1.5°C is dead, long live 1.5°C

We should draw motivation from the loss of this target and galvanise a much stronger public movement around it

We are sinking, but so is everyone else”. Those were the powerful words from the foreign minister of Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific that is experiencing the brutal impacts of the climate crisis. It was with a similar sinking feeling that I left the Glasgow climate summit, dubbed as the planet’s last hope to arrest global heating. It is perhaps too early to judge Cop26: the only acceptable measure is for global carbon emissions to curve steeply downwards to 2030. What we have seen instead is a significant bounce back of emissions since the pandemic-induced crash in 2020, with little sign of abatement next year.

The scale of the task ahead is monumental. At current levels, the amount of carbon we can safely emit (our carbon budget’) globally will only last another eight years, giving us a one-in-two chance of limiting global heating to the safe level of 1.5°C. Now, these figures are attempts to predict the future, so come with a certain level of uncertainty — but how long our carbon budget will last will only vary by a few short years (and it could run out sooner than we expect). To stay within safe limits, we need to globally cut the size of India’s emissions every year for the rest of the decade. There is no parallel in history for such an endeavour.

But did our leaders respond accordingly? The answer is a resounding no. The lousy commitments made at the summit, assuming they will be backed by policy and funding (they currently aren’t) will still take us to 2.4°C. Extreme weather events from a rise of just 1.1 degrees are already taking thousands of lives and displacing many more while costing billions of pounds. A 2 degree warming will be far worse. Yet countries like Australia, Japan and the US continue to undermine the fundamental principle of these negotiations: that rich nations have a moral responsibility to cut their emissions first and fastest while financing the clean transition of developing countries. That historic responsibility was further diluted when discussions of compensation paid to the global south for the impacts of climate breakdown (known as loss and damage’) were deferred once again.

You don’t have to be a betting person to know that the odds are stacked against us and the prospect of keeping global temperature rises to 1.5°C is, in fact, dead. This isn’t a fatalistic conclusion — and it doesn’t imply that we should abandon attempts to change our fossil-fuel economies for individual solutions. The rhetoric with which our own politicians have looked back at Cop26, of keeping 1.5 alive’ or on life support’, is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. It sells a lie to the public that vacuous promises on net-zero emissions and business-as-usual approaches will tide us over. The reality is that our existing economic systems and a reliance on techno-fixes will never deliver a justice-oriented solution to the crisis. What they do best is socialise risk and privatise profit. This outcome once again appears all too predictable after Cop26, where the fossil fuel industry had the biggest delegation, and where big business and private markets were once again called on to rescue us from the mess they created.

Perhaps it is more apt to say: 1.5°C is dead. Long live 1.5°C’. By this I mean, while the 1.5°C target is practically out of reach, its symbolism should persist and galvanise a much stronger public movement around it. The loss of this target will become more apparent in the next few years, but it should force us to centre that loss, and the reparations that ought to follow, in our mobilisation and demands. Reparations should flow not just from the global north to the south, but also from fossil fuel companies and big polluters to the communities hit by climate disasters, from one generation to the next, and from the wealthy to the poor.

The climate youth movements intuitively and profoundly get this. They understand that the battle isn’t just about carbon but instead about reprogramming our economy to undo the root causes of the multiple crises that we face. It is true that every tenth of a degree that we pull back is a step away from climate chaos while potentially saving millions of lives and livelihoods. Many in power, including the Cop26 president, have deployed that argument to claim progress at these negotiations. But this logic is letting governments and polluters get away with greenwashing, piecemeal measures and promises that lock us into uncertain overshoot scenarios and aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

The Glasgow Climate Pact now commits nations to raise their climate ambitions every year as opposed to every five. This is welcome news and offers an opportunity for the global climate movement to apply greater political pressure. It is perhaps also an opportunity to draw motivation from the loss of this target, engage the public and push the debate towards rewriting the rules of our extractive economic system and towards a Green New Deal.

Simon Dawson /​No 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If you back a recovery plan based around great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF to build back better.

Make a monthly donation

£3 £5 £10 £25 £100

Make a one-off donation

£5 £10 £25 £50 £100