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2°C: 'We have a 5 percent chance of success'

Charlotta Lomas
November 16, 2017

Climate scientist Kevin Anderson is one of the world's leading authorities on carbon budgets. He told DW keeping global warming below 2 degrees is a choice — but it's one we have to make it fast.

Kohlekraftwerk in China
Image: picture alliance/dpa

DW: So what is our carbon budget? How much have we spent and how much do we have left?

Kevin Anderson: Our carbon budget is the total amount of carbon dioxide we can put in the atmosphere that brings about a certain average temperature for the whole planet. The faster we use it up now, the less we have to spend later. So it's a little bit like having your month's salary. Globally, at the moment we are spending incredibly quickly. We're using all of our carbon dioxide like there is no tomorrow at the moment, and we're not going to make it to the end of the month, as if we were someone frittering our money away on too many expensive dinners, a big fancy car, that sort of thing.

The Global Carbon Budget 2017 was published this week. I understand it's not good news?

Kevin Anderson
Anderson says a world without fossil fuels is possibleImage: privat

No, it's not. The latest data has shown that after the last three years, which have been almost stable — there was a plateau at a very high level — this year emissions look like they've gone back up again by about 2 percent. That's quite a big increase really when we should be coming down at probably near a 10 percent every single year.

What's the cause of the increase?

Some people will argue that China the main cause of this increase because they're burning a bit more coal. This depends on how you look at the issue. I own a MacBook that was made in China, probably using energy powered by coal. I don't think we should necessarily say it's all China's fault. The West basically has basically off-shored industry and we expect poorer countries with lower labor rights, lower pay and lower environmental conditions to make these goods for us. And then we blame them when the emissions go up. I think that's morally suspect.

You believe we can live without fossil fuels. What would that look like?

Well, firstly most people in the world use very little fossil fuels. So for a lot of people, actually it may not be such a huge shift. I think we could shift towards distributed renewable energy in many of the poorer parts of the world. Sometimes bringing in localized forms of renewable power might be very, very effective and actually much cheaper than using diesel generators. And I think that should be significantly funded by voters in the West that have caused the problem.

Then there's maybe 20 percent of people who are responsible for most of the emissions, and they will see significant changes to their lifestyles. I think they will see some big shifts in what they would call their status. So they have to re-evaluate what that looks like. And then there's the people in the middle. They have to make some changes, but some technical adjustments in types of energy will help them.

Datenvisualisierung ENGLISH Carbon Budget

Do you think it's still possible to reach the target of below 1.5 degrees?

I think it is just about possible to hold two to 2 degrees C of warming. But let's also be clear that 2 degrees of warming is a global average. Two degrees centigrade of warming will be dangerous, if not deadly, for some people around the world and we shouldn't see it as a safe threshold. But I think now that's about the best that we can hope for.

Unless we're incredibly lucky with these new negative emission technologies — which don't yet exist — which we hope will suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in the future, unless they work — and no one really thinks are going to work at huge scale — then I think 1.5 degrees centigrade is no longer viable. I find that really quite depressing to say because many people would benefit if we could set 1.5 rather than 2 degrees centigrade. All I can say is, my deepest apologies and sympathy. The West should have done much more.

What are our chances of keeping within the 2-degree limit?

I think our chances of failure are about 95 percent. I think we're going to hell in a handcart. But that 5 percent isn't a random chance. That 5 percent is a choice. Realistically, unless emissions start coming down very rapidly in the next three or four years — I mean very rapidly indeed — then I think we will fail on 2 degrees centigrade of warming.

We have we have a handful of years to make some very rapid and radical changes. We know what we need to do. We know it's all of our responsibility to engage with this. We have everything at our fingertips to solve this problem. We have chosen to fail so far but we could choose to succeed.

Kevin Anderson is professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester in the UK. He also leads the energy and climate change research program at the Tyndall Center, the UK's leading academic climate change research organization and a leading expert on climate budgets.

The interview was conducted by Charlotta Lomas. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.