Explained: The 1.5 C climate benchmark

The summer of 2023 has been a season of weather extremes.

In June, uncontrolled wildfires ripped through parts of Canada, sending smoke into the U.S. and setting off air quality alerts in dozens of downwind states. In July, the world set the hottest global temperature on record, which it held for three days in a row, then broke again on day four.

From July into August, unrelenting heat blanketed large parts of Europe, Asia, and the U.S., while India faced a torrential monsoon season, and heavy rains flooded regions in the northeastern U.S. And most recently, whipped up by high winds and dry vegetation, a historic wildfire tore through Maui, devastating an entire town.

These extreme weather events are mainly a consequence of climate change driven by humans’ continued burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. Climate scientists agree that extreme weather such as what people experienced this summer will likely grow more frequent and intense in the coming years unless something is done, on a persistent and planet-wide scale, to rein in global temperatures.

Just how much reining-in are they talking about? The number that is internationally agreed upon is 1.5 degrees Celsius. To prevent worsening and potentially irreversible effects of climate change, the world’s average temperature should not exceed that of preindustrial times by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

As more regions around the world face extreme weather, it’s worth taking stock of the 1.5-degree bar, where the planet stands in relation to this threshold, and what can be done at the global, regional, and personal level, to “keep 1.5 alive.”

Why 1.5 C?

In 2015, in response to the growing urgency of climate impacts, nearly every country in the world signed onto the Paris Agreement, a landmark international treaty under which 195 nations pledged to hold the Earth’s temperature to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels,” and going further, aim to “limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”

The treaty did not define a particular preindustrial period, though scientists generally consider the years from 1850 to 1900 to be a reliable reference; this time predates humans’ use of fossil fuels and is also the earliest period when global observations of land and sea temperatures are available. During this period, the average global temperature, while swinging up and down in certain years, generally hovered around 13.5 degrees Celsius, or 56.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

The treaty was informed by a fact-finding report which concluded that, even global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average, over an extended, decades-long period, would lead to high risks for “some regions and vulnerable ecosystems.” The recommendation then, was to set the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit as a “defense line” — if the world can keep below this line, it potentially could avoid the more extreme and irreversible climate effects that would occur with a 2 degrees Celsius increase, and for some places, an even smaller increase than that.

But, as many regions are experiencing today, keeping below the 1.5 line is no guarantee of avoiding extreme, global warming effects.

“There is nothing magical about the 1.5 number, other than that is an agreed aspirational target. Keeping at 1.4 is better than 1.5, and 1.3 is better than 1.4, and so on,” says Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “The science does not tell us that if, for example, the temperature increase is 1.51 degrees Celsius, then it would definitely be the end of the world. Similarly, if the temperature would stay at 1.49 degrees increase, it does not mean that we will eliminate all impacts of climate change. What is known: The lower the target for an increase in temperature, the lower the risks of climate impacts.”

How close are we to 1.5 C?

In 2022, the average global temperature was about 1.15 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the cyclical weather phenomenon La Niña recently contributed to temporarily cooling and dampening the effects of human-induced climate change. La Niña lasted for three years and ended around March of 2023.

In May, the WMO issued a report that projected a significant likelihood (66 percent) that the world would exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold in the next four years. This breach would likely be driven by human-induced climate change, combined with a warming El Niño — a cyclical weather phenomenon that temporarily heats up ocean regions and pushes global temperatures higher.

This summer, an El Niño is currently underway, and the event typically raises global temperatures in the year after it sets in, which in this case would be in 2024. The WMO predicts that, for each of the next four years, the global average temperature is likely to swing between 1.1 and 1.8 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Though there is a good chance the world will get hotter than the 1.5-degree limit as the result of El Niño, the breach would be temporary, and for now, would not have failed the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperatures below the 1.5-degree limit over the long term (averaged over several decades rather than a single year).

“But we should not forget that this is a global average, and there are variations regionally and seasonally,” says Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT. “This year, we had extreme conditions around the world, even though we haven’t reached the 1.5 C threshold. So, even if we control the average at a global magnitude, we are going to see events that are extreme, because of climate change.”

More than a number

To hold the planet’s long-term average temperature to below the 1.5-degree threshold, the world will have to reach net zero emissions by the year 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This means that, in terms of the emissions released by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas, the entire world will have to remove as much as it puts into the atmosphere.

“In terms of innovations, we need all of them — even those that may seem quite exotic at this point: fusion, direct air capture, and others,” Paltsev says.

The task of curbing emissions in time is particularly daunting for the United States, which is second only to China in generating the most carbon dioxide emissions in the world.

“The U.S.’s burning of fossil fuels and consumption of energy is just way above the rest of the world. That’s a persistent problem,” Eltahir says. “And the national statistics are an aggregate of what a lot of individuals are doing.”

At an individual level, there are things that can be done to help bring down one’s personal emissions, and potentially chip away at rising global temperatures.

“We are consumers of products that either embody greenhouse gases, such as meat, clothes, computers, and homes, or we are directly responsible for emitting greenhouse gases, such as when we use cars, airplanes, electricity, and air conditioners,” Paltsev says. “Our everyday choices affect the amount of emissions that are added to the atmosphere.”

But to compel people to change their emissions, it may be less about a number, and more about a feeling.

“To get people to act, my hypothesis is, you need to reach them not just by convincing them to be good citizens and saying it’s good for the world to keep below 1.5 degrees, but showing how they individually will be impacted,” says Eltahir, who specializes on the study of regional climates, focusing on how climate change impacts the water cycle and frequency of extreme weather such as heat waves.

“True climate progress requires a dramatic change in how the human system gets its energy,” Paltsev says. “It is a huge undertaking. Are you ready personally to make sacrifices and to change the way of your life? If one gets an honest answer to that question, it would help to understand why true climate progress is so difficult to achieve.”