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1.5C degree goal 'extremely unlikely'

Ruby Russell with AFP and Reuters
January 15, 2018

A draft report from the IPCC says only huge and rapid change in the way we live can keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the lower limit set out by the Paris Agreement. Reactions to the leaked paper vary.

Pazifik Tuvalu Funafuti - steigender Meeresspiegel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Kyodo

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reportedly issued a paper saying that without drastic measures to cut carbon emissions, reduce our energy use and remove carbon already in the atmosphere, we are "extremely unlikely" to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Currently, the planet's average temperature is on course to rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2040, the document says.

The IPCC distributed the draft to researchers around the world for reviewing late last week. Media outlets including Reuters and AFP said they had seen the paper, which the IPCC calls a "working document" that is likely to change before publication in October this year.

But its assessment of the likelihood of keeping climate change below 1.5 degrees chimes with that of previously published studies around 1.5 degrees and the views of leading climate scientists

Drax Power Station near Selby, North Yorkshire, England
Despite the Paris Agreement, fossil-fuel power plants continue to be built around the worldImage: picture-alliance/empics/A. Gowthorpe

Tearing through the carbon budget

It is very unlikely we would be able to give up fossil fuels by 2040 — necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees — "if you look at the next 10 years and what we are going to be burning just by virtue of how the economy is set up," Karsten Haustein, a climate and policy researcher told DW.

With the 2015 Paris Agreement, close to 200 nations agreed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to keep warming below 1.5 degrees. But no binding measures were put in place to meet these goals.

Although each country submitted its own plans to cut emissions, the combined impact of these savings falls far short of the measures needed to keep warming below 2 degrees. 

In Paris, the IPCC was mandated to prepare the report covering impacts and feasibility of the 1.5 degree lower limit.

Data visualisation: Carbon budget

Developing nations at risk

Developing countries — and in particular low-lying island nations — are at the greatest risk from climate change, and had therefore pushed for the 1.5 degree limit to be included in the agreement.

Sabine Minninger, climate expert at nongovernmental organization Bread for the World, has worked extensively in the Pacific islands. She told DW despite her gut feeling the 1.5 degree limit was beyond reach, she believes the implications of such a finding are devastating.

"We already see more frequent and more intense storms in the Pacific," Minninger said. "And the islanders feel already the negative impacts of sea level rise. Salt has contaminated freshwater supplies — all the wells on Tuvalu are now salty, and there is salt in the ground, so agriculture is no longer possible."

Rising sea levels aren't the only danger. Haustein said governments don't seem to grasp the full implication of how change climate can fuel conflict and destabilize society.

A woman and boy carry a pig through floodwaters on the island of Tuvalu during Cyclone Pam on March 13, 2015
Residents of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu struggled with floodwaters following Cyclone PamImage: Getty Images/Plan International Australia

Political failure

It's not just the costs of warming and the increase in extreme weather, Haustein adds. "What really matters is drought — where a certain type of crop fails, you have limited food supply, and prices go up," he said.

"Destabilization of certain regions is the result."

According to Reuters, the IPCC document says limiting temperature rise to 1.5-degree is technically possible, but would require unprecedented economic shifts from fossil fuels.

Minninger boiled down failure to implement such change to a lack of political will. 

"The technology is available, so we can't say it's not possible," she said. "We have been having climate negotiations for 20 years already, and no serious steps have been taken. Not a single ton of CO2 has been reduced."

"Climate change is a miserable political failure," Minninger concluded.

Global Climate March in Berlin on November 29, 2015
Despite protestors campaigns against coal, the climate accord does not mandate concrete action to quit fossil fuelsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

Paris logic

Haustein said including the "theoretically possible" 1.5 degree limit in the Paris Agreement gave the impression the situation was less dire than it is.

"I wasn't in favor of having it there," he told DW.

Haustein said even limiting global warming to 2 degrees would require extremely far-reaching change, and we should therefore focus our efforts on achieving that goal.

Minninger thinks the world should continue to work toward a more ambitious target.

"If we can't reach the 1.5 degree target, we must aim for keeping global warming below 1.6 degrees.

That's what's missing from the debates that follow the Paris logic, she says. "If we miss this 1.5 target, it doesn't mean we have the freedom for another 0.5 degrees."

"For countries like Tuvalu, 0.5 degrees represents a brutal change in living conditions," she added.