Study: 50-50 chance of surpassing catastrophic climate change threshold within 5 years

The world continues to race toward climate catastrophe, according to a new report that concludes there is now a 50-50 chance that global average temperatures will exceed 1.5° Celsius of warming over pre-industrial levels within the next five years.

“The chance of at least one year exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels between 2022-2026 is about as likely as not (48%). However, there is only a very small chance (10%) of the five-year mean exceeding this threshold,” stated the report released Tuesday from the Met Office, the meteorological service for the United Kingdom.

For years, scientists have warned that exceeding 1.5°C (2.7° Fahrenheit) would result in a cascade of climate catastrophes, including dramatic sea level rise, prolonged drought, crop failures, increased wildfires, more damaging tropical cyclones, unprecedented flash flooding and deadly heat waves.

Last year, the Met Office estimated that there was a 40% chance that the planet would exceed 1.5°C of warming within five years, if only briefly. Since then, however, humans have continued to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. As of 2021, average global temperatures have risen 1.1°C, but the pace of warming is increasing as it follows rising emissions.

The report’s authors noted that if and when the Earth were to surpass the 1.5°C marker, it could still return to lower average global temperatures via carbon removal, but short of sweeping actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the current trajectory of rising temperatures was clear.

“A single year of exceedance above 1.5°C does not mean we have breached the iconic threshold of the Paris Agreement, but it does reveal that we are edging ever closer to a situation where 1.5°C could be exceeded for an extended period.” Dr. Leon Hermanson, a lead author, said in the report.

Local residents walk on a section of dry lake bed along drought-stricken Lake Mead, Nev.
Local residents walk on a section of dry lake bed along drought-stricken Lake Mead, Nev. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In 2015, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, the goal of which was to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5°C. Three years later, however, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its landmark report titled “Global Warming of 1.5°C,” which concluded that temperatures were “likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052.”

As greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise, more dire warnings about how long it would take to cross the 1.5°C threshold followed.

A study released in March in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment concluded that “the remaining carbon budget for limiting anthropogenic warming to 1.5°C, which if current trajectories continue, might be used up in 9.5 years at 67% likelihood.”

In April, the IPCC released another report showing that in order to keep temperatures below the 1.5°C target, global greenhouse gas emissions would need to be reduced 43% from current levels by 2030 and by 84% by 2050. In part, that's because, once emitted, carbon atoms can remain in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years.

“We are on a fast track to climate disaster,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said of the report in a statement. “Major cities under water. Unprecedented heat waves. Terrifying storms. Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals.”

The Alisal Fire
The Alisal Fire rages along Highway 101 on the Gaviota Coast, Calif., Oct. 12, 2021. (Mike Eliason/SBCo FD/Handout via Reuters)

Tuesday’s report by the Met Office predicted that rising temperatures would continue to impact weather patterns across the globe, including “drier conditions over southwestern Europe and southwestern North America and wetter conditions in norther Europe, the Sahel and Australia.”

The Arctic, meanwhile, will continue to heat up at a rate “three times as large as the global mean anomaly,” speeding the melting of the polar ice caps and glaciers.

“For as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, temperatures will continue to rise,” Petteri Taalas, head of the World Meteorological Organization, said in a statement. “Alongside that, our oceans will continue to become warmer and more acidic, sea ice and glaciers will continue to melt, sea level will continue to rise and our weather will become more extreme.”