Climate Change

Are we on track to meet Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C warming towards 2100?

The 5-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement is upon us on December 12, 2020, and it is time to take stock how we are faring   

By Shazneen Cyrus Gazdar
Published: Friday 11 December 2020

The central objective of the Paris Agreement is its long-term temperature goal to hold global average temperature increase to “well below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”.

The 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal is linked to a requirement in the Paris Agreement (Article 4.1): All countries work together to bring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero within the second half of the 21st century. The timing of reaching zero emissions is to be determined by the best-available science related to achieving the long-term temperature goal.

That goal goes significantly further, both legally and substantively, than the earlier goal to hold warming to below 2°C.

In 2015, the Structured Expert Dialogue concluded that using the globally agreed warming limit of 2°C as a “guardrail” is not safe, and that governments should aim for 1.5°C instead. This was further strengthened by the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5°C Report in 2018. It stated with confidence that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.

Global warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels poses greater risks than previously believed. These risks can be substantially reduced by limiting warming to 1.5°C. Limiting warming to 1.5°C requires dramatic emission reductions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by around 2050.

Further, most available low-emission scenarios exceed, at least temporarily, the 1.5 °C limit before 2100. The legacy of temperature overshoots and the feasibility of limiting warming to 1.5 °C, or below, thus become central elements of a post-Paris science agenda (ibid). 

This year, right until November, was written off in terms of climate action. An NDC Update said: “The window of opportunity for re-orienting the global economy toward Net Zero emissions, in line with the goal of the Paris Agreement, is closing. It remains unclear whether the current NDC update cycle will deliver a significant increase in ambition, but we find that too many countries do not currently plan to do so.” 

Where we stand


A flurry of net-zero targets, however, has been shared — 127 countries have submitted their ambitions and, dare I say it, the climate community has actually made strong strides. What is required at this point is for enhanced NDCs to set forth the strong strategies in working towards Net Zero ambition by mid-century at the very latest, at the country level.

It is hoped that a number of countries will include their revised NDCs on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, enhancing on their short term actions towards achieving Net Zero emissions.

What is clear is that the Paris Agreement is driving climate action in 2020. On the eve of its five-year anniversary, a survey by the Climate Action Tracker assessments shows that the temperature estimates for end-of-century warming have been falling for both the targets and real-world emissions projections. The net-zero declarations have brought the global warming projections from 3.9°C down to a range of an optimistic 2.1°C in 2100 with all eyes on the 2030 target. 

However, playing the Devil’s advocate the recent UNEP Emission Gap Report states:

The world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century — far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5.

What is absolutely essential at this point is for countries to identify strategies at the ground level to put these targets to action. They need to actually decarbonise, switch from GHG-emitting fossil fuels to clean energy, innovate and develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology while enhancing land-based sinks and improving biodiversity.

To remain feasible and credible, these commitments must be urgently translated into strong near-term policies and action and reflected in NDC enhancements.

Whether err on the side of the optimistic CAT projection or the more dire UNEP warming projection, it is clear we are still not on a 1.5°C warming pathway towards 2100 and that is all that matters to reverse the impacts of climate change already being experienced globally.

Several serious and consolidated strategies for climate change action are emerging, but processes are delayed and it is feared that climate commitments in 2020 will not match the required urgency for climate action to limit warming to 1.5°C.

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