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Keeping Global Warming Below 1.5°C May Still Be Possible With Immediate Action, New Study Shows

"It's good news from a geophysical point of view," says the lead researcher. "We are basically saying we can't build anything now that emits fossil fuels."

solar panels

A solar farm in Brockville, Ontario. (Photo: Jonathan Potts/flickr/cc)

Bolstering urgent warnings from the global scientific community that the world must rapidly transition away from fossil fuels to avert climate catastrophe and keep global warming below 1.5°C within this century, a new study out Tuesday suggests meeting that end is simply a matter of political will.

"We are basically saying we can't build anything now that emits fossil fuels."
—Christopher Smith, University of Leeds

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the key takeaway from the study is that "although the challenges laid out by the Paris Agreement are daunting, we indicate 1.5°C remains possible and is attainable with ambitious and immediate emission reduction across all sectors."

While that goal is described by some as "daunting," critics of the Paris accord—which is backed by every nation on Earth except the United States under President Donald Trump—and its recently established rulebook have concluded that neither go far enough. Beyond those squabbles, though, there is a general consensus among the world's scientists that tackling the climate crisis requires "rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented" societal reforms.

Specifically, the new research shows that if carbon-intensive infrastructure is phased out from this point forward, there is a 64 percent chance of keeping global temperature rise within this century below 1.5°C. However, the window of opportunity is closing quickly. According to the report, "delaying mitigation until 2030 considerably reduces the likelihood that 1.5°C would be attainable even if the rate of fossil fuel retirement was accelerated."

"It's good news from a geophysical point of view. But on the other side of the coin, the [immediate fossil fuel phaseout] is really at the limit of what we could we possibly do," lead researcher Christopher Smith, of the University of Leeds, told the Guardian. "We are basically saying we can't build anything now that emits fossil fuels."

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While the findings suggest the world still has the option to meet the Paris agreement's ambitions, there are some limitations to the research. As the Guardian pointed out, "the analysis did not include the possibility of tipping points such as the sudden release of huge volumes of methane from permafrost, which could spark runaway global warming."

Smith, for his part, anticipates that global warming will surpass 1.5°C. "We are going the right way, but I don't think we will do enough, quickly enough. I think we are heading for 2°C. to 2.5°C," he said, but "if you don't have a goal, you are not going to get anywhere. If you have a target that is really hard to achieve and you miss it slightly, that is better than wandering aimlessly into a future climate that is no good for anybody."

The study comes as a new report from Oil Change International warns the United States is "drilling toward disaster" with fossil fuel expansion, and that if it doesn't rapidly shift course—such as by implementing Green New Deal—the country "will impede the rest of the world's ability to manage a climate-safe, equitable decline of oil and gas production."

The planet, meanwhile, is experiencing the consequences of ongoing fossil fuel production. According to recently published research, the world's oceans are warming about 40 percent faster than scientists believed in 2013, and Antarctica is melting six times more quickly than it was in the 1980s. As oceans and the atmosphere warm, ice melts, and sea levels rise, experts have also warned that extreme weather will grow increasingly more common—and deadly.

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