Incredibly, current climate pledges could keep heating below 2C – but our work isn’t over

10 05 2022 | 07:44Laurie Laybourn

The climate crisis is often seen in binary terms. Precise temperature targets – limiting global heating to 1.5C or 2C – imply decisive moments of victory or loss. Headlines warn that we have only “12 years to save the world”. A recent study in the journal Nature showing that countries’ post-Cop26 net-zero pledges, if met, will probably keep global heating to below 2C will be seen in similar terms.

Governments and companies will claim we should be reassured by their decisive actions to reduce emissions. They will say we finally have a real agreement to keep heating below 2C. We should be sceptical. As activists and scientists have said over and over again, targets are easy to set but hard to meet. And they are being promised by the same leaders who are already failing to meet existing commitments to reduce emissions.

But to see this latest news in binary terms – either as a sign it’ll be OK or another depressing lie – misses its deeper significance.

There is no target, agreement or technology that can abruptly resolve the issue. Instead of ends, we should see these as means: signposts we can organise around, contest and weave into an ever-widening mobilisation of society that builds greater momentum for change.

The news that countries’ emissions targets could limit heating to within 2C shows progress in a key area. Six months ago, before Cop26, targets were projected to result in 2.4C of heating. In 2020, it was almost unimaginable that China and India would have net-zero commitments a year later. Half a decade previously, those countries with climate targets were in the minority. Staying just below 2C will still bring extreme suffering to hundreds of millions and risks abrupt, catastrophic changes to the environment. But that targets could limit heating to 2C is relative progress.

This progress shows that the battle for countries and companies to sign up to net zero is being won. Climate policies helped spur rapid changes in energy markets, with renewables becoming increasingly competitive against fossil fuels, showing the world we have the technology to drive rapid emissions reductions. This momentum is the result of decades of cumulative awareness-raising, tireless campaigning and political manoeuvring.

The recent explosion in activism has been a crucial factor. It was equally hard to imagine global school strikes, Extinction Rebellion and a green new deal a few years ago. They changed the narrative, inspired by the successes – and failures – of those who came before.

More stringent targets provide the basis from which to ratchet more momentum. If net-zero targets are commonplace, demands move to the next level. The “right kind” of net zero cannot rely on the invention and deployment of vast carbon-sucking technologies by younger generations. The imperative for an immediate and drastic reduction in emissions must be enshrined in intermediate targets for this decade, and be met through huge investment in the deployment of renewables and energy efficiency measures. In the global south, 2C-compatible pledges can only be realised if the wealthiest nations stop failing to meet their promise of $100bn a year in support.

The next wave of demands brings new campaigns, leaders and means of making change. Already, school strikers are graduating into taking governments to court. Civil disobedience is being brought to thinktanks, airfields for private jets and other low-profile enablers of climate catastrophe. It is exciting to think what the next wave will look like; how the millions of people who have been reached by IPCC headlines, Insulate Britain and the other events of recent years could be inspired.

A huge amount hinges on this next wave. The stakes are vertiginous. Focus must increasingly turn to other battles. Millions of homes need insulating – an even greater necessity considering Russia’s war in Ukraine and inflation. The efforts of Nigel Farage and others to use the well-honed Brexit playbook to create a kind of “fossil populism” encouraging delay and distraction must be rebuffed. The growing taboo over fossil fuel companies must spread to their financiers and media cheerleaders.

The targets agreed at Cop26 don’t guarantee our success. But they will be referenced, debated and used as leverage or a yardstick across the many fronts of the climate movement – from activist circles to business and government boardrooms. They are a small success that contributes to a larger process of leveraging deeper change.

Avoiding global catastrophe and limiting the increasingly severe effects of the climate crisis was always going to be a long, brutal struggle. This is because it requires fundamental changes to societies everywhere. Crucially, these can only happen if deep concentrations of power are challenged and overcome.

This means the climate struggle is different to comparable examples. The hole in the ozone layer is closing because a global agreement phased out a small number of chemicals. Yet reducing carbon emissions to net zero demands we change everything: different ways of eating, travelling and living.

These will bring huge benefits to many. But they are also disruptive and at odds with long-running means of maintaining power and making money. Ultimately, limiting heating to below 2C – or 1.5C – demands that we overcome the ideas, economic systems and organisations that enable this power. Tackling this imperative can feel like an overwhelming challenge.

But, incredibly, we can now see a path to limiting heating below 2C. It is fraught with danger and suffering. There is no easy way through, and progress is actively opposed by some of the most powerful interests in the world. Yet this path seemed closed even months ago. Activism works, momentum is growing. What will your contribution be as we take the next step?

  • Laurie Laybourn is an environmental policy researcher and author. He leads the Cohort 2040 project, which explores how emerging leaders can be prepared for a future of deepening environmental crisis

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Photograph: Future Publishing/Getty Images

Incredibly, current climate pledges could keep heating below 2C – but our work isn’t over