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:
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.