19 November, 2021

The strongest reason to keep 1.5°C within reach? The climate crisis that is already upon us

Just like most past climate conferences, COP26 delivered a mixed outcome, and people are entitled to feel angry, scared and frustrated at the glacial progress made. Glasgow was the first big test of Paris Agreement’s implementation and in particular its ambition ratchet-up mechanism – and it failed the test. Unpacking what happened at COP26, however, shows that there are grounds for hope.
2021  COP26. Presidnet.am, Wikimedia commons(CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

The reasons for criticism of COP26 are plentiful. They include the lack of strong language on climate finance, the refusal by rich countries to set up a separate fund to support vulnerable countries with climate change-induced loss and damage, and the last-minute weakening of the reference to coal phase-out, pushed through by India, supported by China and others.

The ‘Glasgow credibility gap’ between governments’ long-term net zero announcements and the lack of near-term, 2030 mitigation ambition, is a major concern. To put it simply, we are nowhere near where we need to be in terms of emissions reductions in 2030 to achieve net zero emissions around mid-century.

This gap leaves the 1.5°C limit ‘on life support’, as the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it. Failure to ultimately close it will make everything else harder and worse – adaptation, loss and damage, destruction of natural systems, sea level rise, you name it.

Glasgow did not close the 2030 gap, with the reduction of emissions adding up to about 25% of the necessary level. But neither did it resile from efforts to do this. The decision text – in this ‘critical decade’ – urges countries to submit new and stronger commitments for 2030 if they haven’t done so yet, while requesting that all other governments revisit and strengthen their targets in 2022 in line with the Paris Agreement temperature goal.

The call, loud and clear is, above all, addressed to the G20: closing the 2030 gap is in their hands. Meanwhile, many smaller countries have shown quite a remarkable commitment to the Paris Agreement and have already set themselves stronger targets.

Whether these words will be followed by strong action will decide the fate of the 1.5°C limit, and with that the fate of millions and our most precious natural systems.

Here are a few reasons to believe they might be.

Experiencing the climate catastrophe is changing the political calculus

We are nearing a universal consensus that climate change is an existential threat to humanity and future generations. Ever more compelling economic arguments for stringent mitigation are broadly accepted by decision makers and the private sector.

The ultimate argument for taking action now however is the scary reality of the climate crisis that is already upon us – and the very clear science that this is just the beginning of what we can expect. The latest landmark report of the IPCC is clear that temperatures in the 2010s were the highest sustained ones in probably 100,000 years. A recent study further strengthened this assessment.

The past few years have given a taste of what the reality of climate change means: Unprecedented heatwaves in Russia and North America reaching almost 50°C in Canada, horrible wildfires that overran the east of Australia, extreme rainfall and flooding after months’ worth of rainfall fell in the space of hours in China and parts of Europe, a severe drought and humanitarian catastrophe in Madagascar. The list is endless.

The complacency of many in the developed world has been shaken by these events. Even many who are deeply concerned about climate change have often held the feeling that this was far away and would affect poor people and developing countries. The catastrophic images of the floods in Germany and the mouth agape response from politicians and officials struggling to explain how this could happen on their watch expose for everyone that this is neither a poor countries’ nor a future problem. It’s everyone’s problem and it’s here and now.

For decades, climate scientists and activists have been warning about future catastrophes if we do not reduce emissions. Yet for too long, governments have shown little interest in averting catastrophic climate change expected to occur in a 50 to 100 years’ time.

The political calculus for far too long has been that mitigation benefits would only pay off in the long-term and it made more sense to prioritize short-term carbon intensive economic development. Another familiar strategy has been to point fingers at others, highlighting that the emissions of their own country or company are negligible.

But in this decade of unprecedented climate change, it may well be that the very same arguments that have helped the laggards be laggards for far too long will finally turn against them on the political stage. We are already seeing this in courtrooms.

The majority of the world’s population perceives climate change as a global emergency. And policy makers cannot make it go away any time soon. Even if global emissions finally start to fall, climate impacts will only get worse, year by year, until at least net zero CO2 emissions are reached and, for time-lagged impacts like sea level rise, well beyond.

Every year, more intense climate extremes will give rise to the same question: are we doing enough? And every year, the answer will be the same: no, we are not. Even if it was only for the lack of historical action and the responsibility arising from it. Every year this will expose again how government action is falling short of what science says is possible.

Governments’ best chance might be to argue that ‘they are doing the best they can’. But as long as they keep spending trillions subsidizing the climate chaos, they are clearly not even close to. Doing ‘the best you can’ at this point is to limit warming to 1.5°C. The science is clear that the 1.5°C limit is still within reach – if we halve our emissions by 2030.

A resounding commitment to 1.5°C in Glasgow

The language of the Glasgow Climate Pact on 1.5°C and climate impacts is stronger than ever before. Even Saudi Arabia said keeping 1.5 was a “no brainer”. Governments ‘expressed outmost concern’ about climate impacts occurring today, and unanimously reaffirmed their commitment to the 1.5°C limit. For those that have followed these talks, this is fairly remarkable: at COP24 in Katowice, the entire talks almost blew up because of a struggle to ‘welcome’ the science on 1.5°C.

More than scientific projections of how dire things might get, the best case for stringent climate action is now being made by the unavoidable experience of the climate crisis to date. It is not at all ideal that it has taken the emergence of real climate damages to shake politicians and governments into action. But it is creating change.

Certain governments – and corporations – will continue to try to get away with doing nothing or pretending that the fossil fuels they produce are part of the solution, while their country literally burns (looking at you, Australia), or their markets begin to turn (looking at Shell).

But this critical decade might go down in history as the one when the unprecedented climate crisis (finally) created unprecedented political pressure.

The Glasgow Climate Pact reflects that and provides a path to action.

So, what needs to be done in 2022 and who needs to do it?

More than 50 countries accounting for about 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions have either not significantly increased the ambition of their 2030 targets (“NDCs”), have just submitted the same old NDC or did no update at all. These countries include Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Tunisia, Viet Nam.

The Glasgow decision calls on all countries to come back in 2022 with higher ambition that matches the requirements for the Paris Agreement 1.5°C limit.

By the end of 2022 we also need to see more countries put in place the policies and actions that can close the gap between where emissions are headed, 2.7°C warming, versus where countries’ ambition needs to be.

The world needs to urgently deal with coal in 2022. There is no pathway to 1.5°C unless coal is essentially phased out by 2040 globally. India’s last-minute manoeuvre at Glasgow was as extraordinary as it was unnecessary, but it should be seen as a wakeup call to everyone that complacency on coal could be disastrous. As we have shown in a recent report, India can do a lot more on coal than it is doing with substantial benefits to the country’s economy. But to get to the really deep reduction pathway for coal, the country will need substantial international support. There is at present very little sign of this and this needs to change 2022.

Gas is the other major fossil fuel which has been the fastest source of CO2 emissions growth over the last decade and it is emerging as one of the bigger problems in the next one. There needs to be a consensus built on the need to phase out this fuel, in fact all fossil fuels. Our report shows that the gas phase-out can only be a decade or so slower than for coal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Glasgow COP saw the emergence of a Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance led by Denmark and Costa Rica – this needs to gain momentum by the end of 2022.

As vulnerable nations again reminded the world at COP26, “1.5°C to survive” applies to all of us. If 1.5°C is in intensive care, so is our future. The Glasgow Pact provides a new bloodline.

Let’s demand that governments act on the pact.