Modifying the 2°C Target: Climate Policy Objectives in the Contested Terrain of Scientific Policy Advice, Political Preferences, and Rising Emissions

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Series Details No. 5, June 2013
Publication Date June 2013
ISSN 1863-1053
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In the 20 years since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted, progress in global climate policy has been modest. Annual greenhouse gas emissions have increased by over one-third since 1992. Acute conflicts of interest remain a persistent obstacle. One of the few points of general consensus in the international community is on the overarching objective of limiting the temperature increase to two degrees Celsius.

If one is to accept key recommendations from scientific policy advisors, emissions will have to be reduced significantly between 2010 and 2020 to stay below the 2°C limit. Yet given that global emissions trends are moving in the opposite direction and will be impossible to reverse in a matter of a few years, this goal is patently unrealistic. And since a target that is obviously unattainable cannot fulfill either a positive symbolic function or a productive governance function, the primary target of international climate policy will have to be modified.

The express aim of this paper is to stand apart from the innumerable studies detailing theoretically possible measures to avoid crossing the 2°C threshold. Instead, it provides the first systematic analysis of possible options for modifying the 2°C target. A particular focus is placed here on the relationship between climate science and climate policy.

Since the EU brought the objective into the climate policy arena, the modification of the 2°C target carries the risk of damaging the EU's public image. Furthermore, it would lead to a debate over the easing of the EU's internal emissions reduction objectives which are directly derived from the 2°C target. This could become a highly controversial issue in the coming years, when the EU has to decide on its legally binding emissions target for 2030.

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