In 2015, years of efforts by small island nations worried about being swallowed up by rising seas as the planet heats paid off: they got world leaders to aim for a global warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius in the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Their campaign slogan - “1.5 to stay alive” - however, is now being reshaped by others as an increasingly urgent plea to “keep 1.5 alive”.
Half a decade on, much of the world is under siege from warming-fuelled floods, heatwaves and wildfires, in countries from China to Germany to the United States, with impacts arriving faster than scientists had predicted.
Today the Earth’s climate has already warmed by 1.2C above preindustrial times - and ahead of November’s COP26 UN climate summit the 1.5C goal has become a rallying cry for politicians and activists who fear it may be slipping out of reach.
“Much more warming than that, and life on our planet will become increasingly unrecognisable,” US climate envoy John Kerry warned in a speech in London this week.
“There is still time to put a safer 1.5C future back within reach - but only if every major economy commits to meaningful (emissions) reductions by 2030,” he added.
Under the Paris accord, about 195 countries agreed to a goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2C and to “pursue efforts” towards 1.5C, with each government committing to do what it could to collectively put the world on the right path.
A 2018 report from the UN climate science panel then identified the “clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems” of sticking to warming of just 1.5C and warned the dangers of missing that goal included increasing hunger, poverty and migration.
But to meet the target, planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use and other human activities need to fall by 45 per cent by 2030 from 2010 levels and reach “net zero” by mid-century, the report said.
Since last September, stronger pledges to cut emissions by the United States, the European Union, China and Japan have lowered the projected level of warming by the end of this century to 2.4C, Climate Action Tracker researchers said.
However, many other large-emitting nations have yet to set more ambitious targets to cut their emissions, as they promised to do under the Paris Agreement.
Those revisions were originally due by the end of 2020 - though the deadline was postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, with just over 100 days until the start of the COP26 summit in Glasgow on Oct. 31, pressure is growing on countries that have so far failed to step up, including Australia, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, India and Indonesia.
Kerry noted this week that by the close of a US-hosted climate summit in April, countries representing 55 per cent of global GDP had announced emissions-cutting commitments for 2030 consistent with the 1.5C goal.
But “we simply cannot keep 1.5C within reach … without bringing the remaining 45 per cent onside”, he added.
The challenge now is winning those needed commitments in a very short window of time, analysts said.
Italy, hosting a G20 ministers’ meeting this week, said it was struggling to broker a joint statement on climate commitments among countries, with major emerging economies reported to be pushing back against tighter emissions goals.
“The minimum we need to see now is some aggressive diplomacy around the world for big emitters to come with much bolder action,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and a former World Bank climate envoy.
“Finance for developing countries is key,” she told journalists this week.
Host nation Britain has emphasised that progress at COP26 will be hard if rich governments fail to meet a promise to raise $100 billion a year between 2020 and 2025 to help developing countries adopt clean energy and adapt to a hotter world.
Leaders of the G7 group of wealthy nations vowed in June they would work to meet the finance pledge, while Kerry said this week it should be delivered well before COP26.
But who will provide the additional $20 billion or so needed - based on the latest figures, for 2018 - remains unclear.
Unless the issue is resolved ahead of COP26, the shortfall could wreck the talks’ aim of keeping the 1.5C goal in sight, said Nick Mabey, CEO of think-tank E3G.
Without the funding promise being honoured, there would be little chance of pressing middle-income countries for bigger emissions cuts, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Alok Sharma, the senior British official leading climate diplomacy for COP26, said earlier in July that keeping 1.5C alive “is possible, but with COP just months away all of us are going to have to redouble our efforts”.
Ministers from more than 40 countries, attending a two-day meeting convened by Sharma starting Sunday, will likely be pressed for ideas on how to close any emissions reduction gap left at the end of COP26, in order to stick to the 1.5C goal.
“You can’t carry on talking about keeping 1.5 within reach when there is not a plan to do it,” Mabey said.
Potential ways to bridge the gap could include phasing out coal power, switching all vehicles to run on clean electricity and ending the destruction of forests that absorb carbon - three areas Britain wants to see progress on at COP26.
But some climate experts say it would be more honest to admit that staying below 1.5C of warming is no longer possible without using fledgling technology to suck CO2 out of the air.
“No one believes we’re going to limit warming to no more than 1.5,” James Dyke, assistant director at the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, told a recent discussion at London Climate Action Week.
He blamed an over-reliance on technology and market fixes to reduce emissions, saying lifestyle changes are what is needed to solve the climate crisis.
“The best we’re offering is an overshoot and then a recovery - and that’s going to hand on a vast debt to our kids,” he added.
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.
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