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Panacea or Pipe Dream: The Global Quest For 1.5 Degrees

The recent mid-term review of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and its 169 targets painted a grim picture of stagnation where the achievements of the SDGs, adopted to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity for all by 2030; are concerned. According to the United Nations (UN) only 15% of the goals are on track. Among the SGDs woefully off track, is SDG 13 – Climate Action which sets out the framework to combat climate change and its impacts. Ironically, the UN also posits, that achievement of SDG 13 is critical to achieving all other targets given how integral weather and weather-related activities are to food, health, security, and sustainable ecosystems, and to life.

These revelations come on the heels of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released earlier in 2023 that the world is not on track to achieve and maintain global temperatures within 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Exceeding this threshold would significantly amplify the risks and impacts of climate change, triggering more frequent and severe heatwaves, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and disruptions to ecosystems and biodiversity. This, in turn, would pose unprecedented challenges to global food and water security, human health, and socioeconomic stability.

The Genesis Of 1.5

The rapid onset of climate change is one of the most urgent and complex challenges facing humanity today. The impacts of rising temperatures, such as melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events (droughts, floods, heatwaves, etc.), and biodiversity loss, are already being felt around the world and pose serious threats to human health, food security, and economic development, especially to nations classified as Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developed Countries (LDC).

To avoid the worst consequences of rapid climate change, scientists have identified a critical threshold: the global average temperature should not increase, preferably by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This threshold was agreed upon by the international community in the 2015 Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty adopted by 196 countries that aimed to limit global surface temperatures to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

The 1.5°C limit is not a direct measure of the world's temperature, but an indicator of how much the earth has warmed or cooled compared to the long-term global average. Scientists use average temperature data from the period between 1850 to 1900 as a reference point, before human activities started to emit large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is emitted mainly by burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas; and other greenhouse gases, such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases, which are synthetic and very potent, and that traps heat in the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect is the process by which these gases reflect some of the heat leaving the Earth back to the surface, causing global warming.

1.5 Matters

1.5 matters, but are we doing what it takes to get there? But what does 1.5°C mean, and why is it so important? How close are we to reaching this limit, and what can we do to prevent it? According to the IPCC, the world's leading authority on climate science, the global average temperature had already risen by about 1.25°C by 2022; and is currently increasing by about 0.2°C per decade. This means that we are already experiencing some of the effects of climate change, such as more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, floods, storms, and wildfires.

For NOAA, while these increases may seem insignificant, “it takes a massive amount of heat energy to raise earth’s average yearly surface temperature even a small amount…increase in global average surface temperature…means a significant increase in accumulated heat. That extra heat is driving regional and seasonal temperature extremes, reducing snow cover and sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, and changing habitat ranges for plants and animals expanding some and shrinking others”.

Moreover, the IPCC report emphasises the critical distinction between a 1.5°C and a 2°C temperature rise, underlining that even a half-degree difference can have profound implications for vulnerable communities and ecosystems worldwide as these impacts become much more severe and widespread, affecting millions of people and ecosystems around the world. For example, according to the IPCC:

At 1.5°C of warming, about 14% of the global population will be exposed to severe heat at least once every five years, but at 2°C of warming, this will increase to 37%.
At 1.5°C of warming, coral reefs will decline by 70 to 90%, but at 2°C of warming, more than 99% of coral reefs will be lost.
At 1.5°C of warming, sea level rise will affect up to 10 million people by 2100, but at 2°C of warming, this will increase to up to 50 million people.
At 1.5°C of warming, global crop yields will decrease by up to 10%, but at 2°C of warming, this will increase to up to 25%.

Therefore, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is not only a scientific goal but also a moral and ethical imperative, as it would prevent or reduce many of the harmful effects of climate change on human lives and livelihoods, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalised groups.

In fact, the United In Science, 2023 Report, a compilation of climate and water-related sciences for sustainable development, published by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) states that the years 2015 to 2022 were the warmest year on record, with global mean surface temperatures reaching upwards of 1.25°C above pre-industrial temperatures in 2022. The year 2023, seems set to exceed that boundary.

“There is a 98% chance of at least one year exceeding the warmest year within the next five years. Current mitigation policies will lead to global warming of around 2.8°Cover this century compared to pre-industrial levels.” – WMO.
Temperature changes over the years - the Globe (above) compared to the Caribbean (below). [NOAA Models].

In its outlook, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that the rate of warming since 1981 is twice as fast per decade. Earth’s temperature has risen by an average of 0.08°C per decade since 1880. – NOAA.

The World Is Not Ready

There is no doubt, then, that 1.5°C is a must for survival, but just how realistic is this target, when all indications are that the situation will be much worse before a glimmer of better? The world is clearly not at the stage of readiness to cause the change necessary to prevent exceeding the threshold. The implications for SIDs and LDCs predict a devastating future having invested heavily, in some instances incurring debt to advance mitigation and adaptation measures that will become inadequate. From a risk management perspective, it is unrealistic to continue pursuing strategies that will most likely, keep us in a state of constant unpreparedness.

As we dive into the dynamics of this goal, it becomes clear that achieving this is not just about raising additional funds, adopting advanced technologies, and promoting climate-resilient infrastructure. Fundamentally this is about altering our behavioural patterns and global socio-economic structures. The IPCC has outlined several pathways toward social and behavioural considerations which can help to achieve this goal:

  • We need to cut our CO2 emissions by about 45% by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. This means that any remaining emissions must be balanced by removing CO2 from the atmosphere, for example by planting trees or using carbon capture and storage technologies.

  • We need to reduce our emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, which have a shorter lifespan but a stronger warming effect than CO2.

  • We need to increase our use of renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, and hydro, and phase out our reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas.

  • We need to improve our energy efficiency and reduce our energy demand, for example by using public transportation, switching to electric vehicles, and adopting smart technologies.

  • We need to protect and restore our natural ecosystems, such as forests, wetlands, and oceans, which store large amounts of carbon and provide other benefits for biodiversity and human well-being.

  • We need to adapt to the impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable, for example by building resilient infrastructure, improving disaster risk management, and supporting vulnerable communities.

Photos courtesy of NOAA, UNDRR, and the FAO.


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