The world’s response to the climate change warnings five years ago have been inadequate, and ambitions remain too low to meet even the 2.0-degree target.
Five years ago this Sunday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire warning.
“Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate,” proclaimed a special report released on October 8, 2018, by the United Nations. Preventing warming from exceeding that temperature threshold, a goal set in the international treaty known as the Paris Agreement, would require rapid and far-reaching changes to make sure greenhouse gas emissions fall fast – 45% below 2010 levels in only 12 years, on their way to zero emissions by mid-century.
Five of those 12 years are now gone, and in spite of a pandemic-induced blip in 2020, emissions have not fallen at all. The world emitted half a billion tons more carbon dioxide in 2022 than in the year the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius was released.
“It has been disappointing and frustrating,” said Luis Mundaca, a professor at Lund University’s International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics in Sweden, and one of the 1.5-degree report’s lead authors. “A key contribution of the 1.5C report was to emphasize both ‘urgency’ and ‘agency.’ However, urgency and agency have not yet fully materialized in ambitious and decisive actions and policy interventions.”
Half a decade after its release, The Messenger checked in with several of the landmark report’s lead authors to see what they think about its impact and legacy.
“I think it is probably the most important IPCC report to date,” said Diana Liverman, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies climate change adaptation and mitigation policy. But the global response, she said, has been “completely inadequate.”
“There seems to be more awareness of urgency, especially among scientists and the youth movement, and countries and companies are proposing net zero targets – but not realistic about how to get to them,” Liverman said.
A closing climate window
The 1.5-degree report, compiled in response to a request from the world’s governments after adoption of the Paris Agreement, laid bare the trajectory the world was on and what was at stake. It also emphasized just how rapidly the window to change that trajectory is closing. In a way, it took climate science from simply explaining the data into a more practical realm.
“It answered a direct policy need and woke me and my academic colleagues up to how we might use evidence to affect real-world change, and how we can better target our research to current policy needs,” said Piers Forster, a professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. “It was by far the most impactful report I have worked on [and] is a highlight of my career. IPCC should be doing much more of this.”
The report said that humans had already warmed the planet by about one degree Celsius; since then, the number has ticked up to about 1.2 degrees. It noted that along with cutting emissions, keeping warming below 1.5 degrees without what’s known as “overshoot” – when temperatures pass that mark for a period of time before starting to come back down – will also require removal of carbon dioxide that’s already in atmosphere. But the world hasn’t even begun to crack the first challenge of drastic emissions reduction.
“Some countries are even rolling back policies, postponing action, or remaining completely off-track with the 1.5C ambition,” Mundaca said. “The pace of climate change continues to exceed ours, and the 1.5C window is closing fast.”
Heading in the wrong direction
Many scientists think that window is already closed, barring some magical intervention. The IPCC’s incoming president, Jim Skea, said in July that the policies currently in place around the world essentially lock the globe in to much more warming than 1.5 degrees, and the increased impact that comes with it.
The 2018 report noted that coal use needs to drop toward zero by mid-century (it’s still near record highs); and oil and gas should only be used if carbon capture technology is widespread (it isn’t, and shows little sign of expansion). In 2023 the U.S., the biggest oil producer in the world, will set a record for oil output. That record will likely fall in 2024.
“Countries have lacked ambition, not delivered on their ambition and in some cases we have undone some of the progress made,” said Minal Pathak, a 1.5-degree report co-author and a professor at Ahmedabad University in India. “Yes, some countries and a few sectors have shown positive results, but on the balance it seems we’re worse off now compared to 2018.”
An imaginary deadline
When the 1.5-degree report was released in 2018, media coverage focused heavily on its warnings about 2030. “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN” read one representative headline. Though this sort of coverage didn’t draw directly from the report, some of the report’s authors think talking about 2030 may have done more harm than good.
“The ‘12 years’ messaging was confusing and counterproductive,” Forster said. “Doomers interpreted [it] as 12 years left before destruction. Vested interests interpreted it as meaning they could do nothing for 12 years.”
In the years since, scientists have been careful to explain that every tiny fraction of a degree matters, especially as extreme weather made worse by climate change —heat waves, devastating floods, and so on— is increasing even faster than anticipated. In reality, 1.5 degrees is better than 1.51 degrees, which is better than 1.52 degrees, and so on.
“I think the message was misinterpreted,” Liverman agreed. “We did not say we would fall off a cliff in 12 years, just that it would be a lot harder to reduce risks if we waited.”
Liverman says she worried at the time how the 12-year deadline may have impacted young people. “Some of my students feel despondent and desperate in ways that do not seem helpful. So I try to explain [that] we must act now as fast as we can, but we do not face an apocalypse in 2030,” she said. “At least, most of us do not.”
Cause for optimism
The report’s authors all agree that the world’s response to the warnings five years ago have been inadequate, and ambitions remain too low to meet even the 2.0-degree target. But still, some of them see positives amidst the gloom.
“I’m a glass-half-full person here,” Forster said. “As a result of the report many countries made net zero commitments for around 2050.” The emissions targets for 2030 remain off track, he added, and the actual delivery of emissions reductions is falling short. “Nevertheless, the far-reaching transition is underway. Renewable energy is the cheapest energy and electric cars soon will be cheaper than alternatives. It is no longer a question of ‘if’ we will transition but more ‘how fast’ and how fairly.”
Pathak agreed, and said the 1.5-degree report offered a clear path forward that, at least on paper, much of the world seemed to accept. “It did its job then, and many of the messages are relevant now,” she said.
Meanwhile the past few months have offered stark examples of the kind of devastation unchecked warming could bring, from flooding in Libya to “virtually impossible” heat waves across the globe. After July became the hottest month in recorded history, the world sweated through the hottest August and hottest September – by a truly astonishing amount.
“If we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, limiting global warming to 1.5C is the best option we have,” Mundaca said. “The 1.5C report showed that there are different pathways to get there. The report emphasized that that choice is still ours.”
Original source: https://themessenger.com