Renowned British climate scientist Professor Sir Bob Watson has conveyed a stark message to the BBC, expressing his skepticism about achieving the critical goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
As the former head of the UN’s climate agency, his assessment holds substantial weight. Speaking on the Today program, he revealed his prevailing pessimism, underscoring the challenges of attaining this pivotal target in the midst of a summer characterized by extreme heat across Europe, China, and the United States.
The backdrop to Sir Bob Watson’s cautionary words is the United Nations’ warning that surpassing the 1.5°C threshold could expose countless more individuals to potentially catastrophic climate-related events. This ambitious goal to curtail temperature increases, established at the 2015 Paris UN conference, has since become the linchpin of worldwide endeavours to address climate change.
For years, climate experts have cautioned governments that the current pace of emissions reduction falls short of the urgency required to align with this target. However, Professor Watson’s assertion, given his distinguished background working with institutions like the UN, Nasa, the UK’s Department of Environment, and the US White House, carries considerable gravity. His present position as Emeritus Professor at the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Research further underscores his authority in the field.
He said: “I think most people fear that if we give up on the 1.5 [Celsius limit] which I do not believe we will achieve, in fact I’m very pessimistic about achieving even 2C, that if we allow the target to become looser and looser, higher and higher, governments will do even less in the future.”
His forthright observation received corroboration from Lord Stern, the Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. In an interview with BBC’s WATO program, Lord Stern echoed Professor Watson’s sentiment, solidifying the resonance of their shared concern.
He continued: “I think 1.5 is probably out of reach even if we accelerate quickly now, but we could bring it back if we start to bring down the cost of negative emissions and get better at negative emissions. Negative emissions means direct air capture of carbon dioxide.”
Current commitments by governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as assessed by Climate Action Tracker, project a disconcerting trajectory with global temperatures expected to surge to 2.7°C. While not a direct thermometer reading, this figure indicates how much the Earth has deviated from its long-term global average temperature—a small shift carrying substantial ramifications.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscores the significance of restraining temperature increases to 1.5°C instead of 2°C:
- A reduction of 10 million people at risk of losing their homes to rising sea levels
- A 50% drop in the number of individuals grappling with water insecurity
- Curtailing coral reef loss from 99% to 70%
Professor Watson asserts that the challenge lies not only in setting ambitious targets but also in enforcing tangible actions by nations to meet those targets. He underscores that the world’s struggle to contain rising temperatures stems from the inadequacy of emissions reduction progress. He calls for a shift from mere commitment to substantive action.
“The big issue is we need to reduce greenhouse gases now to even be on the pathway to be close to 1.5C or 2C. We need to reduce current emissions by at least 50% by 2030. The trouble is the emissions are still going up, they are not going down,” he said.
“We need to try and hold governments to start to act sensibly now and reduce emissions, but even governments with a really good target like the United Kingdom don’t have the policies in place, don’t have the financing in place to reach those goals.”
The critique of governmental response is not exclusive to Professor Watson’s stance. In March, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (UKCCC) criticised the nation’s leadership in climate issues. The report highlighted the government’s support for new fossil fuel projects, airport expansions, and slow advancements in renewable technology such as heat pumps—a combination indicating a lack of the required urgency.
In response to comments from Lord Stern and Professor Sir Bob Watson, a government spokesperson said: “The UK is a world-leader on net zero, cutting emissions faster than any other G7 country and has attracted billions of investment into renewables, which now account for 40% of our electricity.”
But Lord Deben, who until last month was chair of the UKCCC, said the government was “entirely wrong”. Talking to BBC’s WATO programme he said that other countries like the US and China were moving much faster, and that the UK was setting “the worst possible example to the rest of the world”.
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