviour. My belief is that the only rational response to that is to change the system.

    Harold Forbes is Author of “How to be a Humankind Superhero: a manifesto for individuals to reclaim a safe climate”. Read chapter summaries at http://www.hksuper.com or download the complete first chapter at http://bit.ly/freehksk

  2. Madeleine

    Just in case people haven’t heard of 350.org – join the global movement shouting 350 loud & clear.

    International day of action on 10/10/10.

    For many even 350 won’t be low enough, but it’d be a very good start!


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)