CICERO - Center for International Climate Research
Understanding one point five

The story of 1.5°C

Although there’s no safe amount of global warming, a target of 2 degrees of global temperature rise has come to represent the threshold of dangerous climate change. In 2015, a lower 1.5 degree limit became a rival for the central goal of global climate politics. Where does the 1.5 limit come from? Its rise to fame is built on years of careful groundwork.


The death of a nation

On 19th October 1987, President of the Republic of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, delivered a powerful speech before the 42th session of the United Nations General Assembly. He voiced his concern for the predicted effects of climate change and for the future death of a nation, The Maldives.

We know, and yet we keep delaying action. As the impacts keep getting worse. The time for just talking is over.

Adelle Thomas, University of Bahamas & climate analytics, in bonn 2018



99% confidence

23rd June 1988

In his famous speech delivered to the US Senate in 1988, NASA scientist James E. Hanson stated he could declare, “with 99% confidence”, that a recent sharp rise in temperatures was a result of human activity.

Climate change is affecting everyone, all over the world. People from all parts of the world has a stake in this.

Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, in Bonn 2018



The Birth of IPCC

6 December 1988

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created. It was set up by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to prepare scientific summaries on all aspects of climate change and its impacts – including thoughts on realistic response strategies.



IPCC First Assessment Report

IPCC launched its first assessment report on climate change, concluding that:

"We are certain of the following: there is a natural greenhouse effect...; emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases: CO2, methane, CFCs and nitrous oxide. These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth's surface. The main greenhouse gas, water vapour, will increase in response to global warming and further enhance it".

The report served as the basis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.



The Alliance of Small Island States

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) is established. This alliance is a coalition of small island and low-lying coastal countries that share similar development challenges and concerns about the environment, especially their vulnerability to the adverse effects of global climate change. The alliance has a membership of 44 States and observers drawn from all oceans and regions of the world: Africa, Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Pacific and South China Sea.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change listed some of these islands as the most vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change: Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Cook Islands (in the Pacific Ocean); Antigua and Nevis (in the Caribbean Sea); and the Maldives (in the Indian Ocean).

More than a hundred states over six-seven years have an official target of 1.5°C and it could have been in the AR5. But the scientific community didn’t pay attention.

Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, Climate Analytics, in Bonn 2018



The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

At the Earth Summit in Rio, a platform for UN Member States, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is created to enhance global collaboration on environment and sustainability issues. Unprecedented in size and scope. “We have to face up to the dire implications of the warnings scientists are sounding”, said Maurice Strong, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations in his opening speech.



World leaders agree to fight climate change

The Kyoto Protocol, the first international treaty on climate change, is adopted. It widened the commitment to UNFCCC Member States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The protocol is based on a top-down design and a principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.



Bali Road Map gives new hope

Parties to the UN Climate Summit in Bali agreed on a highly ambitious plan for enhanced climate action to succeed the inefficient Kyoto Protocol. The Bali Action Plan was a comprehensive process to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Climate Convention through long-term cooperative action, up to and beyond 2012.

The Bali Road Map included two "tracks" of negotiations:

1. The Convention track: These negotiations centred around the Bali Action Plan, which had four main "building blocks" - mitigation, adaptation, technology and financing, as well as a shared vision for long-term cooperative action including a long-term global goal for emission reductions.

2. The Kyoto Protocol track: This deals with the commitments for the industrialised countries (Annex I Parties) under the Kyoto Protocol for the period beyond 2012 when the first period of emission reduction commitments (2008-2012) expires. 


A limit well below 1.5 °C

The Alliance Of Small Island States commissioned work by scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research on the impacts of a 2°C rise. The conclusion was straightforward. As Tuvalu’s former negotiator put it: “It was clear that a global temperature rise above 2 degrees would be disastrous for Tuvalu.” The island nation decided it would support a limit “well below” 1.5°C and this target has become a key demand of AOSIS in the attempt of pushing for more ambition in global climate talks.

Human rights language was totally absent in the UNFCCC before 2015.

Kathrin Wessendorf, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, in Bonn 2018



1.5 to stay alive

At the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, more than 100 countries are determined to hold the line on 1.5°C rather than 2°C. Why?

The Caribbean Youth Environment Network partnered with the Ministry of Sustainable Development in St. Lucia, the Global Environmental Facility Small Grants Programme and the Bank of St. Lucia to launch a regional campaign called "1.5 to stay alive" aimed at raising awareness regarding the dangers of climate change. The campaign was also intended to build support for climate change negotiators in advance of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21).

The campaign slogan was devised to convey that Small Island Developing States and other vulnerable regions could not accept a climate change deal that would not maintain a temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The Maldives is not alone: other atoll countries, like the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati are in the same boat. Other vulnerable states, particularly those in Africa which are prone to drought and harvest failures, and nations in Central America and Asia which could suffer stronger hurricanes and more extreme weather, also know that 1.5°C is the key line for them.

For me, coming from a small island, the Bahamas in the Caribbean, we’ve always taken the perspective that any warming is too much warming. As all small islands have.

Adelle Thomas, University of Bahamas & Climate Analytics, in Bonn 2018



The Copenhagen negotiations

Despite being the fourth smallest country in the world, Tuvalu causes a “furore” at the Copenhagen talks in 2009 by calling for the 1.5°C limit with other small island states and African nations. The lower limit is widely perceived as unrealistic, and Tuvalu is even blamed for causing a split between developing countries at the conference, as richer nations, including China and India, do not support the 1.5°C target.

According to one account of the final hours of the Copenhagen conference, Chinese delegates argued that the 1.5 limit should be removed from the text.

President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives fought back, asking: “How can you ask my country to go extinct?”

We share our only home, planet Earth. Very often climate change discourse talks about so-called scientific knowledge. Science. Universal science. It forgets that the planet inhabits diverse communities, diverse cultures and contexts.

Tunga Bhadra Rai, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, in bonn 2018



The Copenhagen Accord

The Copenhagen Accord enshrined 2°C as the central goal of international climate politics, but also said countries would “consider” limiting temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees.

Countries organized in the Climate Vulnerable Forum demanded a 1.5 °C target. A review clause was included in the Copenhagen Accord stating that the possibility of strengthening the 2°C goal would be investigated.



The Cancun Agreement

The 2010 Cancun Agreement contained a commitment to “review” whether the 2°C limit needed to be strengthened, “on the basis of the best scientific knowledge available”.

Indigenous peoples have contributed the least to humanity’s carbon footprint, and yet they are the most impacted by it. Why do they now have to give the world their own territories to save it as well? Indigenous peoples are doubly impacted; impacted by climate change and impacted by the actions that are being taken against it.

Kathrin Wessendorf, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, in Bonn 2018

Between 2010 and 2014: Growing support around the 1.5°C target

In the intervening years, small island states and African countries continued to make the case for more ambition. NGOs like Climate Vulnerable Forum and CARE, then also joint by CAN International, used the website as an information hub on the 1.5°C limit, showcasing how many countries were formerly supporting 1.5°C; gathering scientific information on 1.5°C; collecting NGO positions in favor of 1.5°C and from that spreading the word and reaching out to other countries and stakeholders to support the 1.5°C limit.

The so-called Structured Expert Dialogue under the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change increasingly brought attention to scientific findings that a 2°C limit would still result in significant climate change impacts and thereby impose major risks on vulnerable people, communities, and countries.



An important warning

In 2011, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, lent her support to the 1.5°C limit, warning: 

“If we are not headed to 1.5°C we are in big, big trouble.”

CHRISTIANA FIGUERES, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change


2°C is inadequate

A UN report, based on the views of 70 scientists, concluded 2°C is “inadequate” as a safe limit and less warming would be “preferable”. While mainstream commentary is often dismissive of whether the 1.5°C limit is possible, a study published in Nature Climate Change suggested it can still be achieved – although “the window for achieving this goal is rapidly closing”.

All over the planet, we see that people who live in a strong relationship with nature are more strongly affected in their way of life.

dr. CARL-FRIEDRICH SCHLEUSSNER, climate analytics, in Bonn 2018



The Paris negotiations

In Paris, the 1.5°C limit is endorsed by 106 countries – a majority of those present. It’s become the rallying cry for a broad coalition of climate activists, civil society groups and the climate justice networks, under the banner “1.5 to stay alive”. In just a few short years, 1.5°C has moved from being seen as “unrealistic” and a “distraction”, to becoming a widely-supported symbol of climate ambition. Various actions took place around the 1.5°C limit whichthe NGOs CARE, CAN International and Climate Vulnerable Forum were pushing and engaging in.

During these negotiations, the so-called high ambition coalition was born, an alliance of rich and poor countries able to push through the unprecedented ambitions of COP21.


The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is a remarkable turnaround of fortunes for a climate target that has often been dismissed as politically unrealistic. It’s an astounding success for its advocates. Among its many merits is bringing human rights language into climate treaty discourse for the first time.

On our quest for solutions, we don’t want to be seen as only victims but as contributors to solutions. We have something to contribute! Because of the forests we have in our territories. Because of the biodiversity we have in our territories. Luckily, our voices are now being listened to by the Parties to the Convention.

Lakpa Nuri Sherpa, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, in Bonn 2018



Invitation to IPCC to provide a special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels

When the Paris Agreement was adopted at the UN climate summit in Paris, the negotiators of the the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) invited the panel, the IPCC, to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels as compared to 2°C.




IPCC accepted the invitation

At its 43rd Session in Nairobi, Kenya in April 2016, the IPCC accepted the invitation from the UNFCCC to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, and to prepare a Special Report on this topic. And its goal? To strengthen the global response to the threats of climate change, sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.

Medical professionals have a way of cutting through because they have to make decisions under massive uncertainty. If a person’s temperature chart looked like our planet’s, you’d intervene. You wouldn’t wait to the autopsy to intervene. We haven’t done enough with the health voice.

Dr Diarmid Cambell-Lendrum, World Health Organization, in Bonn 2018



Report to be released

8 October 2018

A line-by-line approval session of the Summary for Policy Makers takes place in Incheon, Republic of Korea, on 1-5 October, 2018. The report will be the key scientific input into the Talanoa Dialogue at the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Katowice, Poland, in December.