Hitting 1.5°C: The Stark Climate Choices for Governments

Gitika Bhardwaj speaks to climate scientist, Myles Allen, and climate diplomat, Ovais Sarmad, about the crucial difference between a 1.5°C and 2°C warmer world.

5 minute READ

Up to 200 countries signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 which included a target to limit global temperatures to ‘well below 2°C’ and pursue efforts to ‘below 1.5°C’. However, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published a report warning governments of the stark difference of a 1.5°C warmer world compared with 2°C. How is this different from previous warnings?

Myles Allen: There wasn’t a lot of research on what a 1.5°C world meant at the time of the Paris Agreement so governments commissioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to write this report. Crucially, this report doesn’t tell governments what to do because it’s not the job of the IPCC to prescribe policy. But, we, as a group of scientists, are here to inform governments about what the implications of different policies are. Therefore, this report establishes if, and what, the benefits are of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, as opposed to allowing it to rise to 2°C, and what it would take to achieve it.

The key findings of the report are that, on the one hand, there are significant benefits of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. For example, some coral reefs would survive in a 1.5°C world whereas almost none of them would survive in a 2°C world. That’s a clear difference between these two scenarios. There were also a number of other aspects we focussed on such as the health impacts, economic impacts and so forth.

On the other hand, we had to look at the prospects of achieving 1.5°C and what we would have to do to our global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We found that it would be necessary to get GHG emissions down to zero by mid-century rather than at the end of the century which presents a substantial challenge for governments.

Ovais Sarmad: The IPCC report is also extremely important in the sense that it comes at a crucial time. This year governments need to agree on finalizing the rulebook for the Paris Agreement which will then make the accord operational.

The report, although not directly linked to this political process, feeds into it through the Talanoa Dialogue as it helps to build the environment in which those decisions will be taken. It provides the scientific – even moral – imperative for political leaders to use this in their decision-making at the annual UN Climate Change Conference in Poland in December.

The difference between global temperatures rising by just half a degree could be the difference between millions of more people and countless species being affected by droughts, sea level rise, heatwaves, water scarcity and food shortages. Do you think it’s possible to limit global warming by 1.5°C?

Myles Allen: One of the key findings of the report is that it is physically, technically and economically possible to achieve a 1.5°C world.

For example, in terms of the investment required, it’s not beyond the means of investors. To achieve a 1.5°C world, we need to invest around 2.8 per cent of global GDP into the energy system between now and 2050. This sounds like a lot of money, but even if we weren’t aiming for 1.5°C, we’d be investing around 2 per cent of global GDP into the energy system, because the world needs energy one way or another.

Low-carbon options in some countries are cheaper than high-carbon options but in many countries they’re still not. That’s why it’s currently estimated that the ultra low-carbon pathway required to meet the 1.5°C target would be somewhat more expensive.

But what’s the difference between 2.8 per cent vs. 2 per cent? You’re putting a bit more money in but you’re ending up with an energy system that is robust for the future after 2050. Personally, I would say that the additional 0.8 per cent is well worth it, but it’s up to governments to decide.

Furthermore, if you’re investing in renewable energy, then you’re investing in technology that you know will last forever because there’s not a limit to the amount of time we can generate energy from wind but there is a limit to the amount of time we can generate energy from coal and that time is coming up soon.

Ovais Sarmad: The report’s predictions are bleak: the world has already warmed by 1°C and we now need to limit it to 1.5°C as opposed to 2°C. But we now have the science and technology, as well as the pathways for different sectors of the economy, available to us. What is needed is the political will and the political will is there with the exception of a few bumps along the road.

What I’m hopeful of, is the increasing public understanding of what we all need to do to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, which will help the implementation of the Paris Agreement and build the momentum needed to achieve the 1.5°C target in the period that we have left which is becoming shorter and shorter.

What do governments need to do in order to achieve this target by 2030 and what would be the consequences if they do not?

Myles Allen: I was impressed when going through the report’s process how careful national delegations were to make sure the executive summary we were going through wasn’t dressed up in a particular way to encourage a particular outcome.

In terms of what countries now need to do, the report is clear, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C then we really have two options: either we reduce energy demand dramatically in the short-term by around a half over the next 10-15 years or we develop the capability for disposing of a large amount of carbon dioxide – which is the extra amount of carbon dioxide we can’t afford to dump into the atmosphere – either underground or into the ocean. Currently, we’re making slow progress in getting rid of carbon dioxide. We need to accelerate this if we’re going to meet the 1.5°C target. For me, the single take-home for governments is that they need to face this choice.

Ovais Sarmad: What governments also need to do is to recognize the behavioural changes that need to be made. They also need to scale up in their annual investment in low-carbon energy and energy efficiency by a factor of 5 by 2050. The supply of renewable energy also needs to increase by 70-85 per cent of electricity by 2050 and coal should decline steeply to zero in electricity by 2050. There also needs to be deep emissions cuts in the transport and construction sectors and in land use and urban planning. This all needs to happen urgently and I think all governments across the world understand this. It’s a question, now, of making it happen and that’s where global climate action will be very important.

How do you anticipate countries who continue to invest in fossil fuels – for example fracking in the UK, oil exploration in Norway and coal plants in Australia – to respond to the report at the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland in December?

Myles Allen: If you’re opening up new fossil fuel reserves or planning new fossil fuel extraction, you have to ask the question, what’s going to happen to the carbon dioxide which is generated when those fossil fuels are burnt? We already have enough fossil fuels in the energy system to take us to a 1.5°C world – and beyond. So if you’re going to bring in any more fossil fuels through fracking, exploring the Arctic or developing new coal plants for example, you need to explain what’s going to happen to that carbon dioxide. The argument that, ‘We just sell the carbon but don’t burn it,’ doesn’t wash for me. If you’re selling something, where the use of your product generates a waste product that’s acknowledged that cannot be left in the atmosphere, you’ve got to explain what’s going to happen to it.

Ovais Sarmad: I expect all countries to come with a higher level of ambition to the talks in Poland but they will need to have clear plans about how they are going to address their practices which contribute to GHG emissions. I cannot speak for these countries but the IPCC report has helped increase the understanding of the risks that we are facing. This will help to bring about the changes needed.

There have been a number of political challenges to the Paris Agreement recently. US President, Donald Trump, has pledged to withdraw the US from the agreement while Brazilian President, Jair Bolsanaro, has also promised to pull Brazil out of the deal in order to open the Amazon to fossil fuel extraction. What do these policy shifts mean for the future of the Paris Agreement, for example, is it likely that other countries could also roll back on their commitments too?

Myles Allen: What was in some ways encouraging about Trump’s announcement to pull the US from the Paris Agreement was what he didn’t say. He never gave as a reason for pulling out that he doesn’t believe in climate change. He has said this in the past but that’s not a line the Trump administration has taken. The same goes for Brazil because Brazil is one of the country’s most vulnerable to climate change.

Though it may seem like I’m clasping at straws, at least the argument in both cases is not over whether we have to do something about climate change but, the argument from the Trump administration at least, is that they want a better deal. Now that’s a very different argument and it’s an argument that’s going to have to be had over many years to come. It’s not going to be easy to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and there will be many debates about whether countries are giving too much or whether they are giving too little. I think we should anticipate many more vigorous exchanges in the future.

However, what I hope doesn’t happen is that countries disengage. These arguments should be happening at international fora rather than countries opting out of the global process entirely. Importantly, so far, both the US and Brazil remain engaged in the Paris process.

Ovais Sarmad: The Paris Agreement, as you mentioned, was signed by almost 200 countries, and as of last week, 181 countries have ratified the agreement, which is an incredible accomplishment. It’s one of the only global treaties where there is such legitimacy which shows the strength of the accord. It also sends a strong signal to anyone who wishes to backtrack on their commitments. I am hopeful that these political positions will change again.

What more will emerging economies, such as India and China, have to do in order to achieve their goals under the Paris Agreement, in particular, do you think their plans are ambitious enough if global temperatures should be limited to 1.5°C?

Myles Allen: There’s no question that India and China have some huge decisions to make as they have large populations that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They also have growing energy demands that are currently being met largely by fossil fuels although both India and China are making significant strides towards renewable energy. These difficult decisions are going to have to be made in those countries. What is encouraging is that the grasp of the problem is complete. They understand all of issues.

Being a scientist, I’m glad that everyone knows what’s going on although there are still disagreements about what to do about it. But at least there aren’t any countries still in denial about what the science is telling them.

The big challenge that remains is that all countries haven’t started reducing their GHG emissions yet. When they do, they’re going to discover who the winners and losers are, and that’s when the tensions will start to come out.

Ovais Sarmad: Every country needs to do its share. Big and small. Small island states, emerging economies and developed countries. The Paris Agreement is the kind of agreement that doesn’t make a distinction between rich or poor countries although there has been talk about recognizing that some countries will take a longer time to implement the targets of the Paris Agreement which is understandable. However, everyone needs to do much more at a far more rapid pace.

Climate has no borders. We’re seeing it now. In some of the most developed countries in the world, the hurricanes, the flooding and the droughts, are affecting people across all spectrums of society.

We at the UNFCCC, are making every effort to bring everyone on board, raise their level of ambition and ensure all of the targets of the Paris Agreement are implemented. The agreement is one of the most robust agreements in the world and it addresses the single most important, existential and generational issue that faces humanity.

The challenge that lies ahead in the short-term is finalizing the operationalization of the deal in Poland in December. Once that happens, it will then release the full power of the Paris Agreement.