IPCC 1.5 C degree report points to high stakes of climate inaction

The UN's scientific body on climate change says the world could still stay below 1.5 C degrees of warming. Although impacts at 2 C degrees are likely to be more serious than anticipated, political action remains elusive.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released a highly anticipated report that reveals a glimpse of Earth half a degree Celsius (0.5 C) warmer than it is today; and outlines what we must do to keep the global temperature from rising any higher.

Nature and Environment | 27.09.2018

With the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world committed to keeping global warming below 2 C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, and preferably below 1.5 C.

According to the report released early Monday, the difference between these two goals is far more profound than the diminutive difference suggests, and would potentially spare hundreds of millions of people from poverty.

At 1.5 C we can expect to see an ice-free Arctic summer once a century, according to the report. At 2 C, that risk shoots up to once every decade.

Nature and Environment | 08.09.2018

Under the 2 C scenario, sea level rise is expected to be 10 centimeters (4 inches) higher than under the 1.5 C scenario.

Human-caused climate change has already warmed the world by around 1 C, and the IPCC stresses how we are already seeing devastating consequences, particularly in the form of extreme weather.

And then there are the coral reefs. Over past years, global warming has ravaged the oceans' richest ecosystems, with bleaching events across the tropics. At 1.5 C, the IPCC reports says, we can expect to lose between 70 and 90 percent of our reefs. But 2 Cof warming would see them virtually wiped out — a loss of at least 99 percent.

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Atlantis 2.0

As global warming speeds up, so does the rise in sea levels. While 2004 to 2010 saw oceans rise by about 15 millimeters in total, this value doubled for 2010 to 2016. Tropical regions in the western Pacific are especially affected, threatening many of the coastal areas and low-lying islands with submersion by the end of the century.

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Breaking the ice

As ocean and atmospheric temperatures increase, glaciers and ice caps shrink in size. In 2016, the global sea ice extent was 4 million square kilometers (1.54 million square miles) below average. Consequently, more meltwater flows into rivers and oceans, which also causes sea levels to rise.

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Losing Nemo

Some ocean regions have already warmed by more than 3 degrees Celsius, upsetting marine ecosystems. Seventy-two percent of demersal fish species in the northeast Atlantic Ocean have so far been affected, with warming limiting their abundance and spread. Species that live in tropical ocean waters, like the clownfish, are also experiencing habitat-related population decreases.

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Coral bleaching

Warming and acidifying waters affect Nemo's navigation senses, and also threaten his home - coral reefs, one of the most sensitive marine ecosystems. A water temperature increase of as much as 3 degrees Celsius can cause the death of corals and the marine animal species that live in them. Northern parts of Great Barrier Reef have seen coral mortality rates of 50 percent.

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Stormy weather

With increased ocean heat, extremely strong tropical storms are set to occur much more frequently. One of these massive storms was Hurricane Matthew, which hit Haiti in October 2016. The Haitian government put the official death toll at 546, and the hurricane also caused $15 billion (13.8 billion euros) in economic losses on the island nation and in the US, Cuba and the Bahamas.

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Heads or tails

There is a strong correlation between atmospheric wind patterns and ocean temperatures, meaning warming waters may also cause the jet stream to get stronger. This could affect airplane travel due to intensified head- and tailwinds. On the upside, this means that some flights may be much faster. On the downside, other flights may take longer and could experience more turbulence.

Time to adapt

"Even at 1.5 C global warming, the poorest people in the Global South will be impacted heavily. Sea level rise and the dying of corals have a huge impact on food security," Sabine Minninger of aid organization Bread for the World told DW.

Read more: Sea level rise is real and accelerating

Minninger has seen first-hand the impacts of climate change on some of the most vulnerable places in the world, including on low-lying island nations like Fiji and Tuvalu, where communities are already being forced to take drastic action — reinforcing coastlines, changing how they grow food and relocating entire villages.

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The IPCC report stresses that while global warming of 1.5 C will still entail huge risks, particularly to the world's poorest people, such communities would have a better opportunity to adapt than under 2 C warming.

"The difference of this half degree will make a huge difference for whether people can keep their home or not," Minninger said. "Whether they lose their livelihoods, their land rights, their home, their identity, their culture — or not."

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Life on the water

At high tide, Lau Lagoon's manmade islands barely rise above the waterline. During king tides and
 strong winds, which are becoming increasingly frequent, some islands are now completely submerged.

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People of the sea

According to oral history, and "wane i asi," or people of the sea, have been living on manmade islands in Lau Lagoon for 18 generations. They are said to have come here to be closer to the sea that provides them with a bountiful supply of fish, and respite from mainland's mosquitoes.

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The only way is up

As the sea level rises, more and more of the lagoon's residents are building their homes on stilits for a few extra feet of grace.

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Water babes

Children are raised to feel at home with the ocean lapping at their feet. The only school is on the mainland, so they're used to making daily the journey back and forth across the lagoon.

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Born sailors

Navigating between the islands and the mainland in tiny dugout canoes with plastic sails is a skill gained early in life and quickly becomes second nature.

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Stormy weather

Living on the lagoon means being completely exposed to tropical storms. And this one came during what was traditionally the dry season. Lau Lagoon islanders are being forced to contend with increasingly unpredictable weather.

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Times of change

John Kaia, 52, is chief of the Aenabaolo tribe on the island of Tauba1. He says that over his lifetime he has seen dramatic changes to the climate - and his people's way of life.

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Swept away

Homes lie ruined in the wake of a large wave event. Here, the community decided to not rebuild - the destruction now comes too frequently and on too great a scale to make it worth while.

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Fight against time

Living with rising sea levels is an uphill struggle. Essential structures such as this outhouse, only accessible by bridge, require constant maintenance.

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Abandoned to the waves

The struggle to maintain this outhouse has long since been abandoned. What was once a part of a family home is now an occasional perch for seabirds.

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New neighbors

Many of Lau Lagoon's people of the sea are tying to relocate to the mainland of Malaita. But they are not always welcome. Land disputes mean construction is halted by court order - as with this church.

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Fresh start

While some wane e asi struggle for space on the mainland, others are unable to find land there at all, and are building new islands in the lagoon, like this one - still very much a work in progress.

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Keeping the faith

Religion plays a central role in daily life in Solomon Islands. Prayer and devotional rituals provide solace in trying times. Many have also relied on the church to help them relocate, as state programs fail to get off the ground.

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Saying goodbye

As Lau Lagoon's islands are abadoned, a way of life that has existed in harmony with nature for generations may be lost forever because of the damage industrialized nations have inflicted on our shared planet.

Call to action

Currently, commitments made by countries under the Paris Agreement are expected to increase global temperatures by around 3 C.

The report says that in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, we would need to cut global emissions 45 percent by 2030 (compared to 2010 levels), and bring them to net zero by 2050.

For climate action groups, the implications are clear.

"We still can attain 1.5 C, but the window is closing," Hoda Baraka of 350.org told DW. "To get there, we must keep all fossil fuels in the ground."

Read more: 1.5C degree goal 'extremely unlikely' – IPCC

IPCC scientists are also explicit that we will need to do much, much more on climate protection to attain the 1.5 C limit.

"Limiting global warming to 1.5 C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society," the IPCC said in a press release.

The report details such changes in energy production, land use, building, transport, industry, and cities, as well as how we produce and consume food.

alter Wald wird gerodet

Reforestation has vast potential to store atmospheric carbon

Technical challenges

The scenarios set out in the report also rely on so-called "negative emissions" to achieve both the 1.5 C and 2 C goals.

This means removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using technology such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) — which has so far only been used on a small scale and with mixed results — and by restoring forests, which naturally absorb CO2, over immense areas of the planet.

Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research, points out that even the 2 C goal has been controversial due to its heavy reliance on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

"In a 2-degree scenario, in many cases you're already hitting land constraints," Peters told DW. With limited room to upscale negative emissions, the IPCC's strategies for the tougher target of 1.5 C  focus more on emitting fewer greenhouse gases in the first place.

Infografik 1,5-Grad-Ziel: Wie viel CO₂ kann bis zum Jahr 2100 noch in die Atmosphäre? EN

Yet Peters says the technical challenges pale in comparison with the political task ahead, particularly when you look at the current political landscape, with leaders like US President Donald Trump in office.

Read more: Nations backslide on climate protection promises

Political will

Engineers can figure out how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Peters said. "It's a lot harder to get rid of Trump — or to get India or Brazil, say, to prioritize climate over everything else."

Stephen Cornelius, chief adviser on climate change for WWF, says the difference between the possible and the impossible boils down to political will.

"We need to push governments, so they know this is important, so that they have that mandate to act," he told DW.

Read more: Global day of protests over climate change

The IPCC policy summary also examines to what extent the changes we need to make come in conflict with development and poverty eradication. It admits there are some possible trade-offs, but stresses that for the most part, what's good for the planet is also good for people.

"Limiting global warming to 1.5 C compared to 2 C could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society," the IPCC wrote.

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