1.5°C warming limit: Unrealistic but we should stick to it

At COP27, world leaders agreed to keep warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Their actions tell a different story. But even if blowing past the 1.5°C target is inevitable, we should not give up.

Obelisk screen at COP27
An obelisk displaying images of crumbling ice sheets at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre, where COP27 was held in November 2022. Image: Eco-Business/ Liang Lei.

When the climate minister of Pacific island Nauru addressed the world at COP27, he didn’t mince his words. At the UN climate summit, Rennier Gadabu said that people “with real power” to avert the climate crisis did not care about the effects on vulnerable communities in the Pacific, especially small poor island countries.

Two-thirds into his speech that condemned “Western experts who have pushed false solutions” and said his country was being used as “props” in environmental campaigns, Gadabu said: “This is normally the point in a statement where I would pivot to a more inspirational message about our collective power, the power of youth, the power of science, and the power of solidarity. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not going to do that today. Because I do not want to insult your intelligence. And quite frankly, I’m not in the mood.”

I shared his weariness. Frankly, anyone who cared vaguely about climate issues would, if they went through the list of decisions reached at COP27.

The agreement to set up a loss and damage fund for vulnerable countries was a bright spot, but it rankled me how lightly key decision makers are treating the 1.5°C global warming limit despite urgent warnings that we are almost on going to breach it.

Currently, we are currently at 1.2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels. According to a study published earlier this month, we will hit 1.5°C in nine years’ time at our current rate of carbon emissions. Next year, with China’s economy – the world’s largest carbon emitter – set to rebound, global emissions could yet climb higher.

Overshooting 1.5°C of warming is “almost inevitable”, says the the United Nation’s intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) said this year. A quick return to below that threshold by the end of the century is possible, but it is contingent on slashing emissions by 40 per cent by 2030.

All these means that we’ll need to move ever faster if we’re to keep the temperature target a reality. But the gap between the pledge to keep 1.5°C alive and the actions being taken cannot be wider.

In Egypt, world leaders agreed to keep 1.5°C alive. That was the top line agreement. But if you tracked the two weeks of negotiations and side conversations at the climate summit, like I did, the target seems like a joke. World leaders could not make concrete commitments to move towards that target at all.  

A proposal at the summit to phase down all fossil fuels, not just coal, was shot down. A new programme to hasten emissions cuts this decade will have no new targets, nor faster timelines, according to the agreed rules. Countries refused to agree to relook if their voluntary climate pledges are aligned to the 1.5°C target.

Many fingers have been pointed at countries and blocs blocking stronger climate action, among them, Russia, China and oil producers in the Arab group of nations. They deserve the scrutiny, but there are other issues too.

For one, developed countries still seem to be passing the decarbonisation buck to developing states. Calls for greater climate ambition have come loud from the European quarters, but climate finance to help the Global South along has been a trickle. The G7 group of rich countries did offer US$20 billion to Indonesia for its coal-to-renewables transition, but even that sum pales in comparison to the US$600 billion Indonesia says it needs for a complete ditching of coal.

During a COP27 plenary speech, Romina Pourmokhtari, Sweden’s climate minister, touted her country’s goal to be “climate-neutral” by 2045. “My challenge to all of you is to get there before us,” she said. Framing decarbonisation as a race against Sweden, a rich European country, felt tone-deaf to me.

On the COP27 agenda, green capitalism took precedence over more important discussions about the liveability and equity of our planet. Take carbon removal, a concept that includes untested technology with risks. It was bandied around in talks and discussions about carbon markets even before the technologies are tried and tested. 

Indeed, the IPCC has said that to decarbonise quickly, we must remove carbon dioxide from the air – with one 1.5°C scenario requiring over 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide removal by 2100. But the IPCC also warned that carbon removal methods, ranging from forest management to altering the oceans to dissolve more carbon dioxide, could come with substantial risks to people, the environment and even the climate – if carbon stores leak.

To me, the rational next step is to investigate carbon dioxide removal technologies, to figure out the safest and most effective mix of options – and not monetising them into a market mechanism.

1.5°C target is unrealistic, but we shouldn’t give up 

Given that countries are loath to give up unsustainable economic growth, and that we are on the way of blowing past the 1.5°C target, some countries seem to have abandoned the figure altogether.   

Fernanda de Carvalho, a climate and energy expert at environmental group WWF and observer at the COP27 negotiations, said China and India are keener to pursue 2°C targets.

These countries say the landmark Paris Agreement climate deal, struck in 2015, had initially focused on 2°C, not 1.5°C.

Are China and India the realists?

The fact is that keeping global warming to 2°C gives the world more leeway – 31 years at current rate of emissions, in fact, compared to nine.

I do not buy that argument. Not after reading about what 1.2°C of global warming already does to countries like Pakistan, which endured record floods that killed 1,700 people and brought US$30 billion in economic losses. Not after meeting people like Imran Hossain from Bangladesh, who was at COP27 rallying for climate justice and protesting against fossil fuels, after losing his father in a cyclone in 2009.

Reaching 1.5°C of warming will probably not be a matter of life-and-death to me in Singapore. But it will be for millions around the world living on the frontlines of climate risks.

Furthermore, if we set a looser target such as 2°C, it will almost be a guarantee that we would overshoot that, too.

And “every fraction of a degree matters to vulnerable communities”, as Inger Anderson, chief of the UN Environment Programme, said last month, while presenting research that the world was headed to 2.5°C of warming.

Arguably, an unreachable target might offer false hope to vulnerable communities. Or it might be instrumentalised by governments paying lip service to climate commitments but doing very little to decarbonise. 

But it is still worthwhile sticking to the 1.5°C figure, because what’s stopping us from getting there is a lack of political will and mutual understanding and not a hard technical barrier.

Possible solutions have been suggested by the IPCC that are centred on renewables and nature. Others have said that a more distributive global financial system will be key.

These ideas were explored at COP27, and were either rejected or acknowledged in generic clauses.

Can world leaders do better at COP28? I’m still clinging on to that hope, but COP27 has also taught me to temper my expectations.

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