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We must accept we won’t meet 1.5°C climate target, says report

Social, political and technological inertia mean the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures is likely to be missed

Environment



23 June 2022

An environmental activist rallying in Germany – but we may need to accept that the 1.5°C climate target is out of reach

Jan Scheunert/ZUMA Wire/Shutterstock

The world’s failure to act seriously on cutting greenhouse gas emissions means meeting its 1.5°C climate change goal is implausible, according to two scientists calling for more honesty about the path Earth is headed for.

In a review of global action on climate change, including pledges at last year’s COP26 summit, Damon Matthews and Seth Wynes at Concordia University, Canada, said social, political and technological inertia meant the Paris Agreement’s temperature target was likely to be missed.

“It’s a call for honesty and action. Given the direction we are going right now, there is no prospect of coming close to 1.5°C,” says Matthews. Global emissions need to fall 43 per cent by 2030 to have a good chance of meeting the target, but have been steadily marching upwards for decades.

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The study follows recent research showing there is now an almost 50-50 chance of temporarily exceeding the goal within five years. Other analysis has shown there is a high chance of breaching it long-term, even in the unrealistic event of global emissions stopping overnight.

However, Matthews says while political and corporate efforts to cut emissions are falling short of what is needed, there have been signs of progress. The world is now on course to warm by between 2.5°C and 3°C by the end of the century, he says, not the 4°C to 5°C that was feared around a decade ago. “We have made progress, there are options, but we haven’t really embraced those options at the level [needed],” he says.

Car-free days in cities, revised motorway speed limits and cutting business air travel offer ways to reduce emissions immediately, Matthews and Wynes suggest. Such quick wins will need to be accompanied by major changes such as decarbonising energy grids and widespread adoption of electric cars and heat pumps, alongside behaviour changes including dietary shifts, they add.

The pair estimate the world’s remaining “carbon budget” for 1.5°C – the amount the world can emit before the goal is beyond reach – to be 360 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or about nine years of current annual emissions. “If we’re actually serious about the 1.5°C window, we have to try harder,” says Matthews.

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.abo3378

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