Life After Warming: What the World Looks Like Above 2°C of Warming
Sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting, and precious wildlife is falling behind in the race to keep up with the changing climate.
In order to power our everyday lives, humans have been destroying the planet with the amounts of harmful greenhouse gases we create.
And we’re approaching the point of no return.
While we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, there are certain effects of climate change that are irreversible, such as species loss. So, we must keep our warming to an acceptable level, in line with the IPCC’s targets.
But which target should we aim for? Limiting warming to 1.5°C, or 2°C?
While you might see these two targets thrown around, almost interchangeably, when it comes to climate goals, there’s actually an enormous difference in that half degree of warming.
But first, some background. Why do we have these targets and what do they each mean for our planet?
The Greenhouse Effect
We hear about greenhouse gases, emissions, and climate change, but what’s the connection?
The ‘greenhouse effect’ occurs when certain gases in the earth’s atmosphere trap heat, warming the earth below. These certain gases are aptly named greenhouse gases, as they let light through, but keep heat in, much like their namesake.
As we produce more of these gases through human activities such as burning fossil fuels, they become more concentrated in the atmosphere, trapping more and more heat. This leads to significant changes in the climate.
Not all living things are able to adapt to these changes at the rapid pace that they are occurring, causing massive shifts in wildlife populations, rising sea levels and a wide range of other impacts.
Therefore, we need to reduce the amounts of greenhouse gases that we are globally emitting. But by how much?
The Paris Agreement
The Paris Agreement is a global agreement on climate change, signed by 197 countries and adopted in 2015.
The purpose is to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with the aim to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. These are widely accepted as the standard when setting organizational emissions reduction targets.
The goal of the Agreement is to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, committing all countries to act on climate change and taking effect from 2020.
So... Are We on Track?
While it might seem blunt, the simple answer is no.
It’s difficult to nail down a “carbon budget”, how many new emissions we can produce before blowing past the IPCC’s thresholds. The Climate Clock estimates we have only 7 years at our current rate of emissions before we burn through our carbon budget.
With the greenhouse gases that are lingering in the atmosphere and the level of warming we have reached (we’ve already cracked the 1°C mark), it’s clear that something needs to change.
Countries have already committed to the Paris Agreement and some are doing their part to limit warming to well under 2°C. Now, it’s time to look further.
Doing Your Part as an Organisation
Committing to reducing your organisation’s emissions in line with these IPCC targets is a great start and can help differentiate your organisation as environmentally conscious.
It is encouraging to see organisations making efforts towards sustainability, despite there being few legal obligations around organizational reporting on emissions.
The Climate Leaders Coalition (CLC) is a coalition of over 100 organisations across New Zealand, who have committed to taking voluntary action on climate change. This commitment requires organisations to measure and publicly report on their emissions, which is a great way to build trust with stakeholders.
It also allows organisations to set a target in line with either 1.5°C or 2°C of warming.
While setting a goal in line with either of these targets is commendable, it’s important to be ambitious when setting organisational targets.
I can tell you right now, 1.5°C is a far more ethical target than its 2°C counterpart.
But, to understand why, it’s good to know the difference between the two levels of warming and their impact on the planet.
So, What IS the Difference Between 1.5°C and 2°C?
The IPCC’s Special Report: Global Warming Of 1.5 ºC describes the impacts of global warming degrees and outlines the difference between a 1.5°C scenario and 2°C scenario. Reaching 1.5°C of warming will still be disruptive to life on earth, but these effects are far less catastrophic than at 2°C.
So, what are these differences?
This graphic from the World Resources Institute compares the damage done at 1.5°C and 2°C, we’ll break down some of the key points below.
Source: World Resources Institute
We hear about the ocean rising as one of the most catastrophic consequences of global warming, so how much of a difference does that 0.5°C degree increase make? 0.6 meters more, to be precise.
While this number may not seem significant, even a small increase in sea level can have devastating effects on coastal areas. It can cause destruction in the forms of erosion, flooding, and loss of habitats for plants, fish and birds.
Already, we can see flooding affecting low-lying coastal areas, making hundreds of millions of people vulnerable to flood risks and threatening infrastructure that lies in the path of the rising ocean.
Not only will the rise in sea level be greater at 2°C of warming, this is accompanied by a drastic increase in the number of arctic sea-ice-free summers.
An ice-free summer is defined as one with less than one million km2 of Arctic sea-ice. While there is still discussion on exactly when we are predicted to see our first ice-free summer, there is a general agreement that it will occur even if we limit our warming below 2°C. This will have dire effects on arctic ecosystems, as well as extreme weather and climate effects in mid and high latitudes.
At 1.5°C, we can expect at least one every hundred years, whereas with 2°C the estimation is closer to at least one every ten years.
That makes the scary consequence of ice-free summers at least ten times more frequent. Less ice means less habitat for arctic animals like polar bears, which leads us to the next impact…
Species loss is a worrying prospect, as even if we manage to reduce our emissions below the threshold after we have reached 1.5°C or 2°C, the damage done is permanent. It is an irreversible loss, and one that is deeply concerning.
Insects will get it three times worse at 2°C than 1.5°C, jumping from 6% of insects losing at least half of their range to a massive 18%. Both vertebrates and plants are looking at two times more species loss with the 0.5°C increase, with marine fisheries also set to decline.
Perhaps most alarmingly, however, is the threat to our coral reefs that global warming poses.
At 1.5°C of warming, it is predicted that we will see a further decline of 70-90% in coral reefs. At 2°C, this jumps to a whopping 99%.
Coral reefs are some of the most beautiful and biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, home to thousands of marine species. The loss of these reefs would have severe environmental effects, as well as social and economic impacts on the coastal communities that depend on them.
1.5°C vs 2°C – Which is Right for Your Organisation?
Setting organizational emissions targets in line with the IPCC’s targets is great way to make a positive contribution.
But, it should be clear at this point, that while both 1.5°C and 2°C of warming have dire effects, 2°C of warming would indicate a level of climate change that would have irreversible social, ecological and environmental impacts.
The wording of the Paris Agreement says it all, “keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius…”.
2°C is close to the point of no return, whereas 1.5°C is a target that limits climate change to a far more acceptable level, giving the earth and its ecosystems a chance to keep up.
But, if you don’t know where you’re starting from, setting an ambitious emissions reduction target can be intimidating.
For this reason, it is important to begin monitoring the current impact of your operations or your “carbon footprint”. From there, what gets measured, can be managed.
Having data and insights on your organisation’s impact is highly useful for calculating and reporting upon your organisation’s emissions. Our e-Bench® system presents easy-to-interpret reports that help make your organisation’s decision-making processes informed and simple.
From there, you can implement changes within your organisation, based on these insights.
When implementing these projects, such as replacing older electronics, know the payback with our e-Calc™ software. With a range of categories, e-Calc™ makes it easy to monitor carbon savings and therefore, progress towards emission reduction targets.