In the fight against climate change, one figure stands out above all others: 1.5 degrees Celsius. It can be hard to wrap your head around the implications of a warming world, but the difference between 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius is profound. To give one example: At 1.5 degrees Celsius, we're talking about losing 70 percent of coral reefs; at 2 degrees Celsius, corals will be gone. At 1.5 degrees Celsius, 1 in every 100 Arctic summers will be ice-free; at 2 degrees Celsius it’s 1 in 10.
With the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow now nearing the finish line, one of the biggest questions it needs to answer is whether it kept the 1.5 degrees Celsius target alive. UK prime minister Boris Johnson has urged countries to “pull out all the stops in the next few days to keep 1.5 alive.” And a statement from the “high ambition coalition” calling on countries to deliver more ambitious climate pledges in line with 1.5 degrees Celsius ahead of COP27 now has 41 supporter countries, including the United States.
For countries like the Marshall Islands, which faces obliteration from climate change if emissions are not reigned in, the very idea of not ramping up short-term climate pledges is a nonstarter. “We have to come back to make sure that nationally determined contributions are aligned with 1.5 degrees C,” said Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands at COP26, on November 10. “We have to have something in place that gets us back to the table until those targets are delivered.”
With all the mixed messages coming out of COP26, it can be hard to decipher how close we are to achieving the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal. An analysis released last week by the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the climate pledges made so far at COP26 could help limit global warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. But a separate analysis from Climate Action Tracker (CAT) found that current pledges add up to 2.4 degrees Celsius warming by the end of the century, with actual policies and actions on the ground putting the world on track for a massive 2.7 degrees Celsius warming, a pathway UN chief Antonio Guterres has called “catastrophic.” The real-world differences between 1.8 degrees Celsius and 2.7 degrees Celsius would be profound.
So what’s going on? The issue is that these are all projections, which by their very nature have to make certain assumptions about what will happen. The IEA’s assessment assumed all long-term net zero pledges will be met and incorporated top-level pledges made last week, such as the one to cut methane emissions 30 percent by 2030.
But all of these pledges are not currently included in countries’ more formal, shorter-term climate pledges to the UN, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
When CAT made the same assumptions as the IEA, it actually came up with the same numbers, says Niklas Höhne, a partner at NewClimate Institute and coauthor of the CAT analysis. “We also have a very optimistic scenario that goes down to 1.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, but we basically warn that this is not likely to happen,” he says. “Countries do not have sufficient short-term policies in place to move themselves on a pathway toward their own net-zero targets. The short-term is the problem.”
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
These shorter-term NDC pledges are key for two reasons. Firstly, because they were made under the Paris Agreement they have a whole system of accountability to measure, report, and verify progress. For pledges made outside this system, tracking progress can be difficult, says Fernanda de Carvalho, a global climate policy expert at WWF.
Secondly, the world seriously needs to ramp up its short-term ambition. We need to cut emissions by around 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 to stay on track and limit temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the IPCC. But current short-term pledges line up to a 14 percent rise by 2030. Far stronger action is needed now.
Under the Paris Agreement, countries should ramp up their climate pledges every five years, meaning they would only do this again in 2025. But in acknowledgement of the huge gap between current pledges and aligning with 1.5 degrees Celsius, there is a proposal on the table at this COP for countries to come back to the table next year with better pledges. This is in the draft text, but it remains to be seen whether it will be in the final outcome, due to be published on Friday when the conference ends (although COPs tend to go well over schedule). The 55 Climate Vulnerable Forum countries and some 60 nonprofits are calling for an “emergency pact” which would include assessment and revision of national climate plans every year from now on.
Ramping up climate pledges is not as simple as getting countries to name a number. It needs to come as part of a package of effort, says de Carvalho. For example, it has long been accepted that developing countries get financial support from developed countries in their transitions to a cleaner economy, but developed countries so far haven’t lived up to that promise. Without more climate finance, poorer countries such as India are unlikely to be willing to take as much action. As Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley said at the beginning of COP26, “1.5 degrees Celsius is the goal, climate finance the open sore.”
The timing of delivering pledges to keep 1.5 degrees Celsius is running out. “If we wait five years, 1.5 degrees Celsius is probably not achievable anymore,” says Höhne. “We have a huge task ahead of us, and that task has to start immediately after this conference.”
Explore the ways humans are tackling the climate crisis. Sign up to Chasing Zero, WIRED’s weekly climate briefing. It’s free to subscribe and it’s in your inbox every Thursday.
More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!Is Becky Chambers the ultimate hope for science fiction?Growing crops under solar panels? There's a bright ideaThese steaming-hot gifts are perfect for coffee loversHow Dune's VFX team made sandworms from scratchHow to fix Facebook, according to Facebook employees👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🎧 Things not sounding right? Check out our favorite wireless headphones, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers