Briefing

The 'hard truths' of our climate failures

Why it's time to start thinking beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius

The world has approximately nine years to significantly reduce its level of greenhouse gas emissions, or it will blow through the "carbon budget" allotted to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That's according to a recent assessment from the 2022 Global Carbon Budget. The 1.5 degrees target was enshrined in the 2015 U.N. Paris Climate Agreement, where 193 countries agreed to do their part to reduce emissions enough to avoid irreparable climate damage. But meeting that goal is becoming less and less likely, forcing global leaders to grapple with some hard truths. Here's everything you need to know:

Is 1.5 degrees Celsius still within reach?

Not unless the world starts making way more of an effort to cut emissions. To meet the 1.5-degree goal, emissions would need to peak by 2025 at the absolute latest, which seems highly unlikely. The temperature increase is already at 1.2 degrees Celsius. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in April warning it is "almost inevitable" that the world temperature will surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius even in the next few years. 

Under current emissions-reduction efforts, the world is en route to 2.6 degrees of warming by the end of the century, according to the U.N. Emissions Gap Report. If every country were to meet its U.N. pledge, that could be reduced to a 1.8-degree increase. But governments are not prioritizing climate action. Of the 193 countries that signed on to the Paris agreement, only 24 brought actual plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to COP27, the annual U.N. climate summit. This year's carbon emissions are set to hit a record high, with no sign of dropping, reports The New York Times. The U.S.'s emissions increased by 1.5 percent and global emissions are 1 percent higher than in 2021. "In terms of a trajectory and also in terms of policies, we are just not on track for 1.5 or even 2 degrees," Julia Steinberger, economist and professor from Switzerland's University of Lausanne, told CNBC.

Why are we missing the mark?

Political dithering and global economic pressures have made it hard for many countries to reach their goals. Gas prices remain high all over the world due to the war in Ukraine as well as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) slashing oil production. With desperate times come desperate measures: President Biden softened his stance on oil and gas leases in light of the surging energy costs. Europe, facing a winter of high energy costs, is looking for immediate drilling solutions even while it tries to increase renewables.

But there's also a problem of accountability. Some argue the Paris agreement failed to hold countries to their emission-reduction commitments. The Economist writes that the agreement "adopted a Herculean goal without any plausible plan for reaching it" and that global leaders "need to be more pragmatic, and face up to some hard truths."

What kinds of hard truths?

Going over 1.5 degrees Celsius "does not doom the planet," but the consequences will be dire indeed. Coral reefs will die out due to warming water temperatures; storms worldwide will strengthen; cities will flood due to rising sea levels, NPR explains. Coastal populations are at risk of losing their homes and habitats. Other nations will be more prone to droughts and water shortages, particularly in the Mediterranean region. NASA posits that close to 61 million more people would be exposed to drought conditions with 2 degrees of warming compared to 1.5 degrees. Higher temperatures would also cause many species to die off, and others to move northward towards cooler temperatures, which could lead to increased disease and potentially more pandemics

For the most part, the highest polluting countries — the U.S. among them — are less likely to face the immediate ecological consequences of climate change, while smaller and poorer countries will bear the brunt. This has been the main theme at COP27: The African continent is already feeling the extreme effects of a warming world, and has demanded developed countries pay reparations for climate-related "loss and damage."

Should we be planning for an overshoot?

"Time for some realism," writes The Economist. Understanding that the 1.5-degrees goal is almost certainly out of reach may be painful, but will also help nations get pragmatic and adjust their plans. For example, global investment in renewable energy should be tripled, and more attention should be put on climate adaptation, especially in developing countries. Richer nations should be actively working to invest in minimizing the damage. 

Admitting that dangerous warming is inevitable opens the door for policymakers to "consider more radical ways to cool it," The Economist adds. Technologies like geoengineering and direct carbon capturing may be able to reverse some emissions and bring down temperatures over time but will require huge investment to bring to scale. 

Is there any good news?

There are some glimmers of hope. Experts believe there does seem to be some "leveling off" of human emissions, especially since emissions from land-use changes like deforestation are 10 times less than fossil fuel emissions this year, CBS News reports. Also, the International Energy Agency forecast that Russia's war on Ukraine may actually speed up the transition to renewable energy because many nations are striving for energy independence.

Admitting defeat on 1.5-degrees allows world leaders an opportunity to refocus their efforts with new, achievable goals in mind, The Economist adds. They should be "chastened by failure, not lulled by false hope." And just because the world may have missed the first target does not delegitimize the overall goal of limiting warming as much as possible. Experts have even posited that temperatures can be brought down by the end of the century. "We have to reduce ... greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible," says Pierre Friedlingstein, the lead author of the Global Carbon Budget. "There's no time to wait."

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