1.5°C on a precipice: Do we need to rethink communications on warming limits?

Surface temperatures have exceeded the 1.5°C limit for over 10 months, leading to more calls for climate action. While every fraction of a degree still matters, do decarbonisation plans now need to be recalibrated?

Typhoon Doksuri_2023-07-25
Typhoon Doksuri off the Philippines in July 2023. Image: NOAA.

The climate fight is not going well, according to the numbers. Global warming has exceeded 1.5°C above pre-industrial times for 10 months and counting. A year-long breach of the temperature limit relative to the years before 1900 has already happened in January, according to the European Union’s earth observatory.

Warming limits have been a core tenet of climate action for years. World leaders aimed to stay “well below 2°C” in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. In 2018, the rallying cry changed to 1.5°C after experts said anything warmer would be too unlivable.

Businesses have followed suit. Corporate climate action watchdog Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) called on firms to cut emissions fast to help keep global warming to 1.5°C, generally by avoiding fossil fuels and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Thousands of organisations have signed up to this goal.

Scientists say droughts, floods and storms will get more severe past the 1.5°C global warming limit. Vulnerable communities worldwide are already reeling from climate disasters, such as floods in 2022 that killed over 1,700 people in Pakistan, to record heatwaves in the 40-50°C range across Asia last year.

Generally, the 1.5°C limit refers to temperature averages that occur longer than a year, and the world still has marginal leeway according to decadal metrics. Beyond stepping harder on the emissions reduction brakes, some sustainability professionals say a broader framing of climate targets and action could be more relatable and effective in driving action.

copernicus climate change graph apr 2024

Monthly global air temperatures have been over 1.5°C beyond pre-industrial times since July 2023. Image: Copernicus Climate Change Service.

“As scientists, we recognise that limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5°C is probably not realistic without first overshooting the goal,” said Dr Angel Hsu, environmental expert and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Hsu said global warming should still be limited as much as possible, as small temperature rises could still result in unexpected risks to people and nature.

“How we frame the goal now, along the lines of ‘every fraction of a degree matters’ is important to keeping people motivated to continue pursuing climate action,” she said.

Pakistan climate advocate Hafiz Jawad Sohail likewise thinks keeping to the 1.5°C target limit is unlikely.

“The consequences should be highlighted in bold for people to take it very seriously. If [we] miss 2°C, it will be the climate boiling age where [the chances of] survival will be very thin,” Sohail said. 

Scientists have said that moving from the 1.5°C limit to 2°C in temperature rise will essentially wipe out coral reefs that support fish stocks. Millions more would also be exposed to extreme heatwaves at the upper limit.

Focusing on the consequences of global warming could better help drive the point across for politicians, since they are driven by “profits and interests” that are also vulnerable to temperature rise, Sohail added.

The 1.5°C target is still very much in vogue in global negotiating fora. Mukhtar Babayev, incoming COP29 president this year, has stressed he wants to keep the temperature target “within reach”, by getting countries to set more ambitious climate action targets and unlocking more climate money to support developing nations.

“The temperature target has not yet been breached. That target does not relate to single years. It refers to longer-term averages, which are currently above 1.2°C.

“But there is a narrowing window of opportunity to act,” Mukhtar, who is Azerbaijan’s ecology and natural resources minister, said last month.

Temporary breach not a failure

Experts warn against treating the ongoing year-long breach as a failure. Woo Qiyun, a Singapore climate advocate, said the difference between short and long-term 1.5°C threshold breaches should be made clear, even as people are already feeling the effects of record warming globally.

“Without the differentiation, people might get confused and feel like [the] 1.5°C [limit] has been breached, when actually we still need to do a lot more to ensure this long-term temperature change does not hit 1.5°C,” Woo explained.

It could be hard to agree on when the 1.5°C warming limit is officially breached. While the latest monthly and one-year averages have exceeded the limit, the World Meteorological Organisation stated the 10-year mean up till 2023 was 1.2°C – the figure Babayev referenced. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses a 20-year range, which for 2003-2022 is 1.03°C.

The 1.5°C breach is only “temporary”, said Rosa Perez, a Philippines-based lead author for the 2022 IPCC report. 

This happens when areas like the Philippines enter the warm phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a recurring climate pattern involving changes in the temperature of waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, Perez told Eco-Business. 

“But countries really need to step up their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), make rapid and drastic energy use transformations, to a combination of renewables and vastly expanded energy efficiency.”

“Moving close to the 1.5 C limit is seen as the unwillingness of some countries not to heed the call of our scientists,” Perez added.

While experts say temporary blips shouldn’t count, there is no agreement on which figure actually matters, at least for the Paris Agreement.

“This is likely to result in distraction and delay just at the point when climate action is most urgent,” said a commentary published in the peer-reviewed Nature journal last December. The article’s authors recommended a 20-year metric, though based equally on a decade each of historical data and projections – bringing the 2022 figure to 1.26°C.

But as it stands, the world is headed for over 2.5°C of warming this century, as countries lag on climate targets. In recent years, communications around 1.5°C has shifted, with scientists calling for more ambitious action to pull temperatures back down after a likely overshoot.

Such efforts have largely not yet materialised. Man-made carbon dioxide levels are still creeping up, in parallel with fossil fuel use, despite realistic pathways calling for emissions to drop by over 40 per cent by 2030. Carbon dioxide sequestration – methods to suck up the gas from the atmosphere – needs to scale up by over 1,300 times by 2050, a 2023 report estimated, although many technologies remain nascent today.

The looming threshold aside, Hsu thinks there are other issues with how people relate to the 1.5°C figure today. Aligning corporate green goals to the target conceptually allocates the entire carbon budget to existing businesses and none to sustainability innovators, who may need emitting room to develop solutions against the climate crisis. Many companies’ “1.5°C-aligned” targets are also not credible, for omitting value chain emissions or using often flawed carbon offsets, she noted.

How to better frame climate action targets is “the million dollar question”, Hsu said. In an op-ed for Science journal last month, Hsu and a group of scientists argued that climate progress should be measured more broadly, including in job creation, renewable energy generation and lives saved through transitioning away from fossil fuels.

“We certainly need a broader dashboard of indicators and metrics to measure these benchmarks that can indicate progress is being made [and] in a way to better motivate climate action, since 1.5°C is pretty abstract and also seems insignificant,” Hsu said.

Suzy Goulding, head of sustainability for Asia Pacific and Middle East at public relations firm MSL, would agree. It was hard for most people to understand the complexities of climate change and its effects at a macro level, she said.

“I don’t think talking about the temperature limit and targets was ever that helpful in motivating businesses and policymakers to make sustainable changes.”

“Much more effective is to stress how these temperature changes are likely to impact businesses, communities and individuals,” Goulding said.

People understood how the weather affected their daily lives, and would be motivated to act if they believed they could help to improve their communities directly, she said, adding that the focus should be on targets around innovation, investment and awareness-building.

Goulding said there should be “a constant stream of good news stories” of positive change globally to show that the climate challenges can be overcome to spur action, rather than communicating on targets which are “pretty meaningless to the vast majority”.

With additional reporting from Hannah Alcoseba Fernandez.


Acara Unggulan

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transformasi Inovasi untuk Keberlanjutan Gabung dengan Ekosistem →