Giving up on 1.5C climate target would be gift to carbon boosters, says IEA head

This article was written by Fiona Harvey and originally published in The Guardian on November 30th, 2022.

The world can still limit global heating to 1.5C, and to claim that the target is now out of reach is to play into the hands of fossil fuel proponents, the world’s leading energy economist has warned.

Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, the global authority on energy, slammed scientists and activists who have claimed that the recent Cop27 UN climate summit killed off hopes for the crucial 1.5C limit.

“It is factually incorrect, and politically it is very wrong,” said Birol. “The fact is that the chances of 1.5C are narrowing, but it is still achievable.”

Birol said that the claims that the 1.5C limit was dead were coming from an “unusual coalition” of scientists, activists and fossil fuel industry “incumbents”.

“I find the emerging chorus of this unusual coalition of people saying 1.5C is dead factually and politically wrong,” he told the Guardian. “They are jumping to conclusions that are not borne out by the data.”

He added that the claims were “unhelpful” to efforts to shift the global economy to a low-carbon footing. “They are making a mistake. Proponents of the existing energy systems will be the beneficiaries if the obituary of 1.5C is written,” he warned.

Investors and financial institutions could be put off by a chorus of claims that 1.5C was dead, he added. “They will react with lower ambition,” he warned.

Birol pointed to the surge in clean energy investment this year, in the wake of the Ukraine war and soaring fossil fuel prices. He added that countries’ current targets on reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions would result in a temperature rise of 1.7C, if all pledges were fulfilled, which was within striking distance of the 1.5C limit.

“It is factually wrong [to say 1.5C is dead] and we are an evidence-based organisation,” said Birol. “What I look at are the numbers. To say that 1.5C is dead and that we will never reach a peak [in emissions] before 2030 is dogmatic and in my view not a data-driven conclusion.”

The goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, in line with repeated scientific advice, came under attack from some countries at the two-week Cop27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this month. In the final hours, attempts to strengthen the 1.5C limit were denied, owing to opposition from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, along with, at some points, China, Brazil and a few others. A resolution to phase down fossil fuels, proposed by India and backed by at least 80 countries, was also removed from the final text.

In the end, participants such as the UK and the EU, which were pushing for a stronger commitment on 1.5C that would require countries to come forward with firmer policies to meet the goal, said they were “disappointed” with the result. Alok Sharma, the UK’s president of the Cop26 summit in Glasgow last year, which focused on the 1.5C limit, expressed his frustration in the closing speeches of the conference. He said: “I said in Glasgow that the pulse of 1.5 degrees was weak. Unfortunately, it remains on life support. And all of us need to look ourselves in the mirror, and consider if we have fully risen to that challenge over the past two weeks.”

Birol acknowledged that the outcome of the summit was weak on the 1.5C goal, but said countries must still keep pushing for it.

“Looked at from the point of view of energy, it would not be accurate to say that the global energy sector received a strong signal from Cop27,” he conceded. “In the absence of such a clear signal, the message to key actors may seem a bit confused.”

But he said the economics of the transition to clean energy were clear, with wind and solar power now cheaper than fossil fuels across much of the world, and that more countries were seeking to expand clean energy sources as a matter of national security and of industrial policy.

He pointed to global clean energy investments of $1.3tn, and said that with current policies, clean energy investments would reach $2tn a year by 2030, which would be an increase of about 50% from the beginning of the decade.

That amount of investment needs to double again, however, to stay within 1.5C. “That is extremely challenging, but it is not out of reach,” Birol said.

Last year, the IEA, regarded as the global gold standard for energy data and policy advice, warned that no new fossil fuel development and exploration should take place if the world was to remain within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. The organisation also predicts that global greenhouse gas emissions will peak in 2025.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body of the world’s leading climate scientists, has said emissions must be reduced by 45%, compared with 2010 levels, by 2030 to stay within 1.5C of pre-industrial temperatures.

The Cop27 summit also produced agreement on a fund for poor countries afflicted by the worst ravages of extreme weather, known as loss and damage. Birol said this was “a great achievement” and that countries must now concentrate on filling the fund.

“I would very much like to see money flowing into this fund as soon as possible, and in as meaningful sums as possible,” he said.

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