Is it still possible to limit global warming to 1.5 °C?

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Scientists have warned for years that if we don’t take serious action to combat climate change, the world could get dangerously hot. And while there are many steps we can take on a personal level to mitigate this (such as using less electricity or shopping more mindfully), it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to limit warming below 1.5 °C without radically reducing emissions from agriculture, power generation, and transportation too.

Even with intense and rapid changes across the globe, the World Meteorological Organization has recently claimed that the world will ‘more likely than not’ see 1.5°C of warming within the next five years (1).

How quickly is the world warming?

A United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C claimed that human-induced warming had already reached +1°C by 2017. The expectation was for warming to continue at a rate of between +0.1-0.3°C per decade (2).

The IPCC has previously given a stark warning that carbon emissions need to be cut radically over the next decade if the world is to avoid a temperature rise of more than 2.7°C by 2100 (3). Carbon dioxide emissions must fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach “net zero” by 2050 if we are to keep warming at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Warming projections

The chances of us hitting a 1.5°C rise in global warming is constantly increasing. The graph below from Climate Action Tracker shows the warming projections based on the global greenhouse emissions from pledges and policies (4).

With all existing in place global policies taken into account, the projected global warming by 2100 would hit around 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels. The temperature drops to around a 2°C rise is all binding long-term or net-zero targets are met. If no climate policies were adopted, we could expect to see warming increase by up to 4.8°C in the same period.

The most ‘optimistic’ scenario ran by Climate Action Tracker includes around 140 countries reaching net zero emissions, even then the temperature increase would be estimated at around +1.8°C. So, with it looking unlikely that we’ll limit ourselves at a 1.5°C global temperature rise, what risks can we expect from a significantly warmer planet?

2100 warming projections graph. Emissions and expected warming based on pledges and current policies. The graph shows the historical greenhouse emissions to date vs potential projections based on different policies and targets. The best scenario is 1.5 oc increase, which is shown as the least likely and bottom option on the chart with no projection route in line with current policies.

Graph from Climate Action Tracker, 2022.

The progress so far

In order to avoid catastrophic heating, quick action must be taken on a global scale. But even if we cut all our fossil fuels overnight, it might not be enough to avoid runaway global warming. For example, scientists agree there is no way we can limit warming below 1.5°C without radically reducing emissions from agriculture and transport too (the leading emissions contributors alongside power generation), something many developing nations will struggle with even if they have access to low-carbon energy sources like solar power or wind turbines.

So far, we have only managed to cut our carbon emissions by around one third since 1990. That’s not enough to reach the 1.5°C target but it’s better than nothing. The good news is that pledges and targets are likely to significantly cut our expected warming. As scientists and governments across the globe begin to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, we should see more progress.