The nature and framing of climate targets in international politics has changed substantially since their early expressions in the 1980s. Here, we describe their evolution in five phases—from ‘climate stabilization’ to specific ‘temperature outcomes’—co-evolving with wider climate politics and policy, modelling methods and scenarios, and technological promises (from nuclear power to carbon removal). We argue that this co-evolution has enabled policy prevarication, leaving mitigation poorly delivered, yet the technological promises often remain buried in the models used to inform policy. We conclude with a call to recognise and break this pattern to unleash more effective and just climate policy.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $4.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Rich, N. Losing Earth: A Recent History (Macmillan, 2019).
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change FCCC/INFORMAL/84 (UNFCCC, 1992).
Girod, B., Wiek, A., Mieg, H. & Hulme, M. The evolution of the IPCC’s emissions scenarios. Environ. Sci. Policy 12, 103–118 (2009).
Working group III IPCC. Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (eds Metz, B. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).
Markusson, N., Dahl Gjefsen, M., Stephens, J. C. & Tyfield, D. The political economy of technical fixes: the (mis)alignment of clean fossil and political regimes. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 23, 1–10 (2017).
Lovins, A. B. How big is the energy efficiency resource? Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 090401 (2018).
Hansen, J. et al. Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J. 2, 217–231 (2008).
Azar, C., Lindgren, K., Larson, E. & Möllersten, K. Carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels and biomass — costs and potential role in stabilizing the atmosphere. Climatic Change 74, 47–79 (2006).
Hansson, A. in The Social Dynamics of Carbon Capture and Storage (eds Markusson, N. et al.) 74–90 (Taylor & Francis, 2012).
Brunsting, S. et al. The public and CCS: the importance of communication and participation in the context of local realities. Energy Proced. 4, 6241–6247 (2010).
Marien, N. Getting Action: COP Should Set Carbon Budgets for Real Progress. The Democracy Center https://democracyctr.org/getting-action-cop-should-deliver-carbon-budgets-for-real-progress/ (2012).
Meinshausen, M. et al. The RCP greenhouse gas concentrations and their extensions from 1765 to 2300. Climatic Change 109, 213 (2011).
Moss, R. H., Nakicenovic, N. & O’Neill, B. Towards New Scenarios for Analysis of Emissions, Climate Change, Impacts, and Response Strategies (IPCC, 2008).
Moss, R. H. et al. The next generation of scenarios for climate change research and assessment. Nature 463, 747 (2010).
Allen, M. R. et al. Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne. Nature 458, 1163 (2009).
Minx, J. C. et al. Negative emissions—part 1: research landscape and synthesis. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 063001 (2018).
Blanford, G. J., Kriegler, E. & Tavoni, M. Harmonization vs. fragmentation: overview of climate policy scenarios in EMF27. Climatic Change 123, 383–396 (2014).
Fuss, S. et al. Betting on negative emissions. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 850 (2014).
Muri, H. The role of large—scale BECCS in the pursuit of the 1.5 °C target: an Earth system model perspective. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 044010 (2018).
Jaeger, C. C. & Jaeger, J. Three views of two degrees. Reg. Environ. Change 11, 15–26 (2011).
Realmonte, G. et al. An inter-model assessment of the role of direct air capture in deep mitigation pathways. Nat. Commun. 10, 3277 (2019).
Bastin, J.-F. et al. The global tree restoration potential. Science 365, 76 (2019).
President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). Restoring the Quality of our Environment: Report of the Environmental Pollution Panel (The White House, 1965).
Irvine, P. et al. Halving warming with idealized solar geoengineering moderates key climate hazards. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 295–299 (2019).
Stilgoe, J. Experiment Earth: Responsible Innovation in Geoengineering (Taylor & Francis, 2015).
Gardiner, S. M. A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).
Markusson, N., McLaren, D. & Tyfield, D. Towards a cultural political economy of mitigation deterrence by negative emissions technologies (NETs). Glob. Sustain. 1, e10 (2018).
A Greener Bush. The Economist https://www.economist.com/leaders/2003/02/13/a-greener-bush (2003).
Mitchell, T. Carbon Democracy, Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, 2011).
Shove, E. What is wrong with energy efficiency? Build. Res. Inf. 46, 779–789 (2018).
Asayama, S., Bellamy, R., Geden, O., Pearce, W. & Hulme, M. Why setting a climate deadline is dangerous. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 570–572 (2019).
Rogelj, J. et al. A new scenario logic for the Paris Agreement long-term temperature goal. Nature 573, 357–363 (2019).
Anderson, K. & Jewell, J. Debating the bedrock of climate-change mitigation scenarios. Nature 573, 348–349 (2019).
Beck, S. & Mahony, M. The IPCC and the new map of science and politics. WIREs Clim. Change 9, e547 (2018).
Beck, S. & Mahony, M. The politics of anticipation: the IPCC and the negative emissions technologies experience. Glob. Sustain. 1, e8 (2018).
This work was supported by the programme Greenhouse Gas Removal from the Atmosphere (grant no. NE/P019838/1), funded by the NERC, EPSRC, ESRC, BEIS, Met Office and the STFC in the UK. We thank A. Jarvis for advice on the history of modelling, S. Chew for assistance with the graphics and D. Tyfield, B. Willis and B. Szerszynski for stimulating discussions and feedback. Some of this material was presented at the Negative Emissions Conference in Gothenburg in May 2018 and at the European Association for Studies of Science and Technology (EASST) conference in Lancaster in July 2018. We also thank participants at both events for their constructive feedback.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Wim Carton, Arthur Petersen and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
McLaren, D., Markusson, N. The co-evolution of technological promises, modelling, policies and climate change targets. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 392–397 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0740-1
Trends in Biotechnology (2021)
Practices of sustainability and the enactment of their natures/cultures: Ecosystem services, rights of nature, and geoengineering
Social Science Information (2021)
WIREs Climate Change (2021)
Clash of Geofutures and the Remaking of Planetary Order: Faultlines underlying Conflicts over Geoengineering Governance
Global Policy (2021)