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What are the consequences of failing to meet the 1.5C global warming goal?


The planet’s most ambitious climate goal is facing challenges from both scientific limitations and political obstacles. However, what would be the consequences for the Earth and its inhabitants if the objective of limiting global warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels was abandoned?

The addition of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) was celebrated as a major success of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Prior to this, global efforts were only focused on limiting temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), causing frustration for small island nations and other communities most affected by climate change.

The decreased target drew attention to the significant impact of a mere half degree, as emphasized by a special report from the United Nations’ leading scientific group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report highlighted the escalating danger of disasters beyond a 1.5C increase in temperature and stressed the pressing need to reduce carbon emissions by nearly 50% by 2030 in order to potentially avoid them.

The goal was not so much a definitive point as it was a boundary, but it is quickly turning into a significant marker on the path towards environmental destruction.

Since the Paris agreement, eight years have passed without significant progress in addressing the climate crisis. Oil companies continue to generate high profits and have plans for further production expansion, while emissions have reached new highs.

Fueled by an El Niño event, temperatures across the world have reached unprecedented levels this year, resulting in severe consequences such as increased human deaths, destruction of ecosystems, and disruptions in food production.

By the end of October 2023, the Earth’s average temperature had increased by 1.4 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels due to global heating. It is predicted to surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius in the upcoming period.

One year is not sufficient to establish patterns in climate, and there is no universally accepted method for selecting a benchmark. The UK Met Office suggests using a measure that incorporates the past 10 years of global temperature data and predictions for the next 10 years. According to this calculation, the current level of global warming is 1.26C.

Many experts are surprised by how quickly the world is approaching a 1.5C increase in temperature. Some prominent scientists predict that the ambitious Paris target will be surpassed within years, rather than decades.

“1.5C is deader than a doornail and anybody who understands the physics knows that,” James Hansen, a former Nasa climate scientist, recently told reporters.

This statement is causing disagreement. Other scientists, such as Michael Mann from the University of Pennsylvania, believe that Hansen’s views are not widely accepted.

Every country hopes to avoid being remembered for failing to meet the world’s most ambitious climate goal, but in action, if not in words, many are actively contributing to its downfall.

“Maintaining the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is of utmost importance,” stated Cop28 president Sultan Al Jaber earlier this year.

However, he has played a part in intentionally disregarding the goal in his additional position as the leader of Adnoc, the national oil and gas corporation of the United Arab Emirates. Adnoc is currently ramping up production of fossil fuels, despite the International Energy Agency’s recommendation to phase them out.

Certain climate advocates argue that the concept of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius has become a convenient fabrication, providing false hope while disguising the harsh truth that the Earth is projected to warm by 2.4-2.7 degrees Celsius (4.3-4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the middle of the century and potentially surpassing 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

Despite the potential for overshoot, there remains a strong determination among researchers and advocates to continue advocating for limiting global warming to 1.5C. This goal serves not only as a strategic political objective, but also serves as a crucial reminder that even the smallest increments in temperature can have dire consequences for both human life and the survival of other species.

Five climate experts were approached by The Guardian to outline the main distinctions between 1.5C and 2C.

The basic needs of sustenance, hydration, and disagreement

1.5C Cop28 graphic

As the temperature increases by even a small fraction, occurrences of droughts, storms, and floods become more frequent and intense.

As an illustration, the IPCC has determined that a severe heat occurrence that would typically happen once every ten years in a natural climate would occur 4.1 times every decade with a 1.5C increase in temperature, and 5.6 times with a 2C increase.

The individuals who suffer the most are typically the least responsible – those who are vulnerable to climate change and reside in countries with struggling economies and inadequate healthcare systems.

Catherine Nakalembe, who leads the Africa program for Nasa Harvest, predicts that an additional 70 million individuals in Africa will experience severe food insecurity at 2 degrees Celsius compared to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

According to her, computer simulations show that at a lower temperature, the chances of severe drought in southern Africa are 30% lower compared to a temperature of 2C. In west Africa, the yields of crops like maize and sorghum could decrease by 40% to 50% at a temperature of 2C compared to 1.5C. Additionally, the number of people affected by water scarcity would be reduced by 50% at the lower target.

As food insecurity increases, so does the likelihood of conflict and motivation for migration. Currently, various regions of the continent are experiencing a series of disasters in quick succession, such as the severe drought that caused suffering in East Africa in 2019, or the cyclone, known as Idai, that destroyed parts of Southern Africa in the same year.

Nakalembe expressed concern that the situation is deteriorating. The frequency of these incidents results in complete loss of livelihoods, leaving little opportunity for recovery. Every small change in temperature plays a significant role in the severity of the effects of climate change.

The biodiversity of the Amazon and land-based ecosystems.

1.5C Cop28 graphic

The reduction of just half a degree in available space will cause significant harm to the non-human species on the planet. This will further strain pollination, water quality, and other essential elements of the planet’s life-support system.

At a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, it is estimated that 18% of insect species, 16% of plants, and 8% of vertebrates will lose half of their habitats. This is twice the proportion compared to a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the Amazon and other tropical rainforests would experience a faster reduction in size, with the dry season being a month longer at 2 degrees Celsius compared to 1.5 degrees Celsius. There is also a three times higher chance of extreme heat occurring.

There is concern that the rainforest may reach a critical point where it will dry out and transform into a savannah, resulting in reduced global benefits such as carbon storage, water regulation, and cooling.

According to Carlos Nobre, a prominent climatologist in Brazil, the severe drought in the Amazon region has caused rivers to reach historically low levels and led to the deaths of many dolphins and fish. This has brought us closer to a critical point, which would only worsen with further heating.

According to him, achieving a temperature rise of 1.5C is not only a goal for politics, but it would also result in the least amount of negative effects.

We must decrease the chances of a rapid increase in temperature to prevent further release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost or deforestation in the Amazon, which is approaching a critical threshold.

“We must reach a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. I believe this is the most significant obstacle that humanity has ever encountered.”

in the Caribbean are severely impacted by human activities.Coral reefs and marine ecosystems in the Caribbean are facing significant damage due to human activities.

1.5C Cop28 graphic

The increasing temperature of the Earth has a negative impact on the well-being of the planet’s oceans. The rise in acidity levels and decrease in oxygen levels pose a threat to fisheries, which are a crucial source of sustenance for billions of individuals.

Once vibrant coral reef systems, which are acutely sensitive to changes in temperature and the pH of the water, are already suffering bleaching events and they will increasingly “flicker out” with each a fraction of a degree rise.

If the temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it could be too late to rescue inhabitants of the Caribbean and some areas of the western Indian Ocean. This would result in only 10% to 30% of the population maintaining good health.

When the temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius, the survival rate decreases to a range of 1% to 10%, as the patches of healthy organisms become more distant, susceptible, and incapable of reproduction.

According to David Obura, a marine biologist from Kenya and leader of the UN’s primary biodiversity research organization, Ipbes (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), there is a possibility of restoring the environment at a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

As the temperature increases by 0.1 degree, the difficulty and cost of the challenge also increase, until it reaches 2 degrees Celsius. Beyond that point, there is currently no known solution for coral reef recovery.

He anticipates that Dubai will be the initial conference to address the concept of “minimizing overshoot in order to maintain a 1.5C goal”. This would imply acknowledging that this limit will be surpassed, but keeping it as a goal for the world to strive towards as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, there is currently no straightforward method to achieve this. Obura points out that even a slight increase of 0.1 degrees in temperature can greatly increase the challenges and expenses of restoration efforts. Sadly, for numerous types of coral, it may be unfeasible due to the loss of susceptible species and genetic material.

However, he recognizes that aiming for a maximum temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius may be a more practical and fair approach than simply allocating resources towards a lofty and unattainable goal.

The gradual melting of polar ice caps and the subsequent rise in sea levels.

1.5C Cop28 graphic

Island nations with limited land area are facing greater challenges in finding common ground. The survival of these nations, which have very low elevation, hinges on the difference of half a degree between a 1.5 degree and 2 degree increase in temperature. This small difference could result in a minimum of 10cm rise in sea levels by the end of this century, putting an additional 10 million people at risk of being affected by flooding and storm surges.

It also increases the likelihood of uncommon occurrences, such as the sudden collapse of a significant glacier in Antarctica.

“Our existence is in jeopardy,” stated Dr. Pa’olelei Luteru, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, emphasizing the urgency of the situation.

To avoid the most severe consequences of climate change, it is crucial that we adhere to the 1.5C warming limit. Our islands are already experiencing these impacts, such as land loss due to rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of storms leading to loss of lives and homes, lack of access to clean drinking water, and depletion of agricultural resources.

The Arctic Circle is experiencing a rapid increase in temperature, with some areas already 4C warmer than pre-industrial times. This has caused concern not only for rising sea levels, but also for the melting of permafrost, the release of methane emissions, and the disturbance of the jet stream. These factors pose a growing threat to human survival as temperatures continue to rise.

David King, the former chief scientific advisor to the UK government, stated that tipping points are occurring sooner than anticipated. The ice that has been present at the north pole for hundreds of thousands of years is now melting, rather than serving its purpose of reflecting sunlight back into space.

He continues to prioritize a goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, however, he anticipates that it will be surpassed in the near future and therefore recognizes the importance of increased human action in managing the climate.

“We need to address the issue of gas emissions and find ways to deflect sunlight from the Arctic circle. This requires a lot of work and we have limited time to accomplish it.”

The top priority, however, is still the elimination of fossil fuels. “We are emitting over 30 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually. If we don’t change that, we’re in trouble,” he stated.

Adaptation and the value of compensation

1.5C Cop28 graphic

Climate disruption is part of our lives. As hot as this year has been, scientists say it will seem relatively cool in the coming decades and humanity’s ability to cope becomes more difficult and expensive the more the world waits and warms.

Aïda Diongue-Niang, a Senegal Meteorological Agency representative and lead author for the IPCC, stated that the organization’s latest synthesis report has noted an increasing influence on at-risk and disadvantaged communities, such as Indigenous populations and small-scale farmers.

Although countries have agreed to create a loss and damage fund to compensate the worst-affected nations, she noted the diminishing effectiveness of economic support in a heating world. At 1.5C, money would go further in rebuilding nations than at 2C.

According to Diongue-Niang, the efficacy of adaptation decreases as global warming intensifies.

By limiting global warming to 1.5C, there is a higher chance that warm water coral reefs, polar and mountain ecosystems, coastal wetlands, and rainforests will be able to adapt to any changes caused by humans.

The negative effects, such as reduced access to water and decreased food production, would be reduced in regions and communities that are at risk. Any resulting losses and damages would also be minimized.

In 2023, she stated that the severe weather occurrences should serve as a reminder to take decisive measures in order to limit global warming to 1.5C, or as close to it as possible, by the year 2100.

She maintained that it is still attainable, citing advancements in renewable energy, but expressed concern that the oil industry and skepticism about the potential for change could hinder aspirations once more.

She expressed that the resistance from the fossil fuel industry and their lobbying efforts, along with the self-interest of certain states and individuals, pose a threat to achieving 1.5C.

I am concerned that there may be an argument made that achieving the 1.5C target is not feasible, which could lead to further postponement of necessary steps to reduce emissions immediately.

Source: theguardian.com