War, politics and business make reaching the 1.5°C target unlikely

Keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius is “currently implausible”, warns a new report from the University of Hamburg. The kinds of rapid, transformative social change needed to achieve this goal are simply not happening fast enough.

A less ambitious 2C target could still be in the cards, the report adds. But it would force world leaders to set more ambitious climate goals for their nations and implement them immediately.

The report, known as the “Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook”, examines factors affecting the world’s ability to meet its global climate goals. Nations participating in the Paris climate accord have pledged to keep global warming to well below 2C while working towards a more ambitious target of 1.5C.

The most recent reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly indicate that achieving these goals requires immediate and rapid global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The 1.5C threshold requires global emissions to reach net zero by 2050, the IPCC warns, and they are expected to decline by about half over the next decade.

But studies consistently show that global climate action is not happening fast enough to meet these demands. The UN’s latest annual Emissions Gap Report, which assesses global progress against the Paris targets, found that the climate policies currently in place around the world are not even sufficient to meet the target of 2 C, let alone 1.5 C.

As things stand, studies suggest that humanity could exceed the 1.5°C threshold within a decade or so. While it is still technically possible to achieve this – if world leaders take immediate action – climate scientists and policy experts increasingly recognize that it is unlikely to happen (climate wireNovember 11, 2022).

The new report from Hamburg confirms these fears.

The report examines 10 different social factors that may affect the world’s ability to achieve “deep decarbonization” in time to meet the Paris goals. These include UN governance, transnational initiatives, climate-related regulation, climate protests and social movements, climate litigation, corporate responses, fossil fuel divestment, consumption patterns, journalism and knowledge production on climate change.

Globally, none of them support deep decarbonization by 2050, according to the report.

Most of them are, in general, going in the right direction. They are simply not yet aggressive enough to be consistent with the kind of transformative social change required to achieve the 1.5C goal.

Journalism has an ambivalent influence, the report notes. Depending on the media organization, platform, and story framing, this sometimes helps climate action and sometimes hinders it.

And two social drivers are actively hampering global efforts to reach 1.5C. They are corporate responses and global consumption patterns. The report finds that “the majority of companies are still not responding adequately to support decarbonisation”.

Social change has been further complicated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the report adds.

Global lockdowns in 2020 caused a temporary drop in global carbon emissions. But as the world reopens, stimulus efforts to revive the global economy have likely increased global reliance on fossil fuels, the report suggests.

The long-term consequences of Russia’s war are less clear. But experts fear it could deepen future reliance on fossil fuels as places like Europe seek substitutes for Russian fuel.

The report also examines a handful of physical climate factors that could affect the rate of future warming. These include various feedback mechanisms and tipping points in the Earth’s climate system.

Permafrost, for example, is a common concern among climatologists. As the Earth warms and the frozen ground in the coldest places on the planet begins to melt, it can release large amounts of climate-warming carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. These emissions could, theoretically, further accelerate the rate of global warming.

Other potential physical drivers include the melting of Earth’s ice caps and shrinking sea ice; the potential slowing of giant ocean currents that carry heat; and the decay of the mighty Amazon rainforest, which stores billions of tons of carbon in its trees and soils.

Many of these factors raise serious long-term concerns. But the report notes that their influence by 2050 is likely to be relatively small.

This means that social drivers, rather than physical ones, remain the main obstacles to achieving the Paris goals. This is another nail in the coffin for the rapidly approaching 1.5C target.

“The required deep decarbonization is simply progressing too slowly,” said Anita Engels, social scientist at the University of Hamburg and co-author of the report.

It’s not all bad news. The report notes that the 2C target remains plausible – as long as the world takes immediate action to get on track.

In the meantime, the report also recommends that policymakers begin to make more serious efforts to adapt to an increasingly likely post-1.5C world. This means preparing for more intense heat, higher sea levels, more food insecurity, more forced climate migrations, and more extreme weather and climate disasters.

Instead of waiting for that world to arrive, the report stresses the importance of planning for it in advance, with a particular focus on the world’s most vulnerable people and places.

“In order to be equipped for a warmer world, we need to anticipate change, engage affected parties and leverage local knowledge,” Engels said. “Instead of just reacting, we need to start active transformation here and now.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential information for energy and environmental professionals

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