Comment: What we’ve learned after one year of 1.5°C

This is an edited blog from policy adviser Camilla Born from think tank E3G
The UN climate summit in Paris last year marked the moment the international community agreed to go even further — to aim to limit warming to 1.5°C.
On current trajectories some might say it was a risky or brave move. But if you look into the science you quickly realise it would have been far braver, if not foolish, if they hadn’t done it.
Over the last year I’ve sat in many conversations on the topic of 1.5°C. Is it feasible? Is it necessary? How do we talk about it? I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, and I am not  a scientist, but one year on, here are some reflections on the world’s new climate target.
Technically we can achieve 1.5°C.  But we will likely experience 1.5°C of warming a number of times (day, week, month, year) in specific geographies and globally, even if in the end we settled at that average of warming.
On the upside this could improve understanding of the geographical diversity of warming compared to the global mean, and so improve approaches to adaptation and highlight new vulnerabilities in shared contexts e.g. Mediterranean 2°C=3°C whereas other parts of Europe 2°C = <2°C
The headline difference between 1.5°C and 2°C is ‘the same but much worse’.  Areas ‘disproportionally’ affected by the rise from 1.5-2°C include Africa and the Mediterranean region.
The risk of reaching tipping points increases but there is little research that suggests a near/inevitability of more or less tipping point breaches from 1.5-2°C. However the lack of research into tipping points – often disregarded as anomalies in models – could mask a whole spectrum of problems.
Negative Emission Technologies (NETs) are a hard sell, but there is more optimism about ‘natural NETs’.  A number of scientists are researching carbon capture and storage, bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and geoengineering. I’ve heard a lot of cautionary tales about all forms, especially weighing the benefits of mitigation against the impacts of mitigation on land use.
There is more optimism on ‘natural NETs’ such as soil, land, forests and ecosystems. The champions of this focus plead for a renewed understanding which did not bundle these approaches with newer more contentious NETS.
Natural NETS hold huge potential but will need to be done carefully and require considerable cultural and political innovation for delivery.
Demand side emissions reductions are tricky too but 100% necessary.  This includes energy efficiency and shifting our diets away from high meat consumption.
Scientists are wary about the cultural and political challenge of these efforts but all realise they’re necessary.
What’s more the cocktail of global challenges, not least inequality, is opening up new opportunities to discover new ways of living which can benefit both people and our climate.
The attitude toward the effects of the 1.5°C limit on adaptation is healthy,  requiring risk informed decision making and an understanding of systems dynamics.
It would be foolish to adapt to 1.5°C or 2°C; practitioners agree we should be adapting to 4°C. There is also recognition that adaptation and mitigation approaches are linked not just in implementation but also governance.
As warming increases the quality of governance will likely be the biggest cause of impact rather than the impact itself. Institutions, cities and governments will need to work on both to build and rebuild the social contract with their counterparts and constituents.
Social policies will be a key deciding factor in whether we meet the 1.5°C limit.  Welfare, development, infrastructure and industrial policies will make all the difference. In part due to their low carbon resilient nature but also because of the social contract this builds between citizens, business and elected representatives.
Here food security will be the  crunch issue, if we don’t get food security right we’re headed for some serious trouble.
The IPCC’s 2018 report will be cutting edge.  IPCC science has typically looked into the long-term whereas the impending reality of 1.5°C could be realised in the next 10 years.
Building on AR5, the report will be much more focused on informing urgent risk based decision-making than previously. This will require a much more multidisciplinary approach.
We don’t know it all but we do know we have to get on with it urgently.  We don’t always know the specific implications of 1.5°C – for finance, infrastructure, adaptation, food security and renewables, but for practitioners it doesn’t matter.
All that matters is that we act on climate urgently and rapidly.
The political significance of agreeing to 1.5°C is what mattered; it brings palpable urgency, waiting for more detail is not an excuse for delay.
What are the political scenarios for delivering 1.5°C?  How will we handle the yo-yo overshoot and stabilise?
The urgency of implementation will disrupt many of the political and diplomatic assumptions constructed to land the Paris outcome. All need to act and with more urgency.
Echoing the past will not deliver a 1.5°C future. Similarly, there has been little thought over how to handle the political and communication implications of overshoot, which will occur in some geographies at least.
And finally…
Consider 1.5°C carefully as a proxy for its value. This target is a global consensus that it’s worth aiming to protect the most vulnerable.
This is the value we will need to fight hard to protect.
We don’t give up on human rights even when terrible human rights violations occur; we continue to strive and uphold them. 1.5°C is no different, it is our commitment to humanity, and it is what we should strive for.
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