The Quest for 1.5 Degrees Centigrade

by Contributor

By Roland Flamini


In November, the Trump Administration plans to begin the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, formally reversing America’s commitment made in 2015 together with about 195 other countries to confront the greatest existential crisis of our time. Meanwhile, other Paris signatories pressed on with their efforts to keep rises in global temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — notwithstanding a 2018 United Nations progress report on climate change that said the world was “nowhere near on track” to meet prescribed deadlines.

The World Meteorological Association actually predicts a 3–5 degree increase by 2100. At a U.N. Climate Action Summit of world leaders and the private sector in New York in September, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for more effort to reduce greenhouse gases as a matter of urgency. The U.N. wants to reduce gas emissions by 45 percent over the next decade, and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Guterres has been urging countries, “don’t bring a speech, bring a plan,” but the summit was heavy on more cash commitments (Angela Merkel announced Germany’s new allocation of $100 billion for climate protection by 2030), but disappointingly light on fresh initiatives.

One surprise: giant global corporations promising to phase out fossil fuels. By most scientific estimates, Earth has to begin significant carbon pollution reductions to avert total planetary disaster, in just under a decade. What’s needed is a rapid and far reaching transformation of the world’s economy, the end of coal usage altogether, a significant decrease in the use of fossil fuels, a leap in renewable energy, electrification of our transportation system, and transformation of agricultural and land-use practices —all of which will require a $5-7 trillion investment in green infrastructure. “We are running out of time to stay under the 1.5 degree Celsius limit” warns Patricia Espinosa, a senior U.N. official on climate change. The Climate Action Tracker, a monitoring project run by three climate-research organizations, puts five countries in the “Critically Insufficient” column of its periodic list of how the Paris accord signatories are living up to their commitments. They are the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Ukraine. But there are some bright spots:

Morocco: “Morocco is currently Africa’s leader in terms of efforts to combat climate change, reaffirming the country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate action,” the United Nations reports. The Maghreb kingdom has a climate program that puts it on track to do its fair share of keeping warming below the 1.5 degree Paris target. One of the world’s largest solar farms has been providing 600,000 consumers in and around the Moroccan city of Ouarzazate on the edge of the Sahara Desert since 2016, and Morocco has commissioned other large-scale renewable energy projects, cut-back fossil fuel subsidies, and expects to get be getting 42 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.

India: One of the world’s biggest economies has one of the fastest growing renewable energy programs. India has promised that 40 percent of its electrical power generation would come from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030, but experts believe it could well meet that goal this year. As the country seeks to replace the use of coal with renewables, India has emerged as the world’s second largest investor in renewable energy—$9.7 billion in new investments in 2017.

Gambia: The small nation on the west coast of Africa is the other country on track to reach the 1.5 degree Celsius limit in it carbon output. A key part of the plan is a major reforestation project to stop environmental erosion and degradation by planting trees. The Gambia has also embarked in a
cleanup of the river that gives it its name.

United Kingdom: The U.K. has legislated reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, making it the first G20 economy to establish a legally binding target. In September 2018, the
Walney Extension, the world’s largest wind farm, went into operation off England’s north west coast, making the U.K. the global leader in offshore
wind. Overall, wind generated 32 percent of the country’s electrical power, more than any other source.

China: As the largest current emitter of greenhouse gases (the U.S. is the largest historic emitter), China’s actions have a major impact on the success or failure of the Paris objectives. It is on track to meet its own commitments to the agreement but falls short of reaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark, and Beijing has said it is working on new initiatives. Paradoxically, China is the world’s largest consumer of coal, but at the same time, leads the world in wind and solar installation. Its annual installation in these areas is more than the U.S., the European Union, Canada, Japan, Korea and Brazil combined.


“If the Arctic were a patient, doctors would be alarmed by its vital signs,” the Guardian newspaper reported. Higher than average temperatures are causing the ice to melt quicker and in greater volume than in previous summers. For example, Greenland is the world’s largest island; with its surrounding ice sheet, it is bigger still. Melting ice from Greenland’s ice sheet alone could raise the global sea level more than 20 feet. On August 1, the island shed about 12.5 billion tons of ice. That’s the most ever in a 24-hour period. Overall, in a week long heat wave, the world’s largest island shed about 55 billion tons of ice. The 2018 Arctic Report Card issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said “continued warming of the Arctic atmosphere and ocean are driving broad change in the environmental system in predicted and, also, unexpected ways. New emerging threats are taking form and highlighting the level of uncertainty in the breadth of environmental change that is to come.”

It’s by now clear that the concept of global warming applies more emphatically to the Arctic, where, according to experts, temperatures are increasing twice as fast as the rest of the world. In November, according to a BBC report, when temperatures should have been 25 degrees Celsius below freezing, the North Pole basked in 1.2 degrees C above freezing. The Arctic region, in other words, shows no signs of returning to being a reliably frozen region. And as the frozen ocean melts and opens it has created a kind of Arctic Klondike of nations as they compete to exploit new energy and mineral resources, new fishing areas, shipping routes and even archeological sites. The inevitable strategic impact of a richer and more maneuverable Arctic area includes Russia building up its military presence in the area, the U.S. enlarging and strengthening its airbase in Greenland (and Trump talking of buying the island from Denmark) and China moving in with offers of infrastructure projects.The Iceland-based Arctic Council, established in the 1990s mainly to settle fishing disputes, has emerged as the international forum for airing differences over climate change between the U.S. and other Council members, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Norway and Sweden (China is an observer because Beijing insists China is an Arctic country).

At a recent Arctic summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused both Russia and China of “aggressive” behavior in the Arctic area, which “has become a region for power and competition.” The same summit ended without issuing a final declaration because the U.S. refused to include a statement that climate change was a serious threat to the Arctic. Most of which would be of marginal concern to Thilmeeza Hussain, Maldive Islands ambassador to both Washington and the United Nations, except for the threat of melting of terrestrial ice and rising sea levels to her low lying island nation thousands of miles away in the Indian Ocean— not to mention numerous other vulnerable island states in the Pacific. Hussain says climate change is already hitting the 1,200 coral islands of her homeland. “When you talk about climate change you’re talking about islands submerging,” she says, noting that most of the islands are barely five feet above sea level. “But it doesn’t happen overnight. Long before an island disappears it will become uninhabitable. It’s a slow sequence of events that eventually would lead to the death of nations. We will all become climate refugees, but where would we go?” Beach erosion is one current problem. Another big challenge: on most of the islands, fresh water has been contaminated by seawater, causing such serious shortages that the whole communities on some of islands have had to be relocated internally. Hussain represented the Maldives at the 2015 Paris agreement, but says the result was “a political starting point, a compromise—a death sentence to small island-states.”


Brazil’s populist President Jair Bolsonaro has a Neronian streak. According to legend, the Emperor Nero is said to have played his fiddle while watching Rome burn in a great conflagration in July 64 A.D. As large areas of the vast Brazilian Amazon rainforest burned this summer, Bolsonaro also fiddled—but in other ways. Since his election in January he has cut back on government control of the Amazon area, set in motion his campaign promise to open up more protected land for commercial use, blamed the opposition and nongovernmental organizations for starting the fires to make him look bad and pushed back against the wave of international concern. When French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “The Amazon rainforest—the lung which produces 20 percent of our planet’s oxygen—is on fire. It is an international crisis,” Bolsonaro tweeted back that it was none of the Frenchman’s business.

It turns out that climate change was getting a helping hand from large Brazilian agribusinesses who are still setting fire to land close to the Amazon forests to prepare it for crops and pasture, and the flames spread. In the past nine months to the end of August, 74,155 fires were reported, 40 percent more than in previous years, the result, observers say, of the Bolsonaro government relaxing the usual heavy fines. Bottom line: 7,200 square miles of burned forest, so far. In September, the United Nations General Assembly gave Bolsonaro a platform for a cantankerous denunciation of the world’s concern over the slash and burn crisis in Brazil’s rainforest. He blamed “deceitful media” for hyping the fires, maintaining that, on the contrary, the Amazon forests were “virtually untouched;” and he rejected foreign leaders’ argument, central to their concerns, that the Brazil rainforest was part of a world heritage, calling such views “colonial,” and interference in Brazil’s internal affairs.

Climate change is causing sea level rise, ecosystem collapse, national security challenges and international conflicts. Countries are beginning to take measures to combat the crisis but assessments of these actions and the larger Paris Agreement commitments indicate much more needs to be done. With less than 10 years left for meaningful action, countries and leaders must move to 100 percent renewable energy as soon as possible. The eyes of all future generations are upon nations right now — glaring.

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