There’s still time to meet 1.5 to stay alive

By Arif Hossain

February 3, 2021

It is easy to be fashionably pessimistic about climate change. Many people say they think it is already too late to avoid catastrophe, let alone to meet the relatively ambitious goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement. If it’s too late to avoid the apocalypse, why even bother trying?

But that is not what the science says. The latest papers published by climate scientists on the matter show clearly that the world can still meet the Paris goal of a rise in global temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius that vulnerable developing countries like Bangladesh have said is essential for their survival.

Our lifeline, ironically enough, has been COVID-19. The data show that emissions globally fell by seven percent between 2019 and 2020 due to the pandemic. If sustained, this rate of emissions drop is sufficient for the world to achieve net-zero emissions globally by the year 2040, as required for a 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

That is not to say that we should be looking to maintain lockdowns and economic depression for another two decades. What it means is that post-COVID economic recovery efforts need to be strongly focused on ensuring a rapid transition to zero-carbon technologies.

In a paper published in the journal “Communications Earth and Environment”, the scientists mainly focused on updating the remaining carbon budget estimates for the 1.5 degree Celsius Paris goal, updating previous estimates that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had issued back in 2018.

They estimate a remaining carbon budget of 440 billion tonnes of CO2 for an even 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5 degrees, although for a two-thirds chance of this outcome, the budget would be as little as 230 billion tonnes. In fact, there is a one in six chance that the budget for 1.5C has already been exceeded, meaning the world would miss the crucial Paris goal even if all emissions stopped overnight.

And there is more bad news—according to the lead author Prof. Damon Matthews of Concordia University, Canada, at current emissions rates, there are only 11 years and nine months remaining on the “climate clock” before all of the budget for a 1.5 degrees outcome is used up.

This is partly a matter of perspective. The glass is more than half full, and not yet half empty, although time is rapidly running out. We can still focus on the future and achieve a result that protects our precious planet and safeguards the interests of the most vulnerable countries like Bangladesh.

In fact, it is notable that Bangladesh has assumed leadership in the climate change arena with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s chairmanship role of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), a coalition of 48 of the most vulnerable developing countries.

Determined not to face the future simply as victims, many of these countries are beginning work on Climate Prosperity Plans, which lay out the investment frameworks needed to achieve rapid economic growth and middle-income status, at the same time as reducing CO2 emissions to zero.

Bangladesh’s plan—named the Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan in honor of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—is already well advanced, and initial conclusions are expected to be set out in a couple of months. With Bangladesh graduating from LDC status and being one of the most important emerging markets, the multi-billion dollar investment opportunities will make clear how the climate agenda is a roadmap to growth and prosperity.

But Bangladesh and even all the CVF nations together, cannot solve the climate problem alone. The big emitters, in particular China, Europe, the United States and Japan, have at long last presented zero carbon dates and targets. South Africa, South Korea and Canada have also recently announced net zero targets. In total, 127 countries responsible for around 63 percent of emissions are considering or have adopted net zero targets, according to the Climate Action Tracker.

As Prof. Matthews says: “The momentum is shifting in the right direction, but it is still not happening fast enough.” According to the Climate Action Tracker, even the most optimistic current targets still lead to a global warming outcome that exceeds two degrees.

The CVF reports that only 40 percent of countries responded to the key UN climate goal to update their Paris Agreement pledges by the deadline of midnight Dec. 31, 2020.

“Boldest efforts are needed from all nations to keep within reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris Agreement on which our survival truly depends,” said Bangladesh Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Md. Shahab Uddin. “After the ‘midnight hour,’ despite some progress, we remain under extreme threat as more countries than not failed to deliver in time on the promises made at Paris five years ago.”

Bangladesh, along with the Maldives and many other CVF nations, were among the group who updated their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. It is clear that the most vulnerable countries are assuming the mantle of leadership—now, the big emitters also need to step up and seize the opportunity to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Image: Floods in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last July. Shutterstock/Sk Hasan Ali