This post is by Joseph Evans, researcher at IPPR on the Cohort 2040 project.
Global heating is edging closer to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It’s possible that average surface temperatures could temporarily breach 1.5°C as early as this year as a result of the El Niño weather phenomenon.
This difficult reality is provoking debate among climate advocates. The UN Secretary General António Guterres has judged that the 1.5°C target is “gasping for breath”. Some have gone further, pronouncing it as “dead”. Others have warned that sounding the death knell on the Paris climate agreement target risks playing into the hands of malevolent actors who have a vested interest in watering down global ambitions to reduce emissions.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) maintains that it is still possible to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C before the end of the century, and that it will require the “systemic transformation” of societies. The same is true for 2°C. In either scenario, the IPCC says the world needs nothing less than “fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations”.
We should perceive the emerging debate over the prospects for 1.5°C as a proxy for a wider, more fundamental debate about whether transformational change is possible, and what it should look like.
The targets narrative influences politics
Stories about the prospects for the 1.5°C goal have an impact on climate politics. Alok Sharma argued that 1.5°C was “still alive” ahead of the COP27 climate conference in an attempt to spur greater international commitments to slash emissions. It could be argued that this is motivating. But, given current policy commitments set the world on a trajectory for 2.5°C of global heating, this narrative risks entrenching complacency over the reality that governments and businesses are failing to deliver the depth and speed of transformation needed to keep the 1.5°C target “alive”.
In comparison, those pronouncing 1.5°C as “dead” might think they are issuing a wake up call to stimulate faster and deeper change. Climate advocates have deployed this narrative in good faith to argue that the fossil fuel industry should be their primary target. But this is also fraught with danger: it has been used to defend 2°C pathways and promote untested technologies like geoengineering, instead of pursuing deeper emissions cuts.
Lurking beneath the debate about whether 1.5°C is alive or dead is the implicit question whether societies, especially those in the global south, can manage the risks of surpassing 1.5°C of global heating? These include cascading socioeconomic shocks, like food crises and geopolitical competition, as well as the triggering of potentially catastrophic climate tipping points.
In all this, environmental advocates face a bind. Transformational change is inescapable to avoid climate catastrophe, but the “fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations” urged by the IPCC aren’t materialising. At the same time, alternative narratives which highlight the growing likelihood of overshooting the 1.5°C goal risk being exploited by climate ‘delayers’.
Breaching the target could play into the hands of climate delayers
Politicians, policy makers and campaigners have to wrestle with the threats and opportunities posed by the increasing proximity to 1.5°C. We need to anticipate important moments and their associated risks, such as a possible temporary breach of 1.5°C as early as this year. This requires policy responses and narratives to strengthen the case for transformational change and pre-empt push back from those with an interest in delaying action.
This will be challenging. The UK environmental movement is already grappling with domestic political push back and policy hurdles, continually exacerbated by economic and geopolitical volatility. But it’s imperative that we carve out the space for these discussions as soon as possible.
Making a stronger case for deep change will mean improving the promotion of the enormous co-benefits that societies will reap from cutting emissions, including cleaner air and warmer homes, as well as the potential for lower inequality and stronger democracy. It means seeing policy areas, like debates around austerity or corporate governance, as environmental issues as well, which can hold back investment and perpetuate the power of fossil fuel firms. And it also means being upfront about the problems and injustices of relying on negative emissions technologies and flirting with geoengineering, and about the intolerable risks of cascading climate shocks and tipping points.
An abstract debate about the prospect of keeping within 1.5°C without emphasising all these issues diverts attention away from what needs to be done. Whether we aim for 1.5°C or 2°C misses the point: as the IPCC has said, the world must tackle global heating by every fraction of a degree possible, as every reduction we can achieve will be vital for the communities most exposed to the increasingly deadly effects of global warming. Ultimately, the push for emissions reductions must be underpinned by a clear vision of the transformational systemic changes needed to enable and drive them. Only with this can climate delay be prevented.