Is remaining under 1.5 C warming feasible?

In the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change’s twenty sixth Conference of Parties (COP is an annual inter-governmental meetings held to discuss and negotiate climate agreements) held in Glasgow in November 2021, the meeting’s President Alok Sharma, UN Secretary General António Guterres and other top leaders repeatedly chanted “Keep 1.5oC alive,” to make it the best-known mantra of the conference. They made this plea to save the imperilled Paris Agreement’s ambition of “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (caused by global warming) above pre-industrial levels.”

climate protest

Protesters marching in Glasgow during the COP 26 meet (Photo credit: author)

Is limiting warming to 1.5oC feasible anymore by the methods proposed by technocrats and market optimists? There are good reasons to doubt that this is a viable target. For instance:

  • Global warming due to greenhouse gases has already hit 1.5oC but has been temporarily muted by particulate matter air pollution.
  • The top greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitters have shown inadequate ambition to reduce emissions.
  • Shifting climate targets, and climate science and policy being at odds, has not created an atmosphere conducive for emissions reduction.
  • A quarter century of demand side management to reduce fossil fuel use has failed.

1.5oC is dead, long live 1.5oC

The burning of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide (CO2) that along with other greenhouse gases (GHGs) has caused an observed warming of 1.1oC above pre-industrial temperatures. Fossil fuel burning also emits sulphur and nitrogen dioxides (SO2, NO2) that are precursor gases to aerosols which reflect incoming solar radiation and contribute to cooling by about 0.4oC.

Ambient air pollution, which includes SO2 and NO2, causes an estimated 4.2 million deaths per annum, millions of tonnes of crop yield losses, forest dieback, biodiversity loss, acidification of water bodies, injury to aquatic ecology, and damage to manmade structures. There is therefore a need for controlling air pollution.

However, if an effective clean air policy were implemented globally, it will remove a significant fraction of the aerosols from the atmosphere. This will result in global warming hitting nearly 1.5oC (Fig. 1) in merely 2 to 3 years in what has been described as “termination shock”.


Fig. 1: Observed warming is driven by emissions from human activities, with greenhouse gas warming partly masked by aerosol cooling (IPCC AR6 2021)

Low emissions reduction ambition

In their latest report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, released in August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns that to meet the ≤1.50C warming ambition, current emissions must be halved by 2030-35, and the world should become net carbon zero (NCZ–requires the rate of natural and anthropogenic carbon emissions and removals to be equal) by 2050-55. That implies that emissions must be reduced by 7% per annum (pa) for the next 30 years. But our emissions have grown by 1.2% pa since the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed.


Fig 2: Emissions gap between 2016 and 2020 has doubled (UNEP Emissions Gap Reports 2016, 2020)

The Paris Agreement has not worked, at least till now. Per the United Nations Environment Programme’s Emission Gap reports, the difference between projected emissions in 2030 considering national pledges to reduce emissions, and the desired ones to be ≤1.5oC compliant, known as the emissions gap, has doubled between 2016 and 2020. The top six polluters —China, USA, European Union (EU), India, Russia and Japan—that together contribute 70% of global GHG emissions, failed to control their emissions adequately in the last decade.

Will these countries raise their ambitions in future? Projections indicate that over the next decade only the EU and Japan are expected to reduce their emissions, while that of China, US, and Russia will remain constant, and Indian emissions will increase by a third. USA, the EU, and Japan have pledged to become NCZ by 2050, China and Russia by 2060, and India has announced 2070 as its NCZ date.


Of the six top emitters, India is the only one that can credibly argue that its emissions decline need not be as steep as is required of the other five emitters. India is home to 18% of the world’s population but is responsible for only 3% of world’s cumulative emissions (total emissions of a country/region between 1751-2020) and 7% of current emissions. India’s per capita annual emission of 1.9 t, is two and a half times less than the global average. The share in current global emissions of the other five emitters is significantly greater than their share of global population. If India is allowed a small relaxation to become NCZ, the other emitters must make deeper emission cuts, which they are loathe to do.

There are only two ways that 1.5oC can be kept alive in the coming make-or-break decade. The first is by the top six emitters reducing their emissions by 7% pa. The second is if the global economy crashes, and consequently emissions reduce as happened to East Europe in 1990 after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Shifting climate goalposts

The 2015 Paris Agreement, whose ambition is to limit temperature rise, is the fourth climate target since climate change became a global concern. Of the three previous targets, two failed and one was not accepted formally by the COPs even though it deeply influenced the course of climate negotiations

The 1992 Rio Summit set the first failed target as “stabilising atmospheric concentrations of GHGs at a level commensurate with avoiding dangerous anthropogenic climate change.” The summit left it to subsequent negotiations to hammer out actionable programmes. It was widely believed that nuclear energy the solution, but a nuclear programme had its challenges and was not implemented seriously. Consequently, CO2 concentrations kept creeping up.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol (KP), the second target, obliged the North nations to reduce emissions by 5.2% by 2012 over a 1990 base, but did not similarly bind the South nations. By outsourcing production to South nations, North nations enjoyed cheaper goods and services, and also escaped accounting for the emissions from the outsourced production. If consumptive emissions (emissions from all goods and services consumed by a country or region regardless of where they are produced) were used as the true basis for computing emissions, North nations’ emissions increased by 14.5% during the 1990-2012 KP period.

The failure of the KP shifted the discourse in the 2009 Copenhagen accord back to the Rio Summit’s ambition, i.e., “to stabilize greenhouse gas concentration at a safe level.” The untested BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) technology was to help fulfil this ambition. CCS technology, a part of BECCS technology, is expensive and prone to failure as happened in Salah, Algeria, where in 2011 the CCS facility was shut because CO2 stored underground cracked the cap rock and triggered seismic activity. As on date, there are very few operating CCS projects, and their financial viability is doubtful.

Around the time of the Copenhagen accord several scientific studies started discussing carbon budgets, i.e., the maximum amount of cumulative global GHGs that may be emitted to stay below an agreed temperature rise. The IPCC nudged carbon budgets into further prominence by discussing it for the first time in its Fifth Assessment Report.

Being located at the intersection of climate science and policy, carbon budgets have deepened the divide between North and South nations. Scientists believe that a warming of over 2oC would cause unacceptable impacts. To protect their development standards, North nations wish to restrict emissions to not exceed the carbon budget available for this temperature rise. They argue that since CO2 emitted anywhere has the same global impact, all countries–North and South, should become NCZ by 2050. Some South nations, particularly those that experienced fast growth rates, e.g., China and India, prioritize national development over curbing emissions despite knowing that they are among the most climate vulnerable regions with populations that have low resilience.  Chinese experts went as far as to ask for the North nations to cede most of the remaining carbon space to the South countries. Carbon budgets remain a contentious issues in COP meetings and influence negotiations even though they are not formally recognized as climate targets.

In the 2012 Doha COP, the EU, Iceland, and Australia agreed to a second KP commitment period in which they pledged to reduce their emissions by 20% by 2020 over a 1990 base year. The limitedness of this commitment signalled the end of the KP and its percentage-based targets, and heralded the beginning of the fourth climate target, i.e., the Paris Agreement, that is based on temperature rise targets.

Market mechanisms fail

The KP’s emissions reduction instruments—clean development mechanism (CDM), joint implementation (JI) and emissions trading, that use market mechanisms to reduce demand for fossil fuels, have failed.

The CDM allows a North nation with an emission-reduction commitment under the KP (Annex 1 country) to implement an emission-reduction project in South nations to earn certified emission reduction credits (1 CER is earned for 1 tCO2 verified reduction), which can be used to meet its emission reduction target shortfall or sold in the carbon market. The CDM allows North nations to invest in emission reduction where it is cheapest globally. South nations participating in CDM projects benefit by receiving money and acquiring  emissions reduction technologies and processes. Between 2008 and 2021, CDM projects earned 2.16 billion CERs, i.e., theoretically preventing or removing emissions amounting to 2.16 GtCO2. This constitutes just 1.25% and 0.5% of the cumulative emissions of the Annex 1 countries and global emissions, respectively.

JI allows an Annex 1 country to earn emission reduction units (1 ERU is earned for 1 tCO2 reduced) from an emission-reduction project in another Annex 1 country which can be counted towards meeting its KP target. JI offers the investing country a cost-efficient means for fulfilling its KP commitments, while the host country benefits from foreign investment and technology transfer. Between JI’s inception and September 2021, 872 million ERUs were issued, corresponding to a emission reduction of 872 MtCO2, i.e., 0.5% of the cumulative emissions of the Annex 1 countries.

Even if we presume that the CDM and JI worked well, it prevented or removed less than 2% of the cumulative emissions of Annex 1 countries, a fraction that is too small to make a difference. There were other reasons for the CDM’s failure. The CDM did not deliver real, measurable, and more importantly, additional emissions reduction, i.e., emission reductions that happen solely due to the CDM. Studies done by the Oko Institute, Grantham Institute and Compensate show that a large number of projects that were granted CDM status even though they would have effected emissions reduction without this status. In many projects the declared emissions reduction was inflated, and some projects caused human rights violations. The inclusion of ‘sink’ projects, e.g., forestry, in the CDM undermined the effort to reduce emissions by the Annex 1 countries. Since CERs are market tradable instruments, their demand and price fluctuated with economic swings. The 2008 economic slowdown reduced Europe’s emissions and consequently the demand for CERs.

The need to declare a climate emergency

In the quarter century since the KP was signed, global energy consumption doubled to 14 Gtoe in 2019, with fossil fuels and renewables contributing to 67% and 15% of the energy expansion, respectively. Renewable energy supplemented fossil fuels rather than replace it—a classic Jevon’s paradox. In the same period the energy consumption of the Annex 1 countries remained constant at a little over 4 Gtoe, with just 0.3 Gtoe of fossil fuels being replaced by renewable energies—an unimpressive performance.

Global and Annex 1 country energy use by type since the Kyoto Protocol Agreement

World Annex 1 countries
Total energy (Gtoe) Fossil fuels (Gtoe) Renewable energy (Gtoe) Total energy (Gtoe) Fossil fuels (Gtoe) Renewable energy (Gtoe)
1997 7.9 7.74 0.67 5.12 4.29 0.34
2019 13.96 11.76 1.6 5.14 4.1 0.63

Source: Computed from data available at

Clearly, the low ambition of the biggest GHG emitters, shifting climate goalposts, climate science and policy being at odds, and the failure of the market mechanisms have created the unenviable situation where we have 9 years left to halve our emissions. Instead of analysing the failures of climate action and remedies for it, COP 26 spent much time on framing rules for the Paris Agreement’s market instruments that are similar to the failed ones under the KP.

Frustrated with the inter-governmental negotiations, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 55 highly climate vulnerable nations, requested COP 26 Presidency to incorporate a “Climate Emergency” in the Glasgow Pact that encompasses a delivery plan for the annual $100 billion climate finance from North nations and mandate yearly climate target ambition raising at each COP, especially by high carbon emitting countries.


Climate Vulnerable Forum members

While the forum’s intentions are laudable, its suggestions are within the ambit of a failed demand side management. Restricting warming to below 1.5oC temperature rise is no longer feasible with the current measures.

However, there is hope of keeping 1.5oC alive if a giant leap is taken to declare a global climate emergency and measures below are adopted:

  • North and South nations to collectively pledge to a global NCZ date well before 2050 through natural removals; energy transition to be put on a war footing as a global project; abandon demand side management of energy that relies on market mechanisms in favour of supply side management which mandates that almost all the remaining fossil fuel reserves be left in the ground.
  • To serve the principles of climate justice, the wealth and health risks produced by fossil fuels should be shared equitably among the entire world’s population through a process of creating global consensus that this social change will benefit all people. Such a move will reduce the temptation to use fossil fuels for national development, and consequently curb emissions. It will also reduce risk for climate vulnerable populations as adequate investment will be made to take care of them.

These measures require a major social change that may seem almost utopian today. But until a few decades back, ending colonialism and apartheid were thought to be impossible. Yet, these oppressive structures faded out because of people led movements against them. Likewise, people’s active involvement in implementing the above measures will help society become more sustainable and egalitarian, something that almost all nations profess to want. Failure to make this transition will result in a warming of 2-3oC that scientists consider unacceptable as it will seriously impact the global environment and human society.

Sagar Dhara – Male, Upper caste & class, University educated, City sicker, Member of the most ferocious predatory species that stalked the earth–humans

Originally published in News Nine 

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