The 1.5 Celsius Paris Climate Agreement stands for global commitment to fight climate change - but we have to thank small island states for it. And Leon Charles from Grenada.
Last March, Sultan al-Jaber, the president of the UN COP28 climate summit, made headlines all over the world when he committed to the 1.5 Celsius target for limiting the rise of global temperatures above pre-industrial levels. It was, he said, “just non-negotiable”. In the months afterwards, the world endured yet more record heat, intense wildfires and patchy progress on decarbonisation.
July, August and September 2023 were all the hottest in recorded history. Most alarmingly, September was about 1.8 Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels for that month.
The 1.5 Celsius target (agreed upon at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015) has rarely looked so vulnerable, yet it still stands as a byword for the world’s efforts to stop a slow-motion disaster. It is at once a kind of political brand and a campaigning slogan. But where did the target come from? And, as delegates gather for COP28 in Dubai at the end of November, is it still achievable?
If one person can take credit for galvanising global efforts around 1.5 Celsius, his name is Leon Charles. As a resident of a small island state in rising seas, he has a lot at stake. The former geography teacher from Grenada, in the Caribbean, remembers when, in the 1990s, farmers on the island began to notice a shift in the seasons and beaches were being eroded.
After quitting teaching for business, Charles got a job with his government, in 1999, to coordinate Grenada’s role in the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, whose annual COP meetings had begun in Berlin in 1995. After becoming an expert on the issue, and looking around him at islands like his, Charles became concerned that the world wasn’t being ambitious enough with its climate goals.
By then, there was an unquestioning focus on 2 Celsius as a target for curtailing global temperature rises above pre-industrial levels. Yet climate scientists were already predicting that such a rise would, among other disasters, swallow up whole islands and coastlines that were most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Weather would become more extreme, wildfires more intense. And the world would creep closer to a tipping point of destruction from which there could be no return, however drastic and coordinated efforts might become.
Dozens of these countries, who alone were almost powerless, had begun to organise under the aegis of a new body: the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis). In 2006, Grenada became the chair of the group and Charles arrived at COP14 in Poland in 2008 with a bold campaign for 1.5 Celsius to be adopted as a new target in Copenhagen the next year.
He soon found that the big powers in oil consumption and production were not quite as keen. “Most of the developed world didn’t take us seriously,” he told me earlier this year. “They told us that 2 Celsius was safe enough.”
With resistance from countries including China, Aosis was only able to get 1.5 Celsius recognised as a long-term goal in Copenhagen in 2009. The accord signed at the summit also included a pledge to revisit the lower target by 2015 if the science backed it up. Playing the long game, Charles went to work and Aosis promoted new support and study of the impacts of 1.5 Celsius compared with 2 Celsius.
When 2015 came around in Paris, Grenada played a key role in the formation of the legally binding Paris Agreement, which set the goal to limit warming “to well below 2 Celsius”, while “pursuing efforts” to target 1.5 Celsius. “That’s when the ground really shifted,” Charles said. “We treated it as a victory.”
A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that 1.5 Celsius was feasible with urgent action. In the five years since then, a lack of meaningful action has come alongside a horrifying rise in temperatures. With each year, the 1.5 Celsius target has seemed less not more achievable. Indeed, global temperatures temporarily passed 1.5 Celsius earlier this year and the current average level compared to the pre-industrial average is already 1.1 Celsius. Meanwhile CO2 emissions, the biggest driver of global heating, hit a record high in 2022, partly due to the energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Many figures in business have said that resources would be better channelled into adaptation rather than the dogged and costly pursuit of an unachievable goal. Bill Gates, whose investment firm Breakthrough Energy backs climate innovations, has said that 1.5 Celsius is out of reach and that, while not giving up in the drive to limit warming, the world must prepare to get hotter and hotter. Last month, the IPCC warned in a new report that “the window to keep limiting warming to 1.5 Celsius within reach is closing rapidly”.
But others argue that easing up on 1.5 Celsius would be an admission of defeat that would give cover to heel-dragging nations and energy companies, costing us more in the long run. “The solution is not to change the target,” Mark Howden, vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the Financial Times in March. “What we have to do is accelerate the emission reductions.”
Despite the worrying outlook, and after more than 15 years of campaigning, Leon Charles remained quietly confident when I spoke to him. “You have to be a pragmatist to do what I do,” he said. “But when I look at where we’ve come from in 2008, when we had nothing, it tells me that there will continue to be progress.”
When the IPCC sounded the alarm again in its report last month, it was again the voices of people from the most vulnerable nations that focussed minds before another COP summit. "The findings and recommendations of this Report need to be a wake-up call and a trigger for cogent commitments," said Pa'olelei Luteru, the current chair of Aosis. Like Charles, Luteru has much at stake; Samoa, his country in the southwest Pacific, is already being forced to adapt to increasingly intense tropical cyclones and storm surges, among other existential threats. In places like these, climate targets mean the most.
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