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Promise or pipe dream? Scientists get set to tackle 1.5 target

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Is a global temperature target of 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels – as enshrined in the Paris Climate Change Agreement – really possible? Interviewed for a Nature Podcast on 21 April, Priestley Centre’s director Piers Forster is optimistic, although he admits the Paris negotiations caught scientists unawares.

 “It did indicate that we weren’t doing our job,” he admitted. “It was also really exciting because if the world was really serious about a one-and-a-half degree target it does really open up a whole load of different scientific questions.”

 The 1.5 benchmark, which the UNFCCC agreement – signed by 177 countries on 22 April 2016 – has agreed to work towards, wasn’t “on the radar” for many academics until Paris, says Glen Peters of CICERO in Oslo. Not only was there little funding for it, but the range of emissions scenarios being studied didn’t even include it. 

The lower target – a 2oC rise has, until December 2015’s surprise outcome, been the accepted level – would help reduce projected sea level rise and protect island nations, and may decide the fate of the world’s already severely damaged coral reefs. The IPCC has commissioned a series of special reports on it for 2018.

 Scientists’ opinions vary as to whether the target is too tall an order, since it requires carbon capture and storage – yet to be have seen any significant implementation – on a massive scale. In the podcast, Peters, who has been outspoken out about the likelihood of achieving the former 2oC level, claims it is impossible. Piers Forster, however, sees it as being achievable by the end of the century and has previously blogged about his excitement at the challenge, although he is realistic about an overshoot.

“I do think we will get there one day. Perhaps when its 2100 we could be back down to one and a half degrees. But I think it would be very difficult not to go above it for some time.”