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Radical change is needed to limit global warming

This opinion piece is almost 6 years old

Rosie Watson warns that immediate, drastic action is required to successfully limit warming to 1.5 degrees

The IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees was published recently, with a (disappointingly) short blast of media attention.

It reports that urgent, transformative action is needed to mitigate severe climate change, at a scale significantly beyond any current commitments made to date, including those made at the Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, 2015. The report outlines the difference between stabilising global warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels (with little or no overshoot), compared to 2 degrees of warming (we are currently at about 1 degree).

These differences are extreme and detailed, and many have argued that the report shows that things are even worse than we had thought, due to the limited timescale we have to make this change – 1.5 degrees warming is on track to be reached between 2030 and 2052.

It is important to face emotionally the true nature of this crisis – for example, the reality of a world characterised by more intense and frequent hot extremes, extreme precipitation, more droughts, floods, storms and natural disasters. To give one example, the difference in 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming is the difference in sea level rise of 10 million more people being exposed to flooding. The more we have to deal in a reactive way to these events, the less capacity we will have globally and nationally to take mitigation efforts, and control the situation unfolding.

Rosie Watson
Rosie Watson

These examples only scrape the surface of the impacts we face if we fail to act quickly, and this is before we even get into the potential of reaching a tipping point in global systems which could result in ‘runaway climate change’ entirely out of human control due to natural feedback loops. Steffen et al (2018) outlined earlier this year that this is much more likely to happen after 1.5 degrees warming is overshot.

However, the IPCC found that current commitments are consistent with a 3-degree warming pathway. They name international co-operation as a key to success, yet some argue that countries are becoming more insular and closed, while the debate of ‘who is to blame’ rages on, and nations backtrack from their measly climate commitments many times faster than they were made.

The above is all true, but equally true is an opportunity. The IPCC report that by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, all of these impacts would be significantly reduced, in some cases, halved or more. To focus biasedly on the human world, this means less livelihoods lost, less hunger, less people displaced, and more people with the capacity for mitigation action, than if we reached 2 degrees warming. 1.5 degrees pathways also have synergies with improved air quality, reduced vulnerability of human and natural systems, reduced disaster risks, improved health, maintained ecosystems, and reduced poverty and inequality. They could include empowerment of often ignored groups such as women and indigenous groups, with opportunities for collaboration between different types of knowledge and worldviews.

The IPCC emphasise that these opportunities for synergies are far greater than the risk of damaging trade-offs. To top it off, the IPCC found that the rate of transformative change has happened before in specific contexts, many of the options for success are technically proven at various scales, and that, overall, it is physically possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

The IPCC state that all people, sectors, industries and nations must take ambitious action. Although it does not cover in detail what this means, I suggest that this is not simply switching one fuel for another, a petrol car for an electric car or going from plastic to paper, or switching to LED’s, or meat to plants.

This is an opportunity for whole system change - to redesign an inclusive mobility system; to move from an ownership economy to a sharing/service economy; to rethink how we grow, distribute, transport and share food; to re-evaluate our role as humans’ part of a natural world. This is the time for questions like: Is there a place for business which doesn’t provide a deeper social or environmental purpose? Is an economic system targeted predominantly on economic growth fit for purpose? What values underpin our societies systems? Could we get people around without private cars? Should businesses be allowed to advertise as relentlessly, driving consumption?

There is no time to wait for others to act first, to figure out who is to blame more, to wonder if there is any point if x, y and z aren’t acting. There will be no perfect time for transformational change, or a time where everyone will suddenly ‘begin’ simultaneously and in total agreement. By reimagining on a deep level how we live, this can be a route to a better, healthier and fun world for everybody and everything. By taking leadership towards this, no matter what anyone else is doing, it will step towards rapid social movement where a minority issue becomes a majority.

1.5 degrees of warming is expected to be reached between 2030 and 2052. To reiterate, there is no perfect, convenient or comfortable time to start transformational change. Everybody can step up and be a leader. What the IPCC Special Report really does say, is that 2050 starts now.

Read the full blog, including finding out more about 2050 Climate Group, here.

Note: The views in this blog are my own, and do not represent an organisational standpoint by 2050.

Rosie Watson is engagement and information assistant at 2050 Climate Group