Wayfinding to 1.5°C: Resources to Guide High-Ambition Climate Action


The leaders of almost 200 countries reached a consensus at COP26 in Glasgow to focus climate ambition on limiting global average temperature change to 1.5°C. In parallel with this agreement, more than 1,200 corporations have adopted science-based targets aligned to the 1.5°C goal. While much remains to be done to achieve it, the 1.5°C goal has become the gold standard for high-ambition climate action. Climate leaders around the world increasingly agree that this is the goal that we must aim for and align our strategies toward. Achieving it will require halving global emissions by 2030.

Companies, communities, and financial institutions creating 1.5°C-aligned goals and action plans need ready access to research and analysis tools to support their planning and help track emerging opportunities in the context of an accelerating global energy transition away from fossil fuels. Global energy systems models show us that pathways to 1.5°C are achievable, affordable, and beneficial. Yet, these pathways need to be matched with more granular, bottom-up analyses that describe opportunities for and implications of transformative changes at sectoral or regional levels across the economy.

1.5°C Wayfinder’s knowledge ecosystem connects organizations at the forefront of setting and implementing 1.5°C-aligned goals with the research and analysis resources they need to plan and act. Wayfinder serves three primary functions:

  • Improving access to and usability of existing pathways analyses. The 1.5°C Pathways Explorer offers curated insights and comparative analysis to improve access and usability of energy systems information available from diverse sources.
  • Applying new tools to guide systems change. Transformation Toolkit provides research, analysis, and modeling that illustrate how systems can change rapidly and how to accelerate change. This includes analysis of catalytic market forces that drive economic transitions (e.g., technology learning curves, social tipping points) as well as studies of the dynamics and forces that drive increased climate ambition.
  • Connecting analysts and users for fast learning and quick response. Working with a network of leading-edge knowledge partners, the Practitioners Forum supports collaborative modeling and stakeholder engagement to help deliver actionable 1.5°C roadmaps and drive increased ambition and action.

Why Aim for 1.5°C?

Throughout history, explorers, athletes, adventurers, inventors, entrepreneurs, survivors, and revolutionaries have defied conventional wisdom to overcome seemingly impossible challenges. This is how humans have survived extreme adversities, traveled and populated the earth, built machines that fly, ventured to the moon and back, and achieved countless other extraordinary feats. This is what we do. This is how we grow, learn, and transcend — by courageously taking up the most extraordinary challenges.

Today, human societies face an unprecedented challenge, one that for the first time brings us together across all places and cultures because it is truly global in character. We are at a turning point for humanity and the Earth — one driven by climate change — as we approach 1.5°C average global temperature increase. Actions taken in just the next few years could determine the trajectory of life on Earth for millennia.

We see at least four arguments for focusing on 1.5°C as a long-term goal for climate action:

  • From a scientific perspective, climate scientists tell us that warming beyond 1.5°C could trigger irreversible feedbacks in the Earth’s systems that would make it impossible to slow or reverse further warming regardless of what measures humans take thereafter. Even with the current warming, we are already close to or have already crossed critical tipping points for some of the earth’s largest systems, such as ice sheets, ocean currents, Amazon forests, and vast areas of permafrost. We do not know the exact thresholds at which each of these critical tipping points might be reached, but science suggests that even at a temperature rise well below 2°C, there is still a significant risk of triggering cascading climate tipping points.
  • From a moral perspective, we know that long-term warming beyond 1.5°C would trigger the loss of the land area for entire nations and create severe human and economic suffering across the planet from rising sea level, extreme weather, fire, floods, and other consequences. Making the argument for 1.5°C in the run-up to COP15, President Mohamed Nasheed of Maldives asked world leaders, “How can you ask my country to go extinct?” Since then, scientific evidence has mounted to confirm the expected heavy toll that long-term average temperature rise above 1.5°C would take on human societies and natural systems globally.
  • From an economic perspective, rigorous studies like IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 and other analyses show us that the economic benefits of a 1.5°C pathway are sizeable. The IEA estimates that a 1.5°C-aligned pathway would result in 0.4% higher economic growth annually to 2030 compared with business as usual, while creating 9 million net new jobs by 2030 and reducing premature deaths from air pollution by 2 million annually by 2050. A study from Oxford University concludes that rapidly decarbonizing the global energy system would deliver savings of $26 trillion.
  • From a tactical perspective, the Glasgow Climate Pact signed by 200 nations at COP26 formally endorsed the 1.5°C goal, bringing to fruition more than a decade of intense advocacy, campaigning, and negotiation on the part of diverse climate advocates, scientists, politicians, and citizens. Such broad alignment around a consensus goal is not easily achieved and not easily replaced. It is the right goal to aim for and it is what the nations of the world have formally agreed on.

What will achiving 1.5°C really mean for...

The economy?

Transitioning quickly to renewable technologies globally to replace fossil fuels would save $26 trillion over the next several decades compared with sticking with the current energy system.

Achieving well bellow 2°C would save 14% of GDP in economic losses relative to a 3.2°C scenario.

IERNA estimates a 1.5°C future would create 20 million additional energy sector jobs in 2050 compared with a future where only current policies are implemented.

People and planet?

A 1.5°C future would mean 2 million fewer premature deaths per year by 2050 due to bad air quality.

Pursuing 1.5°C could make it easier to achieve the 7 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).

200 million fewer people would be exposed to water stress at 1.5°C versus 2°C.

2-3x fewer species loss at 1.5°C versus 2°C.

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C will prevent most of the tropics from reaching the extreme wet bulb temperature of 35°C, which is the limit of human adaptation.

Existing Commitments Fall Short

Despite the growing scientific consensus around the risks of tipping points in the climate system and the importance of limiting long-term average warming to 1.5°C, the Glasgow Climate Pact agreed on at the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) fell short of securing the national commitments needed to deliver 1.5°C. The Glasgow agreement, signed by 197 countries, “resolves to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C” and “recognizes that limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep, and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net-zero around mid-century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.”

Yet, even if they were all completely fulfilled, the nationally determined commitments registered through the COP process plus countries’ net-zero promises would put the world on a best-case path to around 1.8°C of average warming and the likelihood, with some slippage, of temperatures considerably higher. Climate Action Tracker estimates that policies currently implemented by countries would lead to 2.0°C–3.6°C of warming — well off of what countries are promising.

At the conclusion of COP26, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said, “It is an important step but is not enough. Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.” Alok Sharma, president for COP26, added, “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

So, Is It Time to Give Up or Double Down?

Given the uncertainties about how 1.5°C can be achieved in the absence of clear national commitments that align to it, some private-sector leaders are quietly backing away from making explicit commitments aligned to 1.5°C in favor of longer-horizon, and typically more ambiguous, net-zero targets. We stand at a fateful juncture where key actors, including many corporations and financial institutions, are assessing how hard to push toward setting 1.5°C-aligned goals and action plans.

Therefore, showing how we can get to 1.5°C and what it would mean to do so is especially important now. As Henry Ford famously said, “whether you think you can, or think you can’t — you’re right.” Unfortunately, some of the large global energy systems models used to assess the energy future do not give us an accurate picture of what is possible. The latest evidence shows that momentum is increasing toward a rapid shift away from fossil fuels based on competitive economics, technological advances, and innovation but these fast-moving developments are notoriously slow to be reflected in many global energy systems analyses.

Whether you think you can, or think you can’t — you’re right.

Henry Ford

We think it’s time to double down on our commitment to finding a fast track to a clean, secure, and resilient energy future on a pathway that protects against the risks of runaway planetary warming.

We know that not all key actors in the energy system — governments, corporations, financial institutions — are aiming to bring their actions into alignment with a 1.5°C goal. But the fact that some are not aiming for this goal shouldn’t deter others from doing so. Leadership comes from focused action directed to the desired outcome.

We know that there is a high probability that even in the best of scenarios, global average temperature rise could overshoot 1.5°C for some years. But even if we temporarily cross the 1.5°C mark in the decades ahead, the scientific evidence says we should keep aiming for 1.5°C as our long-term goal for average temperature increase in this century.

The IPCC considers scenarios with low overshoot to be 1.5°C scenarios; 44 such scenarios are included in the IPCC special report Global Warming of 1.5°C.

The Power of Non-State Actors

Against the backdrop of climate action commitments and policies of national governments, voluntary actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by corporations, subnational governments, and citizens will be critical to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C. Given the necessity to reduce carbon emissions 50% by 2030, triggering social tipping points through positively reinforcing “ambition loops” could be a way to drive change at a pace faster than currently envisioned in conventional policy-led pathways that depend primarily on actions by national governments. While national policies remain a critical element in almost any scenario, they cannot alone deliver actions to mitigate global climate change at the speed and breadth now required.

Creating positive ambition loops requires transparency and accountability for climate-related goal setting and action at all levels. It also depends on building a broadly based sense of confidence and progress toward societal goals. Integrated, long-term systems models are essential tools to understand progress, raise ambition, and diagnose obstacles to achieving planetary-scale outcomes for the energy system. We need these models to help us integrate distributed commitments and actions, holistically assess progress, and communicate how we are doing to actors and decision makers at all levels. If they do this well, they can play a role like the human body’s electrical and chemical signaling systems that help to ensure homeostasis and survival.

Yet, today’s energy systems models are not well suited to understand or predict ambition loops. To understand the current state of human-induced climate change and assess pathways to mitigate potentially catastrophic global change, we depend on sophisticated integrated assessment models (IAMs) that link energy system dynamics with climate behavior. These models analyze the global energy system in terms of microeconomic decisions with an overlay of policy levers used to influence these decisions. By virtue of their legacy designs, these models do not provide a framework to meaningfully analyze voluntary climate actions.

Voluntary climate action is already significant and scaling rapidly. While it is uncertain and highly dynamic, it holds the promise to deliver rapid global change. The UN-led Race to Zero campaign has marshaled thousands of new commitments to drive toward net-zero emissions. Corporate commitments alone enrolled by November 2021 included institutions with science-based targets representing approximately 30% of global GDP with their annual revenues. The commitments being made by non-state actors span industry, finance, cities, states, and provinces and are supported by specialized campaigns and institutions.

These developments present new important opportunities and challenges for energy systems analysis. Global energy systems models capable of fully integrating voluntary climate action commitments in ways that can help us map and inspire progress for the decade ahead do not yet exist. Developing new tools to tackle these challenges will require collaborative effort across diverse organizations working in the energy analysis ecosystem.

The Changing Landscape of Climate Actions

As noted, fundamental changes in the landscape of climate action are now emerging with far-reaching implications for how we need to track and understand the energy system and support its rapid transformation.

  • The number and diversity of key climate actors is increasing rapidly. Legacy frameworks and institutions for driving climate action are built around nation-states, but actions are increasingly coming from other levels of the system. We need to better track and understand the decisions and behaviors of these diverse, distributed actors in the system.
  • The timeliness and granularity of data needed to understand the dynamics of climate action is increasing exponentially. Annual and biannual progress reports and pathways analyses are no longer adequate to meet key actors’ needs for tracking progress and making decisions.
  • Technology choices, costs, and scaling pathways are changing on timescales that were previously inconceivable. Legacy analysis frameworks are demonstrably inadequate to keep pace.
  • The conventional paradigm that assumes that high-ambition climate action will impose sizeable net costs on economies is breaking down as new evidence emerges to confirm that the pathway to 1.5°C can be achieved with net economic benefits, positive net job creation, major reductions in premature deaths due to air pollution, and other co-benefits. Recent analysis suggests that a fast transition will create larger net benefits than a slow one. Paradigm-busting evidence is accumulating fast but needs wider dissemination and interpretation for key actors.
  • Global competitiveness and rapid changes in the economy have increased the need for rigorous analysis of sectoral transition pathways to a zero-carbon future. Legacy analysis tools are rapidly becoming obsolete in an increasingly dynamic economy.
  • Climate action solutions are increasingly being considered in the context of impacts on planetary boundaries, but conventional analysis tools have limited capabilities to address natural systems and their feedbacks and interactions with energy systems.

What Is Needed Now

These changes in the global energy landscape are creating new needs that existing research and analysis tools cannot meet. We list the most urgent needs below:

  • Key actors, including corporations, financial institutions, and policymakers need ready access to the best available research and comparative analysis from across all the leading research organizations. Users do not have the time to gather and curate this information themselves. Research providers tend to operate within their own systems and models and cannot readily translate or compare their results with those of others.
  • Decision makers and advocates need more rigorous analysis of the benefits of the energy transition in terms they can understand. This requires better measurement and analysis of transition costs and benefits, economic development pathways, job creation and losses, and measurable co-benefits such as health consequences and resilience.
  • There is an urgent need to gather and analyze data on the implications of non-state actors’ voluntary climate action commitments and progress to assess the potential sectoral, geographic, and energy system-level implications. Existing energy systems models and IAMs are flying blind with respect to the implications of this new and primary force for change.
  • The cycle times needed to develop and update sectoral models that can assess emissions reduction pathways are too slow to meet the needs of fast-moving corporations and financial institutions. Most legacy approaches fail to go to the level of assets and business models. New approaches are now being developed to accomplish work through collaborative efforts such as the Mission Possible Partnership, but this work must be replicated in other sectors and applied at the country level with engagement of diverse stakeholders.
  • Deep technology assessment and learning-curve analysis needs to be undertaken and integrated into large energy systems models to address the serious and well-documented weaknesses in the ways that existing models address technology change. Existing economics-based models rely too heavily on backward-looking cost analysis and distort future costs and options.
  • Better systems thinking, sharing of best practices, and coaching is needed to support the creation and strengthening of ambition loops that ratchet up voluntary action by non-state actors and open new paths for government policy development. This work creates a bridge to faster action and better understanding.

The Importance of Integrating Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approaches

Developing sectoral and regional 1.5°C-aligned pathways that can guide non-state actors in setting their goals entails reconciling and integrating top-down and bottom-up analyses. Typically, these analyses are done independently by different organizations with few if any points of connection in data or analysis methods.

Top-down models of global energy and climate systems, typically developed by academic and public sector institutions, provide decarbonization pathways that span all sectors and geographies. Examples of these models include those developed by IEA, IRENA, IIASA, PIK, BP, DNV, and Shell. These analyses can assess linkages across sectors and ensure that sectoral pathways comply with overall climate goals, but they lack the specificity to describe sectoral transitions in detail, especially at the asset-class level.

Bottom-up pathways, increasingly being developed through industry-based coalitions, focus on practical steps that can be taken to deploy new technologies, implement new policies, shift business models, or redesign systems, services, and products. Examples include Mission Possible Partnership’s Net-Zero Steel Sector Transition Strategy, BNEF’s Electric Vehicle Outlook, ETC’s report Making the Hydrogen Economy Possible, and TERI’s report The Potential Role of Hydrogen in India.

Supporting meaningful goal setting, implementation strategies, and tracking for climate action on the part of non-state actors will require better access to top-down and bottom-up models and datasets as well as improved collaboration within the energy analysis community.

1.5°C Wayfinder: Advancing Understanding and Action

1.5°C Wayfinder is a collaborative effort to provide authoritative and technically deep evidence from diverse sources on how we can achieve 1.5°C while simultaneously meeting other goals, including lowering energy costs, increasing resilience, and improving access to energy. In the spirit of traditional wayfinders, our role is not to proclaim that “We probably won’t make it” but to ask: “How might we?” and “What if we could?” Our role is to find possibilities where others see few or none. Our approach is to aim purposefully and relentlessly for 1.5°C, knowing that even if we overshoot this level temporarily, we will keep aiming for 1.5°C as our long-term goal. Every tenth of a degree matters.