Six years ago, in Paris, the world signed a landmark climate deal. The collective promise was to limit the increase in global average temperature to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial times, and “pursuing efforts” to hold the line at 1.5 C.
Three years ago, in South Korea, United Nations climate scientists made clear what was necessary to contain heating to 1.5 C: “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” There was an emphasis on the importance of each fraction of global warming. The intensity of everything – sea-level rise, species extinctions, extreme temperatures, storms, fires, droughts – would be worse the hotter the planet got.
This fall, heading into the UN climate summit in Glasgow, it was obvious the world’s promises clashed with the world’s reality. Before Paris, the catastrophic trajectory was heating of more than 4 C by 2100. Post-Paris policies helped cut that to the range of 2.7 C and, if all current climate pledges were fulfilled – the many declarations of net zero – the number could be 2.1 C.
None of it had been enough. The goal in Glasgow was to “keep 1.5 C alive.”
Over the two-week summit, a lot was achieved. There were agreements on methane, coal and deforestation. They were imperfect deals – China and the United States were absent when they should have been leaders – but it was progress. China and the U.S. – the two largest economies, and two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – did their own bilateral deal, a vague agreement, but one that sparked some hope.
In the end, as 197 countries agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact on Saturday, the meeting’s goal was, at best, barely achieved. The deal did break new ground. The text, for the first time, includes a push against coal and fossil fuels. But it’s heavily hedged. And India, backed by China – at the last second, when the summit was in overtime on Saturday – moved to change the wording around coal from “phase out” to “phase down.”
Yes, 1.5 C isn’t dead but, in the words of COP26 president Alok Sharma, “its pulse is weak.”
The average temperature is already up 1.1 C, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last August that it could hit 1.5 C around 2040.
Coming out of Glasgow, the temperature increase in 2100 could be held to 1.8 C, according to the International Energy Agency. This is what the group Climate Action Tracker calls the “optimistic scenario.” The main problem is the world has not heeded the urgency made clear by the UN in 2018. Change has to be big, and it has to happen fast and soon. Eventual change – net zero by 2050 – is great, but driving emissions down this decade is what’s really necessary.
For Canada, this means an emissions cut of 40 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels, to about 440 megatonnes. The last official count was 730 MT in 2019. The gap is huge – more than all the emissions of Ontario and Quebec combined.
Now think of every country in the world. Look at U.S. President Joe Biden, who is ambitious, but Congress is less so. China could be the world leader in renewables but remains deeply hooked on coal.
The price of blasting past 1.5 C will be paid by everyone around the world, but in particular by more vulnerable, poorer countries. “What looks balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time,” said the Environment Minister of the country of islands in the Indian Ocean. “It will be too late for the Maldives.”
To combat climate heating requires a never-before-seen level of global co-operation. The world has not been able to overcome domestic self-interest but it has moved relatively quickly in a short amount of time.
Glasgow encapsulates this. Progress, but not enough progress. Glasgow is at once a disappointment and also offers hope. The prominent American climate scientist Michael Mann said he sees “a potential path” to 1.5 C for the first time. “There is still reason to believe that’s possible,” he wrote.
To reach the goal, countries have to act now. Limiting heating to 1.5 C, Mr. Sharma said, “will only survive if we keep our promises, if we translate commitments into rapid action, and if we deliver on the expectations set out in this Glasgow Climate Pact to increase ambitions to 2030, and beyond.”
The hope for 1.5 C is tenuous. The world is fast running out of time.
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