Why the 1.5-degree-Celsius climate goal still matters

The priority list for COP27 is based on the world's progress so far.
Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on the stage at COP27 in Egypt
Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, whose country experienced devastating floods earlier this year, speaks during the UNFCCC COP27 climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Over the next two weeks, scientists, government officials, and activists are coming together at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt to discuss some of the most pressing issues threatening our planet’s existence.

Building on last year’s United Nations climate change conference in Scotland, the key issues dominating headlines this time include mitigation measures, adaptation strategies, net-zero targets, and funds for losses and damages in communities that are bearing the brunt of the crisis.

This year, the US delegation is heading into COP on the heels of the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The $369-billion policy, which also tackles other issues like lowering healthcare costs, is the largest investment in American history in climate and energy to date. 

Dan Lashof, US director of the World Resources Institute, says this means that President Joe Biden will head into the negotiations with more credibility than before. The country’s current goal is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. With the IRA in place, Lashof believes that the government has put forward a credible path to reduce emissions by around 40 percent. 

Despite the act’s positive outcomes, however, Lashof cautions that it’s built on incentives for American manufacturers in renewable energy supply chains. The next step in taking credible climate action would be to pass mandatory requirements, both at the federal and local level, to achieve lower emissions with better certainty. States, specifically, will have to set goals and enact policies to supplement the overall strategy of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions

Global negotiations at COP should also inspire more widespread coordination. “It’s essential for the US to meet its targets, but also to encourage greater ambition from other countries,” Lashof says. 

Is it still possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C or less?

According to the UN Emissions Gap Report published in October, the G20 is collectively expected to fall short of its 2030 climate promises without further action. This means that there is a chance of breaching the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius of increase from pre-industrial levels. Still, holding warming at 1.5 degrees represents our best chance at avoiding irreversible changes to the Earth’s climate system and protecting vulnerable groups of people and wildlife.

“Every tonne [of carbon dioxide] matters; every tenth of a degree matters. The closer we can get to 1.5 degrees, the better,” says Lashof. “The gap report doesn’t say it’s impossible—its projections are based on what current policies are and current targets.”

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A report released by the World Research Institute last month also found that the world is not on track to meet the 1.5-degree limit in 40 different indicators of climate action. Lashof points out that this means any progress needs to be accelerated to meet the pace of change that is required.

Lisa Vanhala, who leads a European Research Council-funded project on the Politics and Governance of Climate Change Loss and Damage, echoes a similar sentiment. “1.5 degrees matters because that threatens the very territorial existence of some states in the international system,” she explains. Even a fraction of a degree can be incredibly significant for people in low-lying island nations like Tuvalu and Kiribas. 

How can COP27 help?

With the growing intensity of climate disasters around the world, Vanhala expects that indemnities, not just warming limits, will dominate this year’s negotiations. The day before the conference officially kicked off, negotiators from developing countries secured a hard-fought win by arguing to include finance for loss and damage on the agenda.

Loss and damage finance essentially acts as reparations for vulnerable countries that are facing the disproportionate effects of climate change. A decade ago, the UN helped set up the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage—but the parties responsible for paying into the fund have contested it ever since. 

Gaia Larsen, director of climate finance, access, and deployment at the World Research Institute, thinks that wealthy nations like the US are hesitant to commit to loss and damage funds because it could be seen as an admission of guilt with legal liability. So, the newly adopted agenda item for COP27 includes a clause stating that “cooperation and facilitation and [does] not involve liability or compensation.”

The strategy might not spur progress on previous goals like warming thresholds, but it’s a priority for those deep in the throes of the climate crisis. The Pakistani delegation, for instance, opened the conference by speaking to the importance of receiving loss and damage finance in the wake of deadly and costly floods. And back in September, UN secretary-general António Guterres stated that wealthier countries “bear a moral responsibility” to help poorer nations recover, adapt, and build resilience to disasters. “Let’s not forget that 80 percent of emissions driving this type of climate destruction are from the G20,” he said at the time.

But some developing countries are past the point of pinpointing blame and are more focused on securing tangible funding to deal with their climate realities, Vanhala says. One way they can currently do that is through the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is part of an international environmental treaty intended to help developing countries implement climate mitigation and adaptation measures. While there is a need for multiple sources of capital, Larsen says that due to challenges like data gaps and increased bureaucracy, there’s limited support to create a separate new fund for loss and damages. 

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In fact, developing countries are struggling to receive financing that’s already been approved. A $100-billion annual fund for climate mitigation fund is still short $16.7 billion. One analysis by Carbon Brief found that the US itself owes $32 billion.

Now that loss and damage financing sits firmly on the agenda, COP27 will test whether giant carbon emitters like the US will mobilize climate finance and reduce global emissions at the rate the world needs.

“I think the people that have been fighting for 1.5 degrees will continue to do so. And even if we’re fighting for 2 degrees, we’re fighting to get emissions down as fast as possible,” says Larsen. Most countries have until 2050 to clean up their act, but the longer they wait, the less achievable the goals will get.