The illusion of the 2-degree society

by Erik Rasmussen. Founder & CEO Monday Morning Global Institute

“Well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” with “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”. These words travelled the globe as the world’s nations reached agreement in Paris last week. But what do these 2 degrees really mean?

It is fully justified to celebrate The COP 21 deal. It might signify the paradigm shift away from the fossil fuel economy and a journey to a sustainable world. But we missed one party at the negotiation table in Paris – a partner who decides if we will succeed or not: the consumer.

In Denmark, the new political party, Alternativet (the Alternative) exemplifies why it might be impossible to have a 2 degree society. Last year they proposed that public institutions have one meat-free day a week to encourage a more vegetable-based diet for the sake of the environment. The party was widely ridiculed in the media because of that. What does it tell us if – even in a climate conscious society like Denmark – a moderate adjustment of our life style like not eating meat once a week is cast aside? It raises at least one fundamental question: Are we as human beings and consumers ready to make the necessary changes and sacrifices? Mitigating climate change is going to take a lot more than giving up meat once a week.

Human behavior – and how to change it – is likely the biggest and most neglected barrier for making the necessary change for the sake of humanity’s survival. With this in mind, there are three primary reasons why our ability to keep the rising temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius appears to be one big illusion: the willingness of politicians, consumers, and the fossil fuel industry to change in due time

Politicians and consumers
Prominent climate scientists unofficially admit that the 2-degree limit is more political than scientifically decided. The purpose is exclusively to force countries and their governments to take action. In spite of the political success in Paris, the agreement leaves so many open questions and relies so much on the good will of individual nations, that it is more a moral than a legal commitment.

There may be good political reasons for this. Among the uncertain factors are national and domestic concerns. In other words: how far and how much do the governments dare to challenge their own voters? One condition for reaching even the goal of 2.7 degrees is a quick and dramatic change of our daily living, e.g. how we produce and consume food. The CO2-emissions from eating agricultural products alone are predicted to rise by 80 percent before 2050, if our eating habits remain the same and earth’s population increases by the expected 36 percent.

The agricultural industry is among the worst emitters of the world’s CO2, with beef production at the top. But which government dares cutting down on meat consumption to one meat-day or less per week through e.g. increased taxation? It is a lost political cause, not just in Denmark, but across the world.

For a politician, domestic considerations and the wishes of the electorate will always have a higher priority than international solidarity. No politician will be elected on a platform of fighting for the 2-degree society, if the tradeoff for voters is to radically change their eating habits.

The Fossil Fuel Industry
Just as people love meat, they also love cars – to mention another god example of the pressures that our life style choices put on global temperatures. Within the next fifteen years, the number of cars globally will double. That means that one billion more cars will be driving on the world’s street – particularly Chinese and Indian ones – in 2030.

All experts predict that the vast majority of these cars will continue to drive on petroleum and diesel. That is the case for 95 percent of the world’s vehicles today, and since the electric car is still in its developing phase in terms of e.g. infrastructure and charging facilities, it is unlikely the breakthrough to carbon free transportation will come on this side of 2030. On top of the direct emission from cars, a recent New York Times article also exposed how many cars are produced with electricity from coal plants. Even if the energy efficiency of cars is gradually improved in the next fifteen years, it is unlikely to be able to keep up with the pace of demand for new cars.

In its new report, ’The Heat Is On’, the organization Critical Resource predicts that the entire fossil fuel industry will have to radically change within the next few decades, to avoid being one of the main reasons for a global temperature rise above 2 degrees. But things are moving in the wrong direction. As we speak, 2,440 new coal plants are planned for construction over the next 15 years. If built, these coal plants will contribute to a level of coal burning that is 400 percent higher than required to stay under the 2-degree rise. With a total stop to new coal plants, the level will “only” be 150 percent above our goal. But today, coal powers 39 percent of the US electricity usage, so how are we going to cope?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, very few companies in the fossil fuel industry have strategies for adjusting to the needs of a 2-degree society. The few attempts we have seen at lowering emissions have been driven more by regulations than proactiveness. Rather, the fossil fuel industry has invested billions in the “black lobby”, making clear the need for not only a technological revolution, but a mental one.

Three ways to crack the code
All of obstacles outlined above are not a reason to give up on combatting climate change. Quite the opposite. They are part of the reason for working towards a new type of climate realism. It revolves around three demands:

1. Set realistic goals: The 2 degrees – and even more so, the 1.5 degrees included in the Paris agreement – are likely an unrealistic goal. If we reach 2.7 degrees, or 3.6 as some calculations predict, dramatic climate change will follow. However, with a realistic image of what our world would look like under those circumstances, we are at least able to prepare ourselves. We must set our goals based on the reality that science and our own behavior dictates. In return, we may see that the radical changes we face will motivate quick and disruptive thinking.

2. Engage consumers: Behavioral science should play an important role in the transition towards new climate and life conditions. The participation and engagement of consumers will dictate how comprehensively and quickly we can tackle our climate challenges. To this end, we must develop a new language and a new narrative that people can relate to. Today, few of the reports describing the future of humanity can be understood by that same humanity. As long as that explanatory gap persists, we will see no comprehensive changes. But that same gap holds the key to the necessary revolution of our own understanding.

3. Create new alliances and role models: One of the most interesting and visionary proposals during COP21 was Bill Gates’ project, “Mission Innovation” supported by President Barack Obama as well as 20 countries and 38 prominent business leaders and investors. Beyond the project’s transformative potential, such partnerships will become catalysts for a new ambitious climate realism that is necessary to breaking the inertia associated with the bureaucracy of the COP-process. We need these new role models and partnerships that embrace the financial sector and the biggest investors, so that the pressure is coming from them as well as the consumers. Thankfully, the financial sector has started realizing that their own future wealth depends on smart climate investments.

COP21 showed us that we are finally on the right course, but we must rethink our strategy for dealing with climate change if we are not to be the last generation with any hope of shaping our own future. Thus far, the pace of climate change has been quicker than our willingness and ability to change. But with a new sense of realism combined with the new climate deal, we still have a chance of catching up with climate changes. Not to reach a 2 –degree society, but finding the means to control the global temperature rise and how to live with 3 degrees or even more.

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