New year, new lifestyle! Why 1.5ºC?

In the Paris Agreement, governments committed to keep global warming ‘well below 2 degrees Celsius’, and ‘make efforts’ to keep it below 1.5ºC. These replaced the previous politically-agreed target of 2ºC.

Overall, stabilising global warming at 1.5ºC results in a lower level of impacts and reduced risks compared with stabilising at 2ºC. The evidence was distilled in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the 1.5ºC target, published on 8 October 2018.


In general, climate change is expected to increase incidence of heavy rainfall. Incidence is forecast to be significantly higher at 2ºC than at 1.5ºC in countries around the Arctic and at high altitude. By contrast, limiting warming to 1.5ºC is forecast to bring droughts of lower severity to the Mediterranean and North Africa than would occur at 2ºC. In the UK, the maximum amount of rain falling in one day is projected to be higher at 2ºC than at 1.5ºC, implying a higher risk of flooding.


The extent of ocean acidification and de-oxygenation are also expected to be lower at 1.5ºC than at 2ºC, though this has not been precisely quantified. This would be expected to reduce impacts on ocean life.

Food, water and health

Globally, yields of major crops are likely to decline with increasing temperature – 6% per degree Celsius for wheat, 7.4% for maize, smaller amounts for rice and soybean – indicating greater food security at 1.5ºC than at 2ºC. Adaptation, including by genetically engineering new crop strains, might compensate for yield falls. Reduced changes in the ocean are expected to pose a lower risk to fisheries.


For many species of plants and animals, parts of their normal home range are set to become uninhabitable because of increasing heat or other climate change impacts. A study of some 115,000 plant and animal species found that more than twice as many will lose half of their traditional range at 2ºC of global warming than at 1.5ºC.

Because regional temperature changes can be larger than the global average, regions such as the Mediterranean may experience conditions at 2ºC unseen in the period since the last Ice Age, with unknown consequences for nature there.

Economic growth

Projections of climate change impacts on economic growth, and the costs and benefits of cutting emissions, are always highly uncertain. With that caveat, evidence indicates that limiting warming to 1.5ºC rather than 2ºC reduces the global cost of damages by about 25%.

According to the New York Times, “The three industries contributing to the most carbon dioxide emissions in the United States right now, Ms. Warren noted, are the building industry, the electric power industry and the oil industry.”

Some people believe that recycling industry is all a scam run by the petrochemical industry to keep us locked into a continuing stream of single-use products and packaging.

Warren is not alone. Martin Lukacs wrote a powerful article in the Guardian saying that it’s all part of a plot: The freedom of these corporations to pollute – and the fixation on a feeble lifestyle response – is no accident. It is the result of an ideological war, waged over the last 40 years, against the possibility of collective action.

If affordable mass transit isn’t available, people will commute with cars. If local organic food is too expensive, they won’t opt out of fossil fuel-intensive super-market chains. If cheap mass produced goods flow endlessly, they will buy and buy and buy.

So grow some carrots and jump on a bike: it will make you happier and healthier. But it is time to stop obsessing with how personally green we live – and start collectively taking on corporate power.

Others believe that setting a good example matters. The IPCC has sent up a flare on climate change, but this warning is not enough. Many people will need to see others making real changes instead of carrying on with business as usual. Ask yourself: Do you believe politicians and businesses will act as urgently as they need to if we keep living our lives as though climate change were not happening? Individual acts of conservation—alongside intense political engagement—are what signal an emergency to those around us, which will set larger changes in motion.

We have to change the culture. We can’t just buy more efficient cars or even electric cars, but have to embrace a culture of shared sidewalks, public transit or bicycles.

It is too easy and simplistic to blame the building industry, the power companies and the oil industry, when we are buying what they are selling. Instead, we should be sending up some signals.

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Cover image: ©. IGES/ Aalto University

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