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Navigating the 1.5 Degrees Breach

March 2024 by Saaniya Sharma

Photo by Pixabay.

In 2023, the world witnessed an onslaught of extreme weather events, ranging from severe droughts and scorching heatwaves to devastating wildfires and hurricanes. These occurrences served as stark reminders of the deepening repercussions of the global climate crisis. Furthermore, 2023 etched its name in the record books as the first-year global warming surpassed the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius over 12 months, making it the hottest year on record since 1850. Continuing the trend of exceptional heat, January 2024 was the hottest January to date, casting yet another spotlight on the intensifying climate crisis.

What does this mean?

According to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the period spanning from February 2023 to January 2024 witnessed a significant warming of 1.52ºC compared to preindustrial times. This exceeds the critical threshold stipulated in the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to cap the global temperature increase at 1.5ºC. While this doesn’t exactly breach the Paris Agreement, it does bring the world closer to potential future breaches. Scientists argue that, despite the alarming increase, the globe has yet to permanently cross the crucial 1.5-degree warming threshold outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement, given that this target is measured over decades.

What do the experts think?

Scientists, researchers and policymakers acknowledge that surpassing the 1.5-degree limit necessitates a multiyear average, and without substantial emission reductions, this breach is anticipated within the next decade. Sir Brian Hoskins, Chair of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, underscored the urgency, describing the data as “a stark warning of the urgency for the action that is required to limit climate change at anything like the Paris targets.”

Many experts share the belief that achieving the climate target is becoming increasingly improbable due to the slow transition away from fossil fuels. The focus should pivot from merely fixing the final temperature to achieving zero carbon emissions, thereby preventing further contributions to global warming. Samantha Burgess, Deputy C3S Director, echoed this sentiment, emphasising the need for swift action to combat the escalating global temperatures. She asserted, “Rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are the only way to stop global temperatures from increasing.”

Insights from the Carbon Literacy Community

We spoke to some individuals within the Carbon Literacy network, and here’s what they shared:

Kate Whitfield, Carbon Literacy trainer and Director at Zeroverse, shed light on the disproportionate impacts of climate change, underscoring the urgency of the situation. She emphasised, “For millions, the planet is already too hot, causing water sources, farmland, and communities to suffer. More greenhouse gas emissions mean increasing temperatures, which means worse climate impacts. The world is already too hot, but the 1.5ºC threshold set in 2015 is an essential symbol of solidarity with people and countries experiencing the brunt of climate change impacts.

For me personally, reaching 1.5ºC of warming is very scary. Twice in the last few years, strong typhoons have knocked out power lines and flooded the area by the river. During a typhoon, receiving alerts on your phone all day and night is exhausting, and continually weighing up the risks between going out in typhoon winds to reach a shelter or staying put and hoping you won’t be affected by the floods and landslides. This year will be the hottest ever, and upcoming typhoons could be worse. We’re considering moving house to a more protected area, but most people don’t have that luxury. The 1.5ºC threshold is about solidarity. It says we won’t cross this line because the consequences will be too devastating for people who are most at risk from the impacts of climate change. We need to reduce emissions fast so that people don’t lose their homes, livelihoods, and lives.”

Dr Matthew Sawyer, Carbon Literacy trainer and Director of SEE Sustainability, explained, “Surpassing 1.5ºC temperature rise for a whole year was increasingly likely when viewed from the inadequate global efforts and outcomes of successive COPs. Witnessing the impacts of flooding, droughts, forest fires, and heatwaves on both humans and the planet is hard to stomach, but hope remains. In 2023, the El Nino phenomenon was likely to have played a part (though sceptics may claim success once the effect is removed in a few years and the temperature isn’t as high).

Despite acknowledging the role of the El Nino phenomenon in recent temperature spikes, Sawyer remains hopeful, stating, “Hope persists as more people are taking more actions, discussions on solutions are increasing, renewable energy is becoming more mainstream, plant-based diets are more widespread, and industries work on positive actions. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, reach more people, and inspire more actions that benefit individuals, communities and the planet. The best actions are already known and are being done by some – more of us need to follow their lead to ensure a habitable world for humanity to thrive.”

Phil Korbel, Co-founder and Director of Advocacy at The Carbon Literacy Project, demystifies the significance of 1.5°C, exclaiming, “1.5ºC was never a magic number. It was an average, and within that average, there was never safety, it is a politically acceptable limit of damage. Whether we exceed 1.5 or not, we still have to do everything everywhere, all at once. This underscores the need to discover each person’s “best climate thing”, and Carbon Literacy training has proven to be an impactful method for precisely that.

Climate action could never be left to a select few, the leaders, the environmentalists; it must involve everyone. Unless we get to that stage, catastrophic impacts on a large scale from man-made climate change are inevitable. A large-scale culture shift to engage everyone in impactful climate action also unlocks substantial carbon savings through existing low-cost methods such as energy efficiency. We can’t wait for ‘magical technology’ to materialise from someone’s laboratory. There simply isn’t time.”

The Imperative for Carbon Literacy

As we grapple with the stark reality of breaching the 1.5-degree threshold, the voices from the Carbon Literacy community resound with urgency. Their experiences and insights underscore the unequal impacts of climate change and the imperative need for collective action. In the face of impending challenges, the role of Carbon Literacy becomes more critical than ever. It’s not just about reaching a temperature target – it’s about fostering a culture shift where everyone actively participates in impactful climate action. The urgency of the climate crisis demands a widespread understanding of Carbon Literacy, paving the way for a sustainable and resilient future.

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