KUALA LUMPUR — Around the world, 2021 was a year shaped by weather extremes. Germany and China saw devastating floods, while parts of Europe and the United States were ravaged by wildfires. Drought in East Africa led to crop losses and hunger, from Kenya to Madagascar.
Worsening disasters — in many cases made more likely and severe by climate change — have at last pushed governments to grasp the importance of meeting an international goal to rein in global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7°F), experts say.
In 2015, when the landmark Paris Agreement was struck, about 195 nations formally committed to limit warming to “well below” 2°C (3.6F) above preindustrial times, while “pursuing efforts” for a more ambitious ceiling of 1.5°C.
The potentially devastating effects of letting the Earth’s climate heat up beyond that lower limit became more evident this year, according to government officials and climate scientists.
“[We] did witness a clear shift from other countries to support keeping 1.5°C alive,” said UN ambassador Aubrey Webson of Antigua and Barbuda, who chairs the Alliance of Small Island States, uniting 39 nations from the Pacific to the Caribbean.
Those island states have long led the push for the 1.5°C goal to prevent further catastrophic losses, with many of them at risk of being swallowed up by rising seas as the planet warms.
The problem now is that while support for the 1.5°C limit won fresh political backing in 2021, it remains out of reach.
Countries are still wrangling over how to get on track to meet the goal, with pledges to cut climate-heating emissions not yet on the scale or time-frame needed.
The planet has already heated up by 1.1°C since the industrial revolution unleashed widespread use of fossil fuels.
Mr. Webson said the new high-level momentum behind 1.5°C — as seen among leaders this year, from the G7 and G20 summits to the COP26 UN climate talks — must be matched by rapid action.
“Rhetoric and pledges without implementation are fool’s gold for small islands,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said man-made carbon dioxide emissions need to fall by about 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels, and reach “net zero” by mid-century to give the world a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.
The good news is that 90% of the global economy is now covered by national net-zero emissions targets, up from 68% in 2020, according to the Net Zero Tracker compiled by a coalition of four research groups.
Frank Rijsberman, director-general of the Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute, which works with governments to achieve a green transition, said the surge in net-zero pledges showed growing commitment to the 1.5°C goal.
“We now have almost universal acceptance of the 1.5°C target — that’s a big step forward,” he said.
A flurry of net-zero pledges were made before and at November’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, with host Britain claiming success for keeping the 1.5°C goal alive, even while admitting “its pulse is weak.”
The two-week meeting ended with a pact that included a pledge to double funding to help vulnerable nations adapt to climate impacts, as well as commitments to “phase down” coal power and end “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies.
UN environment chief Inger Andersen said COP26 “did not get as far as we had hoped” — but had kept 1.5°C within reach. She called for climate ambition and action to be ramped up “urgently and meaningfully” to put the world on a safe path.
Efforts need to be redoubled because emissions-cutting pledges for 2030 made so far would still leave the world facing an average temperature rise of 2.4°C, estimates Climate Action Tracker, a non-profit research group.
Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, noted COP26 was meant to close the gap in emissions reductions needed to limit warming to 1.5°C.
“While that didn’t happen, it is now clear that 1.5°C is the only temperature goal that is reasonable for society to aim for,” she said.
At the same time, it is harder to achieve, as leaders did not step up “fully” at COP26, she added.
Climate policy expert Niklas Hohne of the Germany-based NewClimate Institute said that while more leaders had spoken out in favor of a 1.5°C limit than 2°C, the “discrepancy between the firmness and the reality of the 1.5°C goal has widened in 2021.”
Recognizing this, the Glasgow summit agreed countries should come back with more ambitious plans to curb emissions next year.
‘WAY OFF TRACK’
Differences over which countries should shoulder more responsibility to cut emissions faster and further — and how to pay for measures to do that, such as adopting clean energy — have complicated efforts to keep the 1.5°C goal within reach.
The United States and China top the emissions chart — both historically and in terms of today’s greenhouse gases — although on a per-person basis, China drops down the ranking.
Malaysian environmentalist Meena Raman, who has attended UN climate talks since 2007, said the main question had never been over opting for the 1.5°C goal but rather how to ensure it is achieved in a fair way — something COP26 failed on again.
“Net zero by 2050 is what we call ‘The Great Escape.’ We need to get to real zero (emissions) within this decade,” said Ms. Raman, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia.
The World Meteorological Organization warned in October that greenhouse gas concentrations hit a record last year and the world is “way off track” to cap rising temperatures.
In August, an IPCC report said average global temperatures would likely cross the 1.5C threshold within the next 20 years — bringing stronger droughts, heatwaves, floods and storms.
Former IPCC chair Robert Watson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that goal is “now harder to reach than ever before.”
“The rhetoric is consistent with 1.5°C, but the pledges are not,” said the British chemist, warning that the less ambitious global target of staying below 2C is also in doubt.
For example, since COP26, China and India have told their mining firms to boost coal production to plug energy shortages, while President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., asked US oil and gas companies to raise production to ease high prices, Mr. Watson pointed out.
In addition, Britain’s trail-blazing pledge to slash its emissions 78% by 2035 from 1990 levels is not supported by — or consistent with — current national policies, he noted.
“2021 can be summed up as the year of rhetoric not action,” said Mr. Watson. — Beh Lih Yi/Thomson Reuters Foundation