The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the United Nations-backed body of scientists reviewing climate science, released a special report on 1.5°C of global warming on Monday.
The report refers to the Paris Agreement which unites nations in the “common cause of combatting global warming by keeping a global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.
The good news is that it is still possible to prevent the world from warming over 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It is not going to be easy and it will require deep transformations of economies and societies, but it can be done and in many African countries the same transformations would yield much-needed development.
The bad news? We are not nearly on track to stay under 1.5°C. Even if the country-level climate plans currently on the table were to be implemented, they would place us on a trajectory to warm by roughly 3°C by the end of this century.
Why 1.5°C is important
Drafted amid the spate of unprecedented and dangerous weather events being experienced at current warming levels of just over 1°C, the report became the most scrutinised piece of climate research this century, eliciting a record 42 000 peer review comments from governments and scientists.
The report’s 91 authors, representing 40 countries, reviewed more than 6 000 papers over two years. They were meticulous in documenting the benefits of adhering to the 1.5°C threshold relative to the more widely assumed target of 2°C: millions of premature deaths from heat stress, malnutrition and air pollution avoided; 10-million fewer people exposed to sea-level rise by the end of the century; 1.5-million additional tonnes of catchable fish stocks; and 50% fewer people living under conditions of water scarcity. Given that some parts of South Africa have already experienced temperature increases of 1.5°C, these impacts are of immediate relevance.
As CarbonBrief.org points out, at 2°C Southern Africa will experience 40-day-long heatwaves; at 1.5°C they would last less than 20 days. Warm extremes will double at 1.5°C, but increase 600% at 2°C. At 2°C the number of dry days will increase, so will rainfall extremes. The average drought length will increase by four months at 1.5°C, by six months at 2°C and up to a staggering 19 months at 3°C; five-million more people would be exposed to water scarcity at 2°C compared with 1.5°C.
How we stay under 1.5°C
The conclusion that a 1.5°C target is still within reach rests on the assumption of immediate and far-reaching changes to global energy, land use, industrial and urban systems.
Carbon dioxide emissions would have to begin declining immediately and reach net neutrality between 2040 and 2050. Investment in renewable energy would have to double over the next two decades, whereas investment in fossil fuels would have to decline by 25% over the same period. At the global scale, the 1.5°C target requires 1.5-2% of global capital to be redirected to renewable energy and energy efficiency, and a two-thirds reduction in coal-fired electricity by 2030.
It is a scientific report and the IPCC is careful not to prescribe policies. The contents, however, send a very clear message to governments and financiers, including those in Africa still financing new coal-fired power plants. Not only are they risking investors’ money and missing out on development opportunities, but they are also creating a world that will be difficult to inhabit.
Evidence in the report challenges the notion that fossil-fuel-dependent energy policies can drive development when every additional tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases risks to human health, food production, ecosystems and the economy.
This is the first IPCC report to be published since the release of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 and the final two chapters imply a stark choice: either place hope in as yet unavailable and potentially risky geoengineering solutions that attempt to deflect solar radiation and suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, or harness the potential to accelerate change by linking climate imperatives to programmes that address development, finance, ethics and equality.
Central among the development options is the need for attention to the food, energy and transport systems that will have to be created in Asian and African cities over the same two to three decades in which the 1.5°C target must be realised.
There is no way in which the 1.5°C target can be attained if the current urbanisation mega-trend on these continents follows the same industrial and infrastructure pathways as Europe and North America a century ago.
Fortunately, recent technology innovations and political economy shifts render many of the renewable energy and infrastructure solutions required compatible with the least cost and most tenable options for improving the lives of people in these cities and adjacent rural areas. In this way, harnessing the urbanisation mega-trend in the developing world offers the chance for the scale and pace of change that the 1.5°C target demands.
Anton Cartwright is an economist and lead author of the IPCC report. These are his own views. Glen Tyler is the South African team leader for 350.org, which aims to build a global grass-roots climate movement