Climate Action

1.5°C is a physical limit: Here’s why this target can’t be negotiated

The Climate Tipping Points Hub, a new data-led immersive environment, was launched at Davos.

The Climate Tipping Points Hub, a new data-led immersive environment, was launched at Davos. Image: Forum, Accenture and Microsoft

Rebecca Ivey
Head of Global Collaboration Village, World Economic Forum
Gill Einhorn
Head, Innovation and Transformation, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
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Climate Crisis

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • 1.5°C is a physical limit beyond which Earth systems enter a danger zone of cascading climate tipping points that propel further warming.
  • The launch of the Climate Tipping Points Hub at Davos offers a tool for decision-makers to explore the latest climate science and collaborate.
  • For the first time at Davos this year the Global Collaboration Village will convene to raise often-overlooked yet critical issues like permafrost.

The 2023 El Nino year has taken global temperatures close to the 1.5°Celsius mark above pre-industrial levels and was the hottest year since records began. In response, the Global Collaboration Village (GCV), a World Economic Forum initiative, in partnership with Accenture and Microsoft, is convening leaders at the 2024 Annual Meeting to explore the global consequences.

The Village uses extended reality technology and immersion to bring the stark realities of the climate crisis to the forefront of global consciousness and explore appropriate response pathways.

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The latest climate science

Scientists have long warned that 1.5°C is a physical limit, not a political target. Tipping points are critical thresholds beyond which a system reorganises, often abruptly and/or irreversibly, according to the IPCC. Breaching 1.5°C has a domino effect – triggering critical changes in Earth systems that reinforce rather than reduce warming – with cascading consequences for economies and societies.

Earth’s 16 climate tipping points.
Earth’s 16 climate tipping points. Image: : Adapted by Arctic Basecamp from: Tipping Elements - big risks in the Earth System v1.1 2023, PIK.

In 2015, under the Paris Agreement, an overwhelming majority of countries agreed to take considered action to limit warming to 1.5°C. Recent discussions have postulated whether we should compromise on the current target by increasing the global threshold to 2°C.

However, of the 16 climate tipping points, six are likely to be triggered below 2°C of warming, while also unleashing a cascading effect on other tipping points. This would put life as we know it in unprecedented danger. We are already starting to see these realities play out. For instance, extreme heat in China in July 2023, wildfires in Hawaii in August 2023 and catastrophic flooding in Libya in September 2023.

An unprecedented collaboration opportunity

The launch of a new data-led immersive environment, the Climate Tipping Points Hub, offers a tool for decision-makers to discover the latest climate science and collaborate on robust response pathways. The Hub is a bastion of urgency and hope. As this year’s record-breaking temperatures show, the reality of climate change is no longer a distant threat but an unfolding crisis.

With its vivid simulations, the Hub brings this crisis to life, making the consequences of inaction palpable. Threats illustrated through the Hub make the crisis relatable, demonstrating how risks are not just environmental but also socio-economic, touching every aspect of our lives. The main takeaway is the urgency of the 1.5°C physical limit and the essential work in mitigating emissions to keep within a safe and just operating space.

By visualizing the impact of climate change and the domino effect of crossing tipping points, the Hub serves as a digital rallying point. It is a space where global leaders, scientists, activists and citizens can come together to share knowledge, strategize and mobilize. The Hub, with its collaborative data sources and expert partnerships, symbolizes a new era of digital action – one where virtual collaboration could play a key role in real-world survival.

Because this wicked problem needs a multi-stakeholder and coordinated response, the Global Collaboration Village is a fitting space for learning and leadership.

A tool for inclusive thought leadership

In Davos at the 2024 Annual Meeting, the Global Collaboration Village is highlighting issues that have never been covered on the Forum’s agenda before and involving stakeholders who do not have access to the meeting. A case in point is the issue of permafrost: the climate crisis wildcard.

Permafrost was once thought to be permanently frozen – hence its name. Covering 15% of the northern hemisphere land area, these massive expanses in the Northern Hemisphere contain twice as much carbon as is circulating in Earth’s atmosphere today. The thaw and collapse of these frozen grounds hold exponential risk for global food, health and infrastructure industries, with substantially increasing levels of thaw likely to occur at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Collapsing permafrost.
Collapsing permafrost. Image: Katie Orlinsky

As the once-frozen carbon decomposes, and is emitted directly into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, the emissions from permafrost are hard to capture. This is the reason that swift emissions cuts to avoid 1.5°C of warming are so essential.

Dr Sue Natali, Woodwell Climate Research Center Senior Scientist and lead of Permafrost Pathways initiative, said: “Permafrost thaw, which has been creating hazardous conditions for Arctic residents for decades, threatens to amplify climate impacts across the globe. Avoiding 1.5°C is critical for protecting permafrost and for minimizing the amplified warming caused by permafrost carbon emissions, which may increase to a level that’s on par with major greenhouse gas emitting nations, unless global emissions are rapidly reduced.”

Through immersive technology, we can bring the stark realities home to public, private and philanthropic decision-makers, catalysing action and helping to avoid the worst consequences of tipping point collapses for humans and the planet. Raising the urgency of the adaptation, loss and damage agenda will also support the systems we need to prepare in the event that the target is not met.

The Climate Tipping Points Hub is a collaboration with the Earth Decides community. It features new and combined data sets from Arctic Basecamp (a non-profit science outreach organization that works to promote awareness of the global risks of climate change in the Arctic to global world leaders from business, policy and civil society), NASA, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, and other institutions. The virtual environments have been developed in partnership with Accenture and Microsoft, with expertise from Gail Whiteman and Arthi Ramachandran (Arctic Basecamp) among others.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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