Victory in climate race 'still possible' even if 1.5°C hits this decade

UN's top climate scientist Jim Skea says key global warming limit could be crossed before 2030

Temperatures last year were the hottest on record, with the world warmer than it has been for 100,000 years, scientists say. AFP
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Record heatwaves could take the world beyond the key 1.5°C global warming benchmark as soon as this decade – but that does not mean all hope is lost, the UN’s top climate scientist says.

Jim Skea said it is “still technically possible” to meet the goal of curbing the global temperature rise to 1.5°C, staving off the worst effects of climate change such as catastrophic floods and droughts. He said enough money exists to cope with the crisis if it can be extracted from the private sector.

Because scientists take a 20-year temperature average, it may not become clear for many years whether the line has officially been crossed. Temperatures are currently measured at about 1.1°C above a pre-industrial benchmark.

Extreme heat records were broken last year, with many days crossing into 1.5°C territory and global temperatures probably higher than at any time for 100,000 years, according to satellite monitoring.

If the 1.5°C limit is breached, the world would have to look to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or else turn to more radical engineering options.

Pledges at the recent Cop28 talks in the UAE, such as a first ever global commitment to “transition away” from the use of fossil fuels, were intended to keep hope alive of achieving the 1.5°C goal.

“I think that [it] is still technically possible to do that within the 21st century,” said Prof Skea, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which advises leaders on the science of global warming.

By convention, the 1.5°C mark “is meant to mean the middle of a 20-year average”.

“Which means, in principle, you will never know until 10 years after the event whether you’ve actually passed it,” the British scientist said.

“But that does not mean that we will not reach 1.5°C in individual years, including within this decade, possibly. That could certainly happen.”

Speaking at an event hosted by the International Institute for Environment and Development, Prof Skea said scientists would turn their focus towards adapting to a warmer climate as extreme weather becomes ever more visible.

He said clear scientific advice could help the private sector raise the trillions of dollars likely to be needed to help countries withstand a hotter climate, with measures such as flood defences and drought-resistant farming techniques.

“There’s enough money in the world to deal with these problems, it’s a question of how you get it to the right places,” he added.

“At the level of trillions, it probably needs private finance as well as public finance to make it happen.

“My hope would be, if we do more work on indicators, metrics, targets etc, that you can actually produce indicators that would allow adaptation projects to be bankable in a bigger way for the private sector in the future.”

Diplomats from particularly vulnerable countries are also calling for progress on the adaptation front.

While the talks in the UAE brought headline agreements on fossil fuels and meeting the costs of climate disasters, talks on funding and global targets for adaptation were passed on to Cop29 in Azerbaijan.

“We are not doing well on adaptation, because most of our countries, especially the least developed countries, are still suffering from extreme weather events,” said Yamikani Idriss, a negotiator from Malawi.

“As we are speaking now, a lot of LDCs [least developed countries] are in a mess, being affected by floods, droughts and so on, which is very catastrophic. And we are not doing well in finance, in the means of implementation.”

Vulnerable countries are holding their breath in a bumper year of elections that will see climate-sceptic candidates such as Donald Trump competing to steer global policy.

“We are hoping for the best, to make sure that those who are elected really are those who understand that climate change is real and indeed it affects the most vulnerable countries most,” Mr Idriss said.

The outcome of Cop28 “built momentum” but for “all this to be in practice we need leaders who will drive this agenda”, he added.

Updated: January 31, 2024, 8:25 AM