UN open letter warns it's time to act to keep global warming under 2° Celsius

Ilario D'Amato
Reading time: 3 minutes
28 August 2014

LONDON: An open letter from a UN organization and signed by The Climate Group, warns leaders gathering in New York in a less than a month, that they must urgently act to keep global warming under 2° Celsius.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN), a UN organization in support of sustainable development problem solving, has addressed an open letter to world leaders calling to act now to restrain the increase in the Earth's global average surface temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (°C) - equivalent to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) - above the preindustrial level.

Mark Kember, CEO at The Climate Group, is one of the signatories of the call, along with HSC Prince Albert II, Prince of Monaco, and prominent scientists and CEOs from around the world.

The statement is intended for world leaders that will convene at the UN Climate Summit on September 23, 2014 in New York. Climate Week NYC, an international event focused on driving policies and business solutions for a low carbon economy and convened by The Climate Group, is the collaborative space for all related events in support of the Climate Summit. 

Since 1850, global temperature has risen by about 0.8°C, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report 2013. The report states that the analysis of the 'Global Combined Land and Sea Surface Temperature' shows that the warming from 1850–1900 to the decade 2003–2012 has increased between 0.72°C and 0.85°C.

Global temperatures - WG1AR5 chapter 2

Image courtesy of IPCC - Annual global mean surface temperature (GMST) anomalies, from WG1AR5 chapter 2

An increase of less than 1°C could appear harmless but Guido Schmidt-Traub, Executive Director of UNSDSN, explains the dangers that lie behind this number: “Even 2°C is enough to create chaos in many parts of the world - higher sea levels, more floods, droughts, ocean acidification, heat waves and extreme storms.”

Some scientists even suggest that the target of 2°C is too optimistic, and that to be safe we could aim to stay below 1°C. Moreover, the above graph clearly shows that from the 1970s (with a temporary pause in the last few years) global warming has accelerated: while the period between 1880 and 2012 has seen an increase of about 0.06°C per year, from 1979 and 2012 the rise has been more than double - about 0.15°C per year.

The 2°C target is rooted in the 1992 Earth Summit framework at Rio de Janeiro, when political leaders all around the world stated their intention to implement "a comprehensive programme of action for global action", without mentioning any limit. A 1995 report by the German Advisory Council on Global Change suggested that "the temperature span to the tolerable maximum is currently only 1.3 °C", marking the first scientific report to state the issue. The subsequent year, in the 1939th Council Meeting of Environment Ministers, there is the first official reference to the 2°C limit: "the Council believes that global average temperatures should not exceed 2 degrees above pre-industrial level". However, as we have seen scientists are still debating about the opportunity of this limit - both seen as too constricting and weak - and is Europe that is leading the political path to such commitment.

A real bond came only in 2009 at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference COP15, when nations signed an accord committed to “enhance our long-term cooperative action to combat climate change, recognizing the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius”. The heads of state underlined that “deep cuts in global emissions are required according to science”, pledging to “take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity”.

But as the signatories of the letter proposed by the UNSDSN indicate, this commitment is not enough. The 2010 agreement from climate talks in Cancun warned “the sum total of official emission reduction pledges from all countries amounted to only around 60 percent of what was needed to limit the temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius”.

And then last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked at the Council on Foreign Relations: "We must limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees. We are far from there, and even that is enough to cause dire consequences. If we continue along the current path, we are close to a 6 degree increase".

However, there is still time to implement bold solutions: now “it is time to act”, as the signatories of the letter write.

Climate Week NYC is one way for such leaders to show their commitment. “This open letter is important to raise awareness about the climate challenge, expanding a network of academics, businessmen and political leaders who are committed to finding a concrete approach together,” says Mark KemberCEO, The Climate Group. “But at the same time, we need to go beyond just words and actClimate Week NYC will be an ideal platform for business and government leaders to do so, paving the way ahead to Paris 2015.”

For a full list of Climate Week NYC events, please visit ClimateWeekNYC.org

Wherever you are in the world, get involved by following the conversation on social media using #CWNYC.

You can also see our Climate Week NYC media resources for press releases, contacts and more info.

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