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Climate Change – Mitigation and Adaptation: How much time do we have?

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25 minutes

Learning objectives

  • To understand what is meant by ‘The Paris Agreement’
  • To calculate how much time is left to keep average global warming to certain levels

Resources needed

Methodology and teacher’s notes

For a number of years now, there have been COPs (Conference of the Parties) to try and respond to the climate crisis as a global community. Each time they meet (usually once a year), decision makers representing governments and policy makers review the latest scientific information and decide on binding agreements how to act. The most well-known is COP21, which took place in Paris in 2015 and gave rise to what is called The Paris Agreement.

  1. There are two very useful videos to briefly explain both the process of COP (using analogy) and what the Paris Agreement is. Show these to your students, ensuring that they understand that the key goal from it is to keep average global temperature increase to below +2°C of pre-industrial levels, preferably to no higher than +1.5°C. According to the science, this is what is needed to avoid what some have termed dangerous climate change. Currently we are around +1.1°C. If you feel you need to spend a little more time ensuring students are familiar with the Paris Agreement, you can take them through web pages such as this one from Geography in the News (note: the video clip on this page no longer functions).

But what does a ‘pathway’ to 1.5°C or 2°C look like? And how soon do we have to act in order to achieve those? If you would like students to work out reasonable possibilities themselves, move onto ‘2’ below. If you’d like to fast-track, skip to ‘3’.

  1. Explore the interactive pathway graphs (to limit warming below 1.5°C and 2°C) from Carbon Brief with the students. You could print the graphs for students to look at physically, display and discuss on the board, or if the class has access to computers, they can explore them interactively.

Students to complete the ‘How much time do we have? Limiting warming to +1.5°C and +2°C from pre-industrial levels‘ worksheet. Since the graphs are crowded and a little tricky, the key figures have been provided and students only have to calculate the answers from them. A few simplifications have been made to help understanding. For example, the graphs do not show linear reductions in emissions, but curved, hence the use of ‘average reduction’ per year (column E). Also, since at the time the graphs were produced the emissions figures for 2020, 2026 and 2028 are not available, then the latest (2018) were used.

Answers: Limiting warming to +1.5°C from pre-industrial levels

A. Start of emissions cut B. CO2 emissions at start (GtCO2) C. Approx. year to reach zero emissions D. Number of years to go from start to zero emissions

(=C-A)

E. Av. Reduction of CO2 emissions needed per year (GtCO2) (=B÷D)
2000 29.5 2100+ 100+ years 0.295
2010 38.3 2070 60 years 0.638
2020 42.2 (2018) 2047 27 years 1.563
2026 42.2 (2018) 2032 6 years 7.033

In order to keep warming to below +1.5°C of pre-industrial levels, if we started reducing our emissions in 2020, we would have     27     years to cut at least     42.2     GtCO2, at an average yearly rate of     1.563     GtCO2. If we don’t start until 2026, we would have no more than     6     years at an average yearly rate of     7.033     GtCO2.

Answers: Limiting warming to +2°C from pre-industrial levels

A. Start of emissions cut B. CO2 emissions at start (GtCO2) C. Approx. year to reach zero emissions D. Number of years to go from start to zero emissions
(=C-A)
E. Av. reduction of CO2 emissions needed per year (GtCO2) (=B÷D)
2000 29.5 2100+ 100+ years 0.295
2010 38.3 2100+ 100+ years 0.383
2020 42.2 (2018) 2100 80 years 0.528
2028 42.2 (2018) 2095 67 years 0.630

In order to keep warming to below +2°C of pre-industrial levels, if we started reducing our emissions in 2020, we would have     80     years to cut at least     42.2     GtCO2, at an average yearly rate of     0.528     GtCO2. If we don’t start until 2026, we would have no more than     67     years at an average yearly rate of     0.630     GtCO2.

 

Your students may come to the conclusion that keeping warming to +1.5°C is now extremely difficult if not now impossible. Also, we have, what appears, much more time and breathing space to stay below +2°C. You may decide to take this on as a debate or class discussion before moving on. If so, here are a few points that can act as ‘food for thought’:

  • The graphs assume no attempts/technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere, only reductions. How much can we rely on such methods to ‘buy us more time’?
  • The impacts of a +1.5°C world and +2°C world can differ substantially. While +2°C is seen to be the point where we risk ‘dangerous’ climate change, keeping below that as much as possible should be an aim. More detailed analysis by Carbon Brief is found here.
  • +1.5°C and +2°C are the global average temperature increase. For example, +1.5°C globally means around +5 to +6°C in the Arctic.

 

NB: If you did ‘2’, you may skip this mini plenary to save time. One way of showing how much time is left is Carbon Brief’s “Carbon Countdown”. A YouTube video of it is found here. This is also very useful to demonstrate how science works in ‘probabilities’ when looking into the future.

Here we see that we only have a 50:50 chance of staying below +1.5°C if we keep emitting 2016 levels of carbon for the next 2–3 years. That then drops to a 1 in 3 (33%) chance. At that point, after 7 years (10 in total), we have zero chance. So the clearest message here is that we are now at a high probability that we will not stay below +1.5°C if warming, at least without actions that can remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere. What other messages can be found through class discussion?

References, sources and credits:

Conference of the Parties (COP) (United Nations Climate Change), accessed 9 May 2024

What is COP21? The 2 minute guide (GreenTV, 15 October 2015)

The Paris Agreement for Climate Change (WWF-Brazil, 4 July 2016)

What is the Paris Climate Change Agreement? (Geography In The News), accessed 9 May 2024

UNEP: 1.5C climate target ‘slipping out of reach’ (Carbon Brief, 26 November 2019), accessed 9 May 2024

Scientists compare climate change impacts at 1.5C and 2C (Carbon Brief, 21 April 2016), accessed 9 May 2024

How long before we use up our 1.5C carbon budget? (Carbon Brief, 5 April 2017)

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