THE 1.5°C THRESHOLD
Saro Thiruppathy discusses the gist of the recent IPCC report on the apocalyptic impact of global warming
Many of us know the concept of global warming albeit vaguely. Some heard more about it after President Donald Trump drew attention to the Paris Agreement when he pooh-poohed it as a Chinese myth and set about withdrawing the US from the treaty. And some hear the terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ bandied about in the media every time there’s a cyclone, hurricane or drought, and thousands perish.
But very few take the time to find out exactly what’s going on and where Earth is heading at its current rate in terms of global warming. And the inheritors of a seriously messed up planet are the ones who need to be most concerned about the legacy they’re inheriting.
PARIS AGREEMENT World leaders came together in 2015 in Paris and agreed on a climate treaty, which in essence seeks to keep the Earth’s warming to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels – and try to cap it further at 1.5°C. While the Kyoto Protocol addressed only developed nations, the Paris Agreement sought the compliance of all countries on Planet Earth.
In order to motivate nations to comply, they were given the opportunity to submit Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). The NDCs spelt out national goals to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And it incorporated plans on how they hoped to achieve the targets.
Currently, 181 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement.
Article 4 of the agreement addresses the review and update of NDCs every five years. And under Article 13, which is also considered the backbone of the agreement, parties are required to report regularly on emissions and progress towards their NDCs under a transparent framework.
When the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, world governments invited the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to prepare a report on the impact of global warming at 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.
In October, the IPCC submitted its report in Incheon in South Korea. The narrative reads like a horror story for the future of the ‘third rock from the sun.’ And even the US delegation approved the contents of the summary for policy makers.
IPCC FINDINGS The IPCC report was compiled by 91 scientists hailing from 40 countries after having analysed over 6,000 scientific studies.
Originally, the Paris Agreement aimed to prevent the planet warming by more than 2°C over preindustrial levels, which was considered the threshold for the worst social and economic dangers from climate change. But anxious heads of many small island nations who fear rising sea levels requested that scientists also examine the impact of an increase of 1.5°C.
Scientists warn that if GHG emissions continue as they are, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 1.5°C by 2040. This doesn’t mean having to crank up the air conditioner to cool the surroundings. Instead, it means that as the Earth warms, sea levels will rise and inundate coastlines – and even sink smaller islands; atmospheric conditions will wreak havoc through hurricanes, cyclones and heatwaves; and droughts will intensify, and result in water scarcity and food shortages. The world will also witness an increase in the number of climate related migrations.
If governments fail to cap global warming at the 1.5°C mark and the Earth heats up by 2°C, there is a slim possibility of reversing it to the 1.5°C threshold through a combination of lower emissions and carbon capture. However, some of the damage that would have occurred will be irreversible – like the death of coral reefs, for example – but it is possible that the sea ice could reappear once the temperature cools down.
Under the current NDCs in the Paris Agreement, CO2 emissions will increase global warming by least 3°C by 2100. This could result in risking natural tipping points like the thawing of vast areas of permafrost and uncontrollably raising global temperatures. And reversing it to 1.5°C may not be possible at this point.
The IPCC says that while solutions do exist, they require unprecedented efforts in cutting the use of fossil fuel to less than half in 15 years and total elimination in 30 years.
Homes, industry and workplaces shouldn’t be heated using fossil fuels; there shouldn’t be any more petrol and diesel vehicles; coal mines and gas plants should be shut down; the petrochemical industry should be converted into green chemistry; and heavy industry should use carbon free energy or employ technology that captures and permanently stores CO2.
POLITICAL WILL Meanwhile, some signatories are busy implementing environmentally damaging projects like Canada’s tar sands mining, which is a destructive industrial project; Britain’s plans to take fracking planning decisions out of democratic control; Germany’s continuous destruction of old forests to expand lignite coal mining; and Norway’s relentless exploration for more fossil fuels.
As leaders like Trump, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Brazil’s newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro display disdain for the Paris Agreement, it is critical to remember that 2040 is only a little over 20 years away.
A scorched Earth is a distinct possibility in our lifetime, and nations need to rise up as one and demand that their leaders take the IPCC report seriously – or commit the world to a dismal future.