When it comes to climate change goals, can success be relative?

Distracted by the war in Ukraine, the world “wasted” last year on the climate front, according to a United Nations report, making “negligible” efforts to cut CO2 emissions to slow global warming.

Without “system-wide transformation”, the United Nations Environment Program warned last week that there was no longer a “credible path” to keep the Earth’s temperature at 1.5 degrees. Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Why we wrote this

As the global chances of meeting its climate targets appear to dwindle, some experts suggest moving away from an all-or-nothing approach to the 1.5 degree Celsius cap agreed seven years ago.

On the other hand, the International Energy Agency suggests that many governments are responding to war by prioritizing investments in green energy; global demand for fossil fuels is expected to peak within a decade. But governments will need to triple their annual investments if they are to meet the 1.5C target.

Maybe that’s too much to ask. The Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, calls this task “great, some would say impossible”. So she suggests we stop thinking numerically, defining climate action success by binary metrics such as an all-or-nothing 1.5C goal, and start thinking analogically.

“We have to try,” she said. “Every fraction of a degree counts. We must strive to get as close as possible.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “One should be able…to see that things are hopeless, yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

We are just days away from the most important climate conference since the historic Paris Agreement of 2015, and it confronts world leaders with two very different challenges.

One dominates the pre-conference headlines. There is an urgent need for governments to rediscover their will and reaffirm their wavering commitment to prevent a climate emergency from escalating into a climate catastrophe.

A United Nations report last week spoke of a ‘lost year’ since last year’s climate conference, lamenting ‘negligible’ progress in cutting harmful emissions as most governments focused on the economic and energy repercussions of the war in Ukraine.

Why we wrote this

As the global chances of meeting its climate targets appear to dwindle, some experts suggest moving away from an all-or-nothing approach to the 1.5 degree Celsius cap agreed seven years ago.

The title of the United Nations Environment Program report – “The Closing Window” – captured its message. Without “system-wide transformation”, he warned, there was no longer a “credible path” to achieving the Paris goal of keeping the Earth’s temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius ( 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

It is at this point, according to the scientific consensus, that the already painful effects of climate change could worsen dangerously and irreversibly.

This is where the second challenge comes in. He’s made little to no headlines, but he could prove key to kick-starting progress.

This implies not only a change of policy, but a fundamental change of mentality: an ability to think analog, not digital or binary.

With respect to climate change, this would mean moving away from a focus on hit or miss, success or failure on the 1.5°C target, towards recognizing that every tenth of every degree of each side of it makes a real-world difference: the number of plains parched or flooded, villages incinerated or swept away, lives shattered or lost.

The evidence is increasingly clear. Although our planet is still around 0.4°C below the Paris target, increasingly frequent “extreme events” are destroying forests with wildfires, flooding plains, expanding deserts and shaking riverside cities around the world.

An ‘analogue’ approach would not ignore the 1.5C target, but would not consider it the sole measure of the success of climate policy.

Wind turbines spin atop a landfill next to a BP oil refinery in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, October 22, 2022. Soaring energy costs, caused in part by the war in Ukraine, could be a turning to cleaner energy, the International Energy Agency said in a report last week. He revealed that global demand for fossil fuels is expected to peak or plateau within a decade.

He would recognize that even if the window on 1.5C closes, there is a huge difference between capping our planet’s temperature increase at 1.6C or 1.7C above pre-industrial levels. and the range of 2.4 C to 2.8 C currently projected by the United Nations Environment Programme.

And another major report released last week encouraged that those higher temperature rises, at least, could still be avoided.

He came from the International Energy Agency and suggested that recent spikes in the use of high-emitting fuels like coal linked to Ukraine are likely to prove temporary, with many governments responding instead to war by prioritizing investments in cleaner energy.

The IEA predicts that global demand for all fossil fuels will peak fairly quickly: coal in the next few years, natural gas by 2030 and oil a few years later. In contrast, annual investments in clean energy are expected to grow from $1.3 trillion today to over $2 trillion by the end of this decade.

The problem? Even that level of investment wouldn’t put the world on track to meet the 1.5C target. IEA Executive, Fatih Birol.

Yet the underlying assumption of last week’s two reports remains that with sufficient financial and political will, the objective could yet to be reached – that while the window was closing, it was not yet fully closed.

That’s the message the report’s authors hope to convey to delegates from the nearly 200 nations who will gather for next week’s COP27 conference in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, particularly given the loss of momentum since last year’s meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.

David “Dee” Delgado/Reuters

Police arrest protesters during a climate change protest on Park Avenue at the residence of Stephen Schwarzman, founder and CEO of Blackstone Group, in New York City on October 27, 2022.

At the same time, they seem to recognize the demotivating downside of thinking too numerically – of defining climate action success by the binary measure of a 1.5C target which, the United Nations Program executive director has warned. United Environment, Inger Andersen, currently seems “a big, and some would say impossible, task.

“We have to try,” she said. “Every fraction of a degree counts. We must strive to get as close as possible.

In other words, the Paris objective is achievable. It must be achieved. But at the same time, the world should keep other goals in mind and remember the importance of limiting any rise in temperature. above the target as much as possible.

It’s an approach that seems to echo an oft-quoted observation by one of America’s most famous authors, at a time when climate change hadn’t begun to appear on the global agenda.

“The test of first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, while retaining the ability to function.

“One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to do them differently.”

Teresa H. Sadler