Column - On the Subject

Making the 1.5-degree Target Possible!

Jan Wilkens © UHH/Esfandiari

Can the 1.5-degree target set in the Paris Accords still be reached? In the Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook 2023, more than 60 experts from the natural and social sciences come to a sobering conclusion: under current conditions, a global decarbonization by 2050, and therefore reaching the 1.5-degree target set in the Paris Agreement, isn’t plausible. But that doesn’t mean we should simply discard the target, or that we should be filled with a paralyzing sense of resignation.

For many climate researchers, activists and interested citizens, this outcome will hardly come as a surprise. Many media outlets have supplemented this ostensibly apocalyptic statement with “actually, we’ve known this for some time.” Accordingly, it’s worth taking a closer look at the message: first of all, “not plausible” isn’t the same as “not possible.” Secondly, the study offers an extensive, systematic analysis of the social and political challenges that account for the outcome. And thirdly, the Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook is consequently investigating precisely those key social factors – or drivers – that are essential to achieving climate targets.

For example, the study shows that, on the one hand, whether or not the climate targets defined in the Paris Agreement can be achieved through deep decarbonization chiefly depends on a combination of social and physical dynamics. On the other, human actions have a major influence on the development of climate futures. Both aspects should be viewed as an opportunity to take action, and as an obligation to pursue and more consistently implement ambitious climate targets.

Unfortunately, in many debates the focus is still on the responsibilities of the individual, along the lines of “what can each of us do to help?”. Our analysis shows that these debates often ignore the structural conditions standing in the way of the required transformations: injustice and social inequality. Key social drivers – from UN climate governance and the (financial) exit from fossil energies to consumption patterns and corporate responses to climate change – have showed us: the underlying framework conditions and the availability of the resources needed for a change are what can make a societal transformation toward decarbonization plausible. In this regard, all drivers are characterized by inequalities in different ways. The quality and form of inequalities differ due to the diversity of actor constellations and structural conditions for taking action. With regard to consumer behavior, whether a member of the workforce has to take the car to work or has alternative options is a political and social question alike. In the context of knowledge production on climate change and potential mitigation solutions, structural inequality is what keeps Indigenous and Local Knowledge of various communities and individuals, including many that are especially hard-hit by climate change, from being adequately considered.

Policymakers and society must actively work to create conditions that can foster sustainability transformations. In order for a just transformation to be more than empty words, it will take inclusive debates on sustainable solutions and their implementation. Further, strictly focusing on technological solutions runs the risk of ignoring the elementary importance of social factors. Similar to the focus on the responsibilities of the individual, current climate debates often lose sight of what matters most: societal transformation, the only way to make the 1.5-degree target a reality.


About the author

Jan Wilkens is a political scientist and works in the synthesis project of the Cluster of Excellence "Climate, Climate Change and Society". He is one of the editors of the Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook 2023: The plausibility of a 1.5°C limit to global warming-Social drivers and physical processes. He conducts research on climate justice, energy transition, and the role of technology in the Middle East. He has followed the climate conferences in Glasgow and Sharm el-Shaikh.


28. Februar 2023

Bildnachweis: UHH/Esfandiari



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