Global warming cannot be limited to 1.5°C.
To accept that the world’s average temperature might rise by more than 1.5°C, declared the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands in 2015, would be to sign the “death warrant” of small, low-lying countries such as his. To widespread surprise, the grandees who met in Paris that year, at a climate conference like the one starting in Egypt next week, accepted his argument. They enshrined the goal of limiting global warming to about 1.5°C in the Paris agreement, which sought to co-ordinate national efforts to curb emissions of greenhouse gases.
No one remembered to tell the firing squad, however. The same countries that piously signed the Paris agreement have not cut their emissions enough to meet its targets; in fact global emissions are still growing. The world is already about 1.2°C hotter than it was in pre-industrial times. Given the lasting impact of greenhouse gases already emitted, and the impossibility of stopping emissions overnight, there is no way Earth can now avoid a temperature rise of more than 1.5°C. There is still hope that the overshoot may not be too big, and may be only temporary, but even these consoling possibilities are becoming ever less likely.
The consequences of the world’s failure to curb emissions are catastrophic, and not just for coral atolls in the Pacific. Climate-related disasters are proliferating, from Pakistan, much of which was inundated by this summer’s unusually intense monsoon, to Florida, which in September endured its deadliest hurricane since 1935. Even less lethal distortions of the weather, such as this summer’s extraordinary heatwave in Europe, do enormous economic damage, impeding transport, wrecking infrastructure and sapping productivity.
The response to all this should be a dose of realism. Many activists are reluctant to admit that 1.5°C is a lost cause. But failing to do so prolongs the mistakes made in Paris, where the world’s governments adopted a Herculean goal without any plausible plan for reaching it. The delegates gathering in Egypt should be chastened by failure, not lulled by false hope. They need to be more pragmatic, and face up to some hard truths.
First, cutting emissions will require much more money. Roughly speaking, global investment in clean energy needs to triple from today’s $1trn a year, and be concentrated in developing countries, which generate most of today’s emissions. Solar and wind power can be cheaper to build and run than more polluting types, but grids need to be rebuilt to cope with the intermittency of the sun and the wind. Concessionary lending and aid from rich countries are essential and a moral imperative. However, the sums required are far greater than what might plausibly be squeezed out of Western donors or multilateral organisations such as the World Bank.
So the governments of developing countries, especially middle-income ones, will have to work with the rich world to mobilise private investment. On the part of developing countries, that will involve big improvements to the investment climate and an acceptance that they will have to cede some control over energy policy. On the part of donors, it will involve focusing spending on schemes that “crowd in” private capital, such as indemnifying investors against political and regulatory risks, taking equity stakes in private projects and agreeing to absorb the first tranche of losses if things go wrong. They will have to do things they dislike, such as helping the poorest countries shut coal plants. But without give on both sides, the world will bake.
The second hard truth is that fossil fuels will not be abandoned overnight. Europe is scrambling to build import facilities for natural gas, having lost access to Russian supplies, precisely because it cannot come up with any immediate alternative. For some poorer countries investments in gas, in conjunction with renewables, are still necessary: helping more citizens get life-enhancing electricity is a moral imperative, too.
The third truth is that because 1.5°C will be missed, greater efforts must be made to adapt to climate change. Adaptation has always been the neglected step-child of climate policy, mistrusted by activists as a distraction from cutting emissions or, worse, an excuse not to make any cuts. But no matter what, the world now faces more floods, droughts, storms and wildfires. For developing countries especially, but also for rich ones, preparing for these calamities is a matter of life and death.
Fortunately, as our special report argues, a lot of adaptation is affordable. It can be as simple as providing farmers with hardier strains of crops and getting cyclone warnings to people in harm’s way. Better still, such measures tend to have additional benefits beyond helping people cope with climate change. This is an area where even modest help from rich countries can have a big impact.
Yet they are not coughing up the money they have promised to help the poorest ones adapt. That is unfair: why should poor farmers in Africa, who have done almost nothing to make the climate change, be abandoned to suffer as it does? If the rich world allows global warming to ravage already fragile countries, it will inevitably end up paying a price in food shortages and proliferating refugees.
Finally, having admitted that the planet will grow dangerously hot, policymakers need to consider more radical ways to cool it. Technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, now in their infancy, need a lot of attention. So does “solar geoengineering”, which blocks out incoming sunlight. Both are mistrusted by climate activists, the first as a false promise, the second as a scary threat. On solar geoengineering people are right to worry. It could well be dangerous and would be very hard to govern. But so will an ever hotter world. The worthies in Egypt need to take that on board.
Overshooting 1.5°C does not doom the planet. But it is a death sentence for some people, ways of life, ecosystems, even countries. To let the moment pass without some hard thinking about how to set the world on a better trajectory would be to sign yet more death warrants. ■
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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "Goodbye 1.5°C"