The 1.5 C target for global warming must prevail

The 1.5 C target for global warming must prevail

It is clear to many governments that allowing global warming to exceed 1.5 C involves unacceptable societal risks. (Reuters)
It is clear to many governments that allowing global warming to exceed 1.5 C involves unacceptable societal risks. (Reuters)
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The world is burning and our political leaders are failing us. With temperatures rising at an alarming rate, it seems that anyone who still believes it is possible to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels is in a rapidly shrinking minority.
As governments around the world fail to meet their climate responsibilities under the Paris Agreement, the window for ensuring the increase in global temperatures remains below the 1.5 C limit has all but closed due to insufficient action.
But while some eminent commentators have declared the 1.5 C target to be “deader than a doornail,” I have come to the opposite conclusion: 1.5 C will never die.
Certainly, the world is in a dire state. Greenhouse gas emissions dumped into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution have already warmed the planet by about 1.3 C, according to this year’s annual report on Indicators of Global Climate Change. And studies, including my own, unequivocally show that crucial climate goals are not being met. Under current policies, global temperatures are projected to increase by between 2.5 C and 3 C by the end of this century.
Even if governments meet all of their existing climate pledges, the odds against global warming remaining below the 1.5 C target are 7-to-1. Combine this with the delaying tactics of the fossil fuel industry, including the greenwashing of its polluting business practices and the recent rollback on self-imposed emissions targets, and it becomes abundantly clear that our chances of staying below 1.5 C are indeed slim. Consequently, climate scientists expect global warming to “blast past” the 1.5 C limit.
But just as risks do not vanish when safety limits are exceeded, the Paris Agreement’s climate commitments do not disappear once we cross 1.5 C. While 1.5 C is a political target, it was not pulled out of thin air. It is a scientifically informed limit, first championed by small island states and later supported by a broad coalition of ambitious countries.
By now, it is clear to many governments that allowing global warming to exceed 1.5 C involves unacceptable societal risks, undermines development and poses an existential threat to vulnerable communities and their cultures. Moreover, the line between “safe” and “dangerous” warming is becoming increasingly blurred. As the devastating effects of climate change worldwide show, even 1.5 C is dangerous and our societies are ill-equipped to handle it.

It is clear to many governments that allowing global warming to exceed 1.5 C involves unacceptable societal risks.

Joeri Rogelj

Over the past 20 years, we have experienced what a world that has warmed by about 1 C is like. No region has been spared the effects, with a growing number of countries facing fires, floods and storms, resulting in devastating human and financial costs that extend well beyond national borders.
Between 2000 and 2019, climate-related disasters claimed more than half a million lives, caused more than an estimated $2 trillion in damages and affected almost 4 billion people worldwide.
Even at the 1.5 C limit on warming, up to one in seven species face extinction, critical ecosystems, such as tropical coral reefs, face destruction and extreme heat waves of the kind our great-grandparents experienced once in a lifetime will occur, on average, every six years. Centuries of ice melt will cause sea levels to rise, flooding major cities such as London, New York, Shanghai and Kolkata. Efforts by vulnerable and marginalized communities to escape poverty will be undermined and the economic development of every country will be impeded.
Limiting global warming is therefore a matter of social justice, human rights and long-term development and this imperative remains even if we cross the 1.5 C threshold. Moreover, while exceeding 1.5 C will have unpredictable political consequences, as compensation claims for avoidable climate-related damage increase, the political implications of reducing greenhouse gas emissions remain consistent with what the Paris Agreement already outlines.
To help halt global warming, the Paris Agreement expects countries to implement emission-reduction plans that represent their “highest possible ambition.” While governments are failing to meet this goal, exceeding 1.5 C does not change their responsibilities; in fact, fulfilling these commitments will become more important as temperatures continue to rise. The only way to improve our chances of keeping warming close to 1.5 C is by pledging and implementing more ambitious near-term emission cuts every year until 2035.
Even if we cannot avoid overshooting the 1.5 C target, it remains relevant. Every fraction of a degree counts and global climate efforts must therefore focus on limiting the extent to which we exceed 1.5 C and returning to safe levels as quickly as possible.
The Paris Agreement’s target of achieving global net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, in particular, could help reverse some of the excess warming. To maintain a safe, livable and just planet, we must keep our eyes on the 1.5 C limit and ensure that pursuing it remains our top priority.

  • Joeri Rogelj, professor of climate science and policy and director of research at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, is a lead author of reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN Environment Programme. ©Project Syndicate
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