Paris climate goals not plausible without real change, researchers warn

The ability of the world to limit global warming is currently not plausible, according to new research.

A new, central study released by the Universität Hamburg’s Cluster of Excellence “Climate, Climatic Change, and Society” (CLICCS), concluded social change is essential to meeting the temperature goals set in Paris. But what has been achieved to date is insufficient. Therefore, climate adaptation will also have to be approached from a new angle.

The study, Climate policy, protests, and the Ukraine crisis, assessed to what extent social changes are already underway, while also analysing certain physical processes frequently discussed as tipping points.

“Actually, when it comes to climate protection, some things have now been set in motion. But if you look at the development of social processes in detail, keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees still isn’t plausible,” said CLICCS Speaker professor, Anita Engels.

According to the Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook, consumption patterns and corporate responses are slowing urgently needed climate protection measures. Other key factors such as UN climate policy, legislation, climate protests and divestment from the fossil fuels are supporting efforts to meet the climate goals. As the analysis shows, however, this positive dynamic alone won’t suffice to stay within the 1.5-degree limit.

“The deep decarbonisation required is simply progressing too slowly,” added Engels.

In addition, the team assessed certain physical processes that are frequently discussed as tipping points: the loss of the Arctic sea ice and melting ice sheets are serious developments – as are regional climate changes. But they will have very little influence on the global temperature until 2050, according to the research. A thawing permafrost weakened Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), and the loss of the Amazon Forest are more important factors,  albeit only moderately.

“The fact is, these feared tipping points could drastically change the conditions for life on Earth – but they’re largely irrelevant for reaching the Paris Agreement temperature goals,” explained CLICCS co-speaker professor Jochem Marotzke from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology.

The study also covered COVID-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine: economic reconstruction programs have reinforced dependence on fossil fuels, which means the necessary changes are now less plausible than previously assumed. In contrast, whether efforts to safeguard Europe’s power supply and the international community’s attempts to become independent of Russian gas will undermine or accelerate the phasing out of fossil fuels in the long run remains unclear.

According to the study, the best hope for shaping a positive climate future lies in the ability of society to make fundamental changes (human agency). In addition, the Outlook reveals a range of conditions for doing so, for instance that transnational initiatives and non-government actors continue to support climate protection, and that protests keep up the pressure on politicians.

“The question of what is not just theoretically possible, but also plausible, that is, can realistically be expected, offers us new points of departure,” added Engels. “If we fail to meet the climate goals, adapting to the impacts will become all the more important.”

“In order to be equipped for a warmer world, we have to anticipate changes, get the affected parties on board, and take advantage of local knowledge. Instead of just reacting, we need to begin an active transformation here and now,” she concluded.