Bonn—This week, world leaders are convening along a sleepy stretch of Germany’s Rhine River for COP23, the first UN climate talks to be held since Trump announced he will withdraw United States from the Paris Agreement, the landmark climate deal arrived at in 2015.
Yet while the administration’s fossil-fuel boosterism has grabbed headlines about COP23 stateside, the UNFCCC process has more problems to reckon with than the White House. The gap between the goals laid out in Paris and the mitigation plans now on the table are vast, and bridging it—which requires decarbonizing the world economy by mid-century at the latest—may well prove the greatest collective challenge humanity has ever faced. It will also mean rethinking long-held beliefs about how economies should measure success, and what the role of the state should be in shaping economic activity.
To hear more, I sat down here in Bonn with climate scientist Kevin Anderson, Zennström professor at Sweden’s Uppsala University, chair of energy and climate change at the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester and the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Nation: How far are we from meeting decarbonization goals that would actually limit global warming to either the 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius targets?
Kevin Anderson: My judgment is that we won’t get to 1.5 degrees. The only chance is if negative emission technologies begin to work at planetary scale and we can roll them out incredible rapidly. We talk about those technologies as if they actually exist. They don’t. They’re still really just sketchbooks on computers. I personally think the chance of staying below 1.5 degrees is so slim that it’s not really worth putting any hope in it. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t pursue it in terms of research funding and so forth.
We have to mitigate as if these negative emissions technologies do not work. I think we’ve got a 5 percent chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees. There’s a 95 percent chance we’re going to fail. But that chance is not just a chance. It’s a choice. Let’s take that 5 percent chance and make sure we make it to 2 degrees. I don’t see much evidence that we will at the moment.