What is the 1.5 degree target?

Translated by Laura Steeghs

Why do we have a 1.5 degree target and a 2 degree target?

1.5 degrees Celsius is an important threshold. A temperature rise of over 1.5 degrees will result in increasingly severe consequences. The 1.5 degree target was chosen based on scientific assessments. They found that if we exceed a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees, we can expect serious consequences for the climate, sea levels, coastal life and ecosystems. A 2018 study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that an increase in global average temperature of more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels has significantly more implications for nature, society and the economy. This is the reason why the 1.5 degree target became part of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The 1.5 degree target was adopted as part of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. It serves to inform government policy aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the consequences of a changing climate.

Why does the 1.5 degree target refer to 1850?

The goal of climate change discourse is to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius compared to temperatures in 1850, when the Industrial Revolution began. Research has shown that global warming as a result of human influence has been more pronounced since the beginning of industrialisation. Therefore, the pre-industrial global average temperature is taken as a reference point.

Globale Erwärmung seit 1850 Grafik
We could fall short of the 1.5 degree target by 2030Image: Federal Environment Agency Germany.

How is the 1.5 degree target affected by our CO2 emissions?

The 1.5 degree target in the Paris Climate Agreement refers to limiting the global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100 compared to pre-industrial times. This goal is to be achieved by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One of the biggest culprits is the CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Therefore, CO2 emissions play a crucial role in achieving the 1.5 degree target and in efforts to combat climate change.

What was decided at the Paris Climate Agreement?

Foto Pariser Klimaabkommen 2015
The 1.5 degree target is decided at the Paris Climate AgreementImage: picture-alliance/dpa.

The goal of limiting global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius compared to the temperature in 1850 was politically recognised. The Paris Climate Agreement, signed by 197 countries, includes a commitment by participants to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees, ideally 1.5 degrees, by 2100.

Signatories include Germany, China, Brazil, Russia, Australia and many more. Syria and Nicaragua initially refused, but have now joined.

What happens if we do not reach the 1.5 degree target?

The goal of the Paris Climate Agreement is to limit the average global temperature to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100 compared to the pre-industrial era (around 1850). Climate researchers can use computer models to calculate the possible effects of such warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report in 2018 in which it examined the consequences of a warming of 1.5 or 2 degrees.

A global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius may seem little, but it would be disastrous. Since the global average temperature contains the average of temperatures from all over the world including all seasons, a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius can mean considerably more warming in certain regions and during certain seasons.

These scenarios could occur if we miss the 1.5 degree target

1.5 Degree Target not reached
This is what happens to us if we exceed the 1.5 degree targetImage: Gregor Aisch.
  • Our planet warms by 1.5 degrees

This is a scenario that could occur as early as 2026 if we continue to emit as much CO2 as we do now. Extreme weather events will increase. Our harvests will be poorer. And there will be a heightened risk of food shortages.

  • Our planet warms by 2 degrees

With 2 degrees of global warming, we will be plagued by more heat waves. At the same time, we will have to live with many regions being flooded more frequently.

  • Our planet warms by 3 degrees

This is the scenario we are likely to face if we do not reduce our CO2 emissions now. At 3 degrees global warming, we set in motion an uncontrollable climate spiral, the consequences of which are difficult to assess. Famine is likely for billions of people. This increases the risk of war.

  • Our planet warms by 4 degrees

If we emit even more CO2 than we do at present, we will reach a global warming of 4 degrees Celsius. Most ecosystems will collapse. There will be severe heat waves in summer. Many cities will be flooded.

  • Our planet warms by 5 degrees

If we reach 5 degrees of global warming, Earth will be a greenhouse. Most of our planet will be uninhabitable. The total number of people living on Earth could fall to 1 billion.

Will you live to see global warming of more than 1.5 degrees?

Perhaps you are wondering whether you will live to see the climate crisis. The following graph aims to provide a clear answer.

If you’re between 20 and 29 years old right now, you’re likely to see global warming of 2.5 degrees Celsius.

If you are just under 10 years old, you could experience even more than 3 degrees Celsius of global warming.

climate crisis 1.5 degree target
Will you live to see us exceed the 1.5 degree target?Image: taz.

Why do we have a global warming or climate crisis today?

We have been burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil for decades. This is how we generate electricity. At the same time, we are cutting down huge areas of forest worldwide.

Science has proven beyond doubt that this causes gigantic amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This CO2 heats up our atmosphere, a process we refer to as the greenhouse effect. You can read about how the greenhouse effect works here.

This greenhouse effect is now causing the temperature on Earth to rise sharply. The climate crisis has a big impact on us humans. Heat waves, droughts and floods are just a few of the extreme weather events that are coming our way.

Why are all the trees in the Harz Mountains in the middle of Germany dying?

If we miss the 1.5 degree target, the climate crisis continues (Photo: imago images/Christian Grube)

Anyone who goes hiking in the Harz Mountains is shocked to discover the spruce forests are dying. 20,000 hectares of spruce forest have died in the Harz district - most of those trees are in the Harz National Park, which straddles the states of Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

4 out of 5 trees are already dead. Climate change is one of the main causes of this massive forest dieback in the Harz region. Heat waves and water shortages are increasingly causing problems for the forests. The climate crisis is approaching our doorstep.

klimakrise und baumsterben im harz
One of the main reasons why the spruces in the Harz Mountains are dying: the climate crisisImage: imago images/Christian Grube.

Is Germany doing enough to reach the 1.5 degree target?

At the moment, it looks like Germany will not reach the 1.5 degree target in time. Germany has taken some measures to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, but these are not enough to meet the Paris climate targets by 2030. We need to promote the expansion of renewable energies in order to reach the 1.5 degree goal.

What can you do now to stop global warming?

We must quickly reduce our CO2 emissions. To do this, we as citizens have to convince industries to do more to protect the climate. At ForTomorrow, we therefore buy CO2 rights away from industry. Coal power plants, for example, will then be legally obliged to reduce their CO2 emissions immediately. We also plant sustainable, climate-resilient mixed forests in Germany.

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