U.N. Panel to Study a Cap on Global Warming That May Be Out of Reach

A 195-nation climate summit in Paris in December asked the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for a report in 2018 on limiting warming to just 1.5C. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen/Files

By Alister Doyle and Nina Chestney

OSLO/LONDON, April 11 – Top climate scientists will launch a study this week of how hard it would be to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), although many of them fear it might be too late to reach that level.

The world’s average surface temperatures reached 1C (1.8F) above pre-industrial times in a record-hot 2015. They will rise by 3C (3.6F) or more by 2100 if current trends continue, many projections show.

A 195-nation climate summit in Paris in December asked the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for a report in 2018 on limiting warming to just 1.5C. The IPCC began a three-day meeting in Nairobi on Monday to consider how to do that.

“Do we know how? No. It is definitely a moon shot,” Christiana Figueres, the U.N.’s climate chief, said at a conference in London on Monday.

Paris set a goal of limiting average surface temperatures to “well below” 2C while “pursuing efforts” for 1.5C. Documents prepared for the Nairobi meeting say scientific literature about 1.5C is thin.

Many scientists have barely focused on the 1.5C goal, reckoning it would require unrealistically deep cuts in emissions. Experts say the IPCC will comply with the Paris request, with misgivings.

“I don’t seek how they can say ‘No’,” David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, told Reuters. “But I don’t see how they say ‘Yes’ with a straight face.”

Some IPCC studies suggest 1.5C will be feasible if the world develops low-cost technologies later this century to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Many poor nations, fearing melting ice that will raise sea levels and swamp their coasts, campaign for “1.5 to stay alive”.

“My concern is that the 2018 report may have lots of information about how hard it will be to achieve 1.5C, and relatively little about the benefits,” Myles Allen, a professor at Oxford University, told Reuters.

He noted that countries pushing hardest for the 1.5C limit, including small, low-lying island states such as the Marshall Islands or the Maldives, wanted to stress the advantages.

Limiting warming to 1.5C rather than 2C would limit, for instance, sea level rise, the melt of Arctic sea ice, damage to coral reefs and the acidification of the oceans, according to IPCC studies.

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