We Have Almost Certainly Blown The 1.5-Degree Global Warming Target

The Great Barrier Reef is already feeling the effects of climate change. AAP/Supplied

Danielle Andrew 15 Aug 2016, 10:05

The ConversationThe United Nations climate change conference held last year in Paris had the aim of tackling future climate change. After the deadlocks and weak measures that arose at previous meetings, such as Copenhagen in 2009, the Paris summit was different. The resulting Paris Agreement committed to:

Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

The agreement was widely met with cautious optimism. Certainly, some of the media were pleased with the outcome while acknowledging the deal’s limitations.

Many climate scientists were pleased to see a more ambitious target being pursued, but what many people fail to realise is that actually staying within a 1.5℃ global warming limit is nigh on impossible.

There seems to be a strong disconnect between what the public and climate scientists think is achievable. The problem is not helped by the media’s apparent reluctance to treat it as a true crisis.

The 1.5℃ limit is nearly impossible

In 2015, we saw global average temperatures a little over 1℃ above pre-industrial levels, and 2016 will very likely be even hotter. In February and March of this year, temperatures were 1.38℃ above pre-industrial averages.

Admittedly, these are individual months and years with a strong El Niño influence (which makes global temperatures more likely to be warmer), but the point is we’re already well on track to reach 1.5℃ pretty soon.

So when will we actually reach 1.5℃ of global warming?

Animated timeline showing best current estimates of when global average temperatures will rise beyond 1.5℃ and 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. Boxes represent 90% confidence intervals; whiskers show the full range. Andrew King, Author provided

On our current emissions trajectory we will likely reach 1.5℃ within the next couple of decades (2024 is our best estimate). The less ambitious 2℃ target would be surpassed not much later.

This means we probably have only about a decade before we break through the ambitious 1.5℃ global warming target agreed to by the world’s nations in Paris.

A University of Melbourne research group recently published these spiral graphs showing just how close we are getting to 1.5℃ warming. Realistically, we have very little time left to limit warming to 2℃, let alone 1.5℃.

This is especially true when you bear in mind that even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions right now, we would likely experience about another half-degree of warming as the oceans “catch up” with the atmosphere.

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