The 1.5-Degree Climate Goal Is As Essential As Ever

Everyone is saying goodbye to the 1.5 climate target, but this party is just getting started.

COP 27
A bunch of men at COP27 decide the future of 1.5.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Everybody is talking about the global 1.5-degree climate target. The headline of The Economist says, "Say Goodbye to 1.5°C." Hothouse Earth author Bill McGuire titles his op-ed in The Guardian, "The 1.5 climate target is dead-to prevent total catastrophe, Cop27 must admit it." E&E asks: The World Is Likely to Miss 1.5 Degrees C—Why Isn't Anyone Saying So?" But judging by the headlines, everybody and their dog is saying so right now.

Carbon budgets
Carbon Budgets for various temperatures.

IPCC Working Group II

The 1.5-degree goal is not an intrinsically meaningful number and was just one of a few round numbers in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Had the report been written in Myanmar, Liberia, or the United States, the target might have been a nice round 3 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.666 degrees Celsius.

The 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C stated that "limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C implies reaching net zero CO2 emissions globally around 2050," which has been used by everyone from Shell Oil to the Alberta Oil sands as their ticket to do nothing now and promise net-zero later, ensuring that we bust through the carbon budget ceiling before we even get to 2030. It is definitely time to give up on this fantasy; when it comes to climate action, 2050 is the new never.

In an open letter from Scientist Rebellion, signed by over a thousand academics, they note:

"A 2021 anonymous survey of world-leading climate scientists by the science journal Nature, revealed just 4% of respondents thought limiting warming to 1.5°C was likely. The majority thought the world is heading towards a catastrophic 3°C of warming by the end of the century. Continuing to say publicly 1.5°C is still alive is no longer defensible, yet politicians, leading academics and the environmental movement persist in doing so. In response, polluting industries and policymakers are inadvertently being encouraged to resist rapid decarbonization."

They call to "set out the challenge of restricting temperature rise to ‘well below 2°C," but this is just setting ourselves up for another fall.

And as chief economics commentator Martin Wolf noted in the Financial Times, "adapting our goals to our failures is a defeat." Wolf says this will be expensive and difficult, but concludes that we can still do it: "Nobody can reasonably argue this would be unaffordable. Rather, it is not doing so that would be unaffordable. We are required to fight a war we just have to win. We cannot afford, practically or morally, to leave a world with an irreversibly destabilized climate to the future, possibly even the near future. We should not give up without trying."

Others conclude that the 1.5 degrees goal is lost. McGuire writes in The Guardian: "I write this in my recent book, "Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide," and in the run-up to Cop27, the UN Environment Programme suggested the same when it announced that there was no longer any credible pathway to achieving the 1.5C target."

Avoid Lockins


This is a disingenuous distortion of the UNEP Emissions gap report. In the Key messages memo, the very next sentences are: "Only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid an accelerating climate disaster. The report looks at how to deliver this transformation, through action in the electricity supply, industry, transport and buildings sectors, and the food and financial systems." The entire report is about laying out a credible pathway. It's right there in red and green.

Inger Andersen, the executive director of UNEP, doesn't say no; she says go! “We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster,” said Anderson.

Climate journalist Amy Westervelt nailed it The Guardian: "The report made one thing abundantly clear: the technologies and policies necessary to adequately address climate change exist, and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests."

The only reason that 1.5 degrees are almost dead is that we are willing to let it die because to keep it alive would be inconvenient and expensive.

Carbon Budget down to 380


And if the findings from a Carbon Brief report are correct, it is closer than we think:

"The latest estimates from the Global Carbon Project (GCP) show that total worldwide CO2 emissions in 2022 have reached near-record levels. The GCP’s estimates put the remaining carbon budget for 1.5C – specifically, the amount of CO2 that can still be emitted for a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C of warming – at 380bn tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2). At the current rate of emissions, this budget would be blown in just nine years."

But they also write: "It is important to note that it is neither harmless to keep emitting CO2 up until the budget is blown, nor instant armageddon if it is exceeded." We do not get to party for nine years, which is how this will be interpreted.

They continue: "Cutting emissions hard and fast now will give whatever budget is left a longer lifetime, as well as giving time and space to implement existing and new ways to limit emissions that are fair for all."

Besides, 380 or 260 gigatonnes is a rounding error, an educated guess within a range of probabilities, which is why we have to act hard and fast right now. As climate scientist Peter Kalmus tweets:

He continued: "If we were being rational, we'd end industrial beef agriculture and be well on our way to ending the aviation industry in 2023. We'd also develop an international treaty for no new fossil fuel projects, and we'd nationalize and ration fossil fuels to protect the working class."

"That's what a serious emergency we're in... it's just too few people realize this yet, so the notion of ending flying in airplanes seems too radical to most people. But from my perspective, it's crazy irresponsible to keep flying as if there's no problem as the world burns."

"Finally, a fatal flaw in any temperature target is the implicit but very strong assumption that the target is somehow "safe." Clearly, we've ALREADY passed safe levels. The "safe" assumption has also massively contributed to inaction. 1.5°C will NOT be safe - mark my words."

Economist cover

Lloyd Alter

Back in The Economist, they say it is time for a dose of realism: "Many activists are reluctant to admit that 1.5°C is a lost cause. But failing to do so prolongs the mistakes made in Paris, where the world’s governments adopted a Herculean goal without any plausible plan for reaching it. The delegates gathering in Egypt should be chastened by failure, not lulled by false hope. They need to be more pragmatic and face up to some hard truths."

As everyone from Andersen to Kalmus has noted, the hard truth is that we have to make hard choices right now instead of just letting 1.5 degrees sail by because it is too expensive or inconvenient. We don't have 27 years to get to net-zero or nine years to blow the carbon budget—the time to act is now.