The world cannot afford warming of 2°C. To have a fighting chance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the goal must be firmly fixed at 1.5°C
The much anticipated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C was released on October 8, after a gruelling week-long deliberation by government representatives from 130 countries in Incheon, South Korea. The report has come out with some known and other unknown facts, and a dire prognosis.
The 1.5°C Report reiterates that the planet has already warmed by 1°C compared to pre-industrial levels and the impacts of this warming are already visible in the form of extreme weather events, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic Sea ice. This year alone, the world has been battered by extreme weather—heat waves and drought in Europe and China, forest fires in the US, dust storms and unprecedented rainfall in India (including the historical floods in Kerala) and high precipitation in Japan. With a further 0.5°C warming, the effects would be far greater than what scientists previously predicted.
A 1.5°C warmer world will see higher sea levels, higher temperatures and an increase in frequency and intensity of precipitation, floods, droughts and heat waves. At 1.5°C, some critical thresholds will be breached beyond which natural ecosystems would fundamentally change and, in some cases, take millennia to recover. For instance, sea levels would continue to rise for centuries even if we cap warming at 1.5°C. The thresholds for irreversible, multi-millennial loss of ice sheets in Greenland and west Antarctic may also be breached. The warming and acidification of oceans will cause a 70–90% loss of corals and will put the survival and growth of many marine species in jeopardy. As a result of all these factors, 100 million people in countries like India will go into poverty through impacts on agriculture, lost livelihood opportunities, adverse health impacts and population displacements.
If the warming of 1.5°C will have major impacts, impacts at 2°C would be catastrophic. So far, the world was made to believe that a warming of 2°C was manageable. Under the Paris Agreement, 1.5°C was put as an aspirational target and 2°C as the ‘real’ target. But this report has turned our understanding on what would happen at 2°C on its head.
A 2°C warmer world will lead to a 0.1 m higher rise in sea level than that caused by a warming of 1.5°C, inundating vast coastal areas and disrupting the lives of 10 million more people. Corals face complete extinction at 2°C and 2 million km2 of permafrost will melt over centuries, risking runaway climate change due to large-scale methane emissions.
A 2°C warmer world will devastate economies and ecosystems and push hundreds of millions of people back into poverty. Countries like India that have a large proportion of population dependent on agriculture would suffer pronounced impacts in the form of floods, drought, water scarcity and decrease in food production, exposing a greater proportion of an already vulnerable population to poverty and livelihood insecurity.
The world, therefore, cannot afford a warming of 2°C. The goal of climate change now must be firmly fixed to 1.5°C to have a fighting chance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But limiting warming to 1.5 °C will be very difficult, if not impossible. The report makes it clear that the current level of climate ambition, as set out under the Paris Agreement, cannot limit warming to even 2°C. In fact, global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052. To limit warming at 1.5°C, CO2 emissions will have to be reduced by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels and reach net-zero by 2050. This means that maximum efforts need to be done by 2030. This will be a herculean task considering the obstructionist behaviour of the United States, which is historically the largest polluter of the climate.
It was clear in Incheon that the US continues to pose the biggest obstacle in putting together a global coalition to fight climate change. The US delegation tried its best to dilute the findings of the 1.5°C Report and announced that it would leave the Paris Agreement at the earliest. Since Trump took office, the US has been obstructing the climate negotiations and promoting fossil fuels. How the rest of the world handles the climate-rogue behaviour of the Trump administration will decide whether the world will meet the 1.5°C goal.
The world, therefore, now needs a Plan B as Plan A. The Paris Agreement is insufficient. The first component of Plan B should be to quickly achieve global consensus to make 1.5°C the new target. There will be an inclination amongst countries to reject 1.5°C as impractical and instead keep the focus on 2°C. But, this would be disastrous for the poor and developing countries. If the world keeps the target as 2°C, it will probably overshoot this target. If the world agrees to keep the warming within 1.5°C, it will probably contain it well within 2°C. This will save millions of lives.
Plan B requires building a new coalition that marginalises the overwhelming influence of the US in climate negotiations. This will mean a Paris Agreement plus approach that creates more forums for sector-specific and regional alliances on reducing emissions.
The one area where I disagree with the 1.5°C Report is with respect to the phasing out of fossil fuels. The report emphasises the need to reduce coal consumption rapidly, though it allows for the use of natural gas with carbon capture and storage. This differentiation between one fossil fuel with another is more politics than science. All studies show that natural gas is equally climate damaging if one includes methane leakages. If the world wants to meet the 1.5°C target, it will have to act on all fossil fuels simultaneously.
We will succeed with Plan B if the burden of this transition is shared equitably and fairly between nations and communities. As the 1.5°C Report points out, ‘social justice and equity are core aspects of climate-resilient development pathways that aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C’. The world, however, requires a new formulation of equity in which every country must act now and actively raise its level of ambition. Developed countries and rich developing countries must take the lead by rapidly de-carbonising their economies and reducing consumption. Poor developing countries should pursue low-carbon pathways more vigorously and limit the addition of fossil fuel assets going ahead.
Limiting warming to 1.5°C will be really hard. It will require ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in everything we do. Having said that, we are at the right time in history to make a serious attempt to meet this target. We have the scientific understanding and technology; money was never the problem. Limiting warming to 1.5°C requires investing an additional $2.4 trillion annually in the energy sector between now and 2035. This is about 2.5% of global GDP. In comparison, military spending in 2017 amounted to 2.2% of global GDP. The question is: Are we smart enough to switch money from killing to living?
-The writer is Deputy director general of Centre for Science and Environment. Twitter: Bh_Chandra