“Limiting global warming to 1.5ºCelcius would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in a new assessment made public on Monday.
The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC was approved by the IPCC on Saturday in Incheon, South Korea.
It will be a key scientific input into the Katowice Climate Change Conference in Poland in December, when governments review the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change. As many as 91 authors and review editors from 40 countries, including from India, prepared the IPCC report in response to an invitation from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) when it adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015.
“With more than 6,000 scientific references cited and the dedicated contribution of thousands of expert and government reviewers worldwide, this important report testifies to the breadth and policy relevance of the IPCC,” said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC in a statement.
“One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.
What half a degree can do?
The report highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5ºC compared to 2ºC, or more.
For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99 percent) would be lost with 2ºC.
Limiting warming to 0.5°C from now means the world can keep “a semblance” of the ecosystems we have. Adding another 0.5°C on top of that the looser global goal essentially means a different and more challenging Earth for people and species, said another of the report’s lead authors, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Australia.
But meeting the more ambitious goal of slightly less warming would require immediate, draconian cuts in emissions of heat-trapping gases and dramatic changes in the energy field. While the U.N. panel says technically that’s possible, it saw little chance of the needed adjustments happening.
In 2010, international negotiators adopted a goal of limiting warming to 2°C since pre-industrial times. It’s called the 2° goal. In 2015, when the nations of the world agreed to the historic Paris climate agreement, they set dual goals — 2°C and a more demanding target of 1.5°C from pre-industrial times. The 1.5° was at the urging of vulnerable countries that called 2°C a death sentence.
The world has already warmed 1°C since pre-industrial times, so the talk is really about the difference of another half-degree C from now.
“There is no definitive way to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 above pre-industrial levels,” the U.N.-requested report said. More than 90 scientists wrote the report, which is based on more than 6,000 peer reviews.
“Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate,” the report states.
Deep in the report, scientists say less than 2% of 529 of their calculated possible future scenarios kept warming below the 1.5° goal without the temperature going above that and somehow coming back down in the future.
The pledges nations made in the Paris agreement in 2015 are “clearly insufficient to limit warming to 1.5 in any way,” one of the study’s lead authors, Joerj Roeglj of the Imperial College in London, said.
“I just don’t see the possibility of doing the one and a half” and even 2 degrees looks unlikely, said Appalachian State University environmental scientist Gregg Marland, who isn’t part of the U.N. panel but has tracked global emissions for decades for the U.S. Energy Department. He likened the report to an academic exercise wondering what would happen if a frog had wings.
‘Monumental task, but not impossible’
Yet report authors said they remain optimistic.
Limiting warming to the lower goal is “not impossible but will require unprecedented changes,” U.N. panel chief Hoesung Lee said in a news conference in which scientists repeatedly declined to spell out just how feasible that goal is. They said it is up to governments to decide whether those unprecedented changes are acted upon.
“We have a monumental task in front of us, but it is not impossible,” Mahowald said earlier. “This is our chance to decide what the world is going to look like. ”
To limit warming to the lower temperature goal, the world needs “rapid and far-reaching” changes in energy systems, land use, city and industrial design, transportation and building use, the report said. Annual carbon dioxide pollution levels that are still rising now would have to drop by about half by 2030 and then be near zero by 2050. Emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane, also will have to drop. Switching away rapidly from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas to do this could be three to four times more expensive than the less ambitious goal, but it would clean the air of other pollutants. And that would have the side benefit of avoiding more than 100 million premature deaths through this century, the report said.
“Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming” the report said, adding that the world’s poor are more likely to get hit hardest.
Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said extreme weather, especially heat waves, will be deadlier if the lower goal is passed.
Meeting the tougher-to-reach goal “could result in around 420 million fewer people being frequently exposed to extreme heat waves, and about 65 million fewer people being exposed to exceptional heat waves,” the report said. The deadly heat waves that hit India and Pakistan in 2015 will become practically yearly events if the world reaches the hotter of the two goals, the report said.
Coral and other ecosystems are also at risk. The report said warmer water coral reefs “will largely disappear.”
The outcome will determine whether “my grandchildren would get to see beautiful coral reefs,” Princeton’s Oppenheimer said.