Climate science beats climate fatalism
The Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C is in the headlines again. According to the latest projections from the World Meteorological Organisation, “There is a 66% likelihood that the annual average near-surface global temperature between 2023 and 2027 will be more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels for at least one year.” A supercharged El Niño cycle means that record-breaking temperatures are almost certain.
But, as concerning as these warnings are, it would be even more worrying if one year above 1.5C was taken as a sign that the 1.5C target has been missed. Drawing that erroneous conclusion would lead us to abandon the Paris agreement’s goal just when we should be doubling down on it.
The 1.5C goal will not be lost with just one or a few years of extreme temperatures. The Paris goal refers to human-caused temperature increases that are measured over the course of decades. We must keep this firmly in mind to stave off the dangerous climate fatalism that has been gaining momentum in recent years.
Yes, now that the planet has warmed roughly 1.2C above pre-industrial levels, “once-in-a-century” heatwaves, forest fires, and floods are becoming more familiar to us. In some low-lying regions, rising seas are already forcing people to relocate. But there is still a massive difference between 1.2C and 1.5C – let alone between 1.5C and 2C – and the science shows that it is still possible to end this century at or below 1.5C.
Recent climate research has affirmed the importance and necessity of the 1.5C guardrail. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year, extreme weather events, ecosystem collapse, and planetary tipping points can happen at markedly lower levels of global warming than previously thought. Since the IPCC’s last reporting cycle in 2014, we have amassed much more evidence to show that even a 1.5C warmer world would be immensely challenging, and that temperature increases above that level would be truly devastating.
With every additional tenth of a degree of warming, more people will be exposed to life-threatening heatwaves, water shortages, and flooding. Worse, various studies show that the likelihood of reaching tipping points, like the potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, increases exponentially above 1.5C. These represent red lines. The world would not fall off a cliff, but there would be a fundamental shift in which planetary systems start moving irreversibly down the path toward more ice melt, marine-ecosystem change, and rising sea levels.
The only sensible approach is to mitigate that risk by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as fast as possible. Though we still might overshoot the 1.5C limit in the short term, we can return to it in the long run. But that will be possible only if we have cut fossil-fuel emissions to zero. This is the crucial first step toward achieving net-zero GHG emissions.
It is no less important to preserve and restore the natural land and ocean systems that absorb and store carbon. And if we distort the Earth’s carbon cycle (through the thawing of permafrost, for example), we will undermine our ability to reverse global temperature increases.
Limiting warming to 1.5C this century requires that we halve our emissions by 2030. This is not an arbitrary figure. Only if we halve our emissions this decade will we halve the pace of warming in the 2030s and bring it to a halt in the 2040s. Think of it as the difference between tackling climate change ourselves, or passing a civilisational time-bomb to our children.
Slowing the warming process also buys us precious time for adaptation. Even a rich country like the United States will be limited in how fast and fully it can adapt to the consequences of climate change. For those in more vulnerable places, the situation is incomparably worse. Disasters like the flooding in Pakistan last year can derail a country’s economy and leave it in a downward spiral of rising debt and poverty – all of which will be compounded by future climate disasters for which it could not afford to prepare.
Moreover, many of the net-zero commitments made by governments, companies, and cities around the world are premised on the 1.5C limit. Phaseout plans for coal (such as those in Germany, Vietnam, and the United Kingdom) are based on 1.5C-aligned modelling, which shows that OECD countries need to stop using coal by 2030, and that non-OECD countries need to do so by 2040. Gas must follow shortly thereafter.
With the clock ticking down, these 1.5C-based models are telling us how to prioritise. We must decarbonise electricity first, then electrify as much transportation, buildings, and industry as we can, while also reducing demand. Beyond this low-hanging fruit, we also will need to scale up technologies for carbon removal.
Investments have been moving in this direction. Since the Paris agreement was concluded in 2015, the costs of solar, wind, and batteries have plummeted. Electric vehicles and heat pumps are going mainstream. These are market-driven responses to government incentives. Public policy has been crucial for instilling confidence and supporting clean-energy growth.
To give up and start looking beyond 1.5C would let big emitters off the hook. Rather than instilling confidence, it would signal to everyone that they should expect less – and betray all those who live in places that lack the resources and possibilities to adapt to a warmer world.
If we don’t keep pushing for the most ambitious science-based targets, those with vested interests in the status quo will exploit our fatalism. Following a massively profitable year, owing to Russia’s war in Ukraine, BP recently signalled that it will divert much of its intended investments in decarbonisation toward oil and gas.
The best science we have tells us that 1.5C is still feasible, and it tells us how to get there. As the British climate-change diplomat Pete Betts puts it, “If we do go above 1.5C, the message is not to give up. It’s to double down.” — Project Syndicate
l Carl-Friedrich Schleussner is Head of Climate Science at Climate Analytics and an honorary professor at Humboldt University Berlin.
l Bill Hare is a founder and CEO of Climate Analytics.
l Johan Rockström is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor of Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam.
NEW HAVEN – Now that the falsehoods and obfuscation of climate denialism have finally been silenced, addressing climate change has become the world’s top priority. But time is running out, and the International Monetary Fund warns that any further delays on implementing policies to mitigate global warming will only add to the economic cost of the transition to a low-emissions economy. Worse, we still lack a concrete, pragmatic strategy for tackling the problem. Although economists have made a robust case for why carbon taxes are the best solution, this option has proven politically infeasible, at least in those countries that account for some of the highest emissions (namely, the United States).
Commentators have also stressed that climate change is a shared problem involving important cross-border externalities that must be addressed through a multilateral approach to global coordination. But, as with carbon taxes, this argument has fallen on deaf ears. And, given the current geopolitical climate and the increasing fragmentation of the global economy, there is little hope that the message will get through anytime soon.
Having committed to assisting developing economies as they confront climate change, the World Bank finds itself limited by the country-based model underlying its financing operations. It is earnestly weighing its options and considering how it could coordinate climate-related financing across borders. But while such efforts are well meaning and consistent with the spirit of multilateralism, they inevitably will delay concrete action. World Bank financing would have to be completely restructured, and coordinating action across multiple countries that have limited financial resources and often conflicting interests seems an impossible task. For example, while some developing economies are rich in fossil fuels, others are starved for energy sources.
Given these limitations, pragmatism dictates focusing on the biggest polluters. Global carbon dioxide emissions are concentrated among only a handful of countries and regions. China, the US, the European Union, Japan, and Russia collectively account for 63% of the total, and none of these top polluters is a low-income country anymore. China, the poorest of the group, represents around 30% of all emissions, making it by far the world’s largest current polluter in absolute terms. But its government is taking steps to accelerate the transition to green energy – a winning strategy, given the country’s abundance of rare earth metals.
India, the third-largest emitter, currently accounts for approximately 7% of global CO2 emissions, and its size and growth trajectory imply that it could easily surpass China as the leading polluter, barring stronger climate policies. In fact, when it comes to helping developing countries decarbonize, considerable progress could be made simply by targeting India alone. The big advantage of this strategy is that it would avoid the paralysis associated with attempts to adopt a multilateral approach in an increasingly fragmented world.
This does not mean that we should eschew projects aimed at climate mitigation or adaptation in other countries. But we would not need to wait until everyone is on board before doing anything. Those insisting on a multilateral approach should learn from the experience of the ultimate multilateral institution: the World Trade Organization. Its requirement that every single provision in every multilateral agreement gain unanimous support has left it increasingly paralyzed, prompting demands for institutional reform.
Of course, India is not low-hanging fruit. It is rich in coal and has little incentive (beyond the health of its citizens) to hasten the transition to green energy. In focusing on India, we would need to employ the carrot, not the stick.
Since the stick generally takes the form of pressure to implement carbon taxation, it is a non-starter. A tax would be ineffective, because it would incite massive domestic opposition (as has been the case in the US). It would also be morally objectionable, because it is unfair to ask a lower-middle-income country to bear the burden of reducing CO2 emissions when rich countries (like the US) have failed to do the same. Moreover, even if China and India are now two of the world’s biggest polluters, they bear little responsibility for the past, cumulative emissions that led to the current climate crisis.
That leaves the carrot, which would come in the form of tax incentives or subsidies to support green energy. When paired with other policies, these can ease firms into adapting to higher environmental standards (such as those associated with a cap-and-trade program). But such policies are expensive, which means that tackling climate change will require richer countries to help finance them. Whether or not India becomes the new China, it is still in our power to ensure that it does not become the new outsize polluter.