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The Paris Agreement: How Many Degrees of Global Warming is “Safe”?
The Paris Agreement is a legally binding global treaty adopted in 2015 by 196 countries to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (°C) and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But what does this mean in terms of the impact of global warming on our planet and its inhabitants?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that global warming of 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels will have significant and irreversible impacts on natural systems, such as coral reefs, polar ice sheets, and biodiversity. A 1.5°C increase will also result in more frequent and severe heatwaves, droughts, floods, and storms, affecting millions of people and causing economic losses.
To limit global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, countries must collectively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), by at least 80% by 2050 and reach net-zero emissions by 2100. This requires a rapid and deep transformation of the global energy system, including phasing out coal, oil, and gas and transitioning to renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal.
However, current national pledges and policies put the world on a trajectory to warm by more than 3°C by the end of the century, which would have catastrophic consequences for human societies and ecosystems. Therefore, the Paris Agreement encourages countries to increase their ambition over time and submit new and more ambitious climate targets every five years, starting in 2020.
The IPCC has also assessed the “feasibility and implications of limiting global warming to 1.5°C” in a special report published in 2018. The report found that limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” in all aspects of society, including energy, land use, urban infrastructure, and transport.
The report also showed that the difference between a 1.5°C and 2°C warmer world is not just one of degree, but of devastating impacts on human well-being and the planet. For example, a 2°C warmer world would lead to greater sea-level rise, loss of Arctic sea ice, and increased risks to food security, health, and human migration.
In conclusion, the Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Achieving this goal requires deep and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and a transformation of the global energy system toward renewable energy sources. The difference between a 1.5°C and 2°C warmer world is not just a matter of degrees, but of profound and irreversible impacts on our planet and its inhabitants. Therefore, it is crucial that countries increase their ambition and urgency in addressing the climate crisis.