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Barry Brill

1.5°C – An Unethical Aspiration

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80,000 delegates and 5,000 journalists are winging their way to Dubai from all corners of the world (including thousands in their personal jets) for COP28 of the UN’s FCCC.

Their earnestly stated objective is to stop the world from warming by as much as 1.5° C above the levels of 1850 (“pre-industrial times”). Yet they know this is a lie. They know it is unethical.

This theatrical annual talk-fest is an outright waste of:  (a) time;  (b) public funds;  (c) newsprint; and  (d) Earth’s “Remaining Carbon Budget” – the much-hyped RCB.

The prospects of 1.5°C are zero

During the 172 years ending September 2023, some 1.44°C of warming has already occurred. That leaves six-hundredths of a degree available for the rest of time.

Last month, in its influential World Energy Outlook 2023 (WEO), the International Energy Agency (IEA) has formally predicted that the 1.5° aspiration will not be achieved. (New Zealand is one of 31 member countries which fund the IEA and rely upon its research)[1].

In  May 2023, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) declared a 66% chance that the 1.5° aspiration will fail by 2027, and perhaps even this year.

The global net level of emissions is presently 40 gigatonnes (billion metric tonnes) of CO₂ per year.  Lamboli et al (2023), published in Nature Climate Change just last week, calculates that the remaining carbon budget (RCB) now allows humanity to emit only 60 further net gigatonnes of CO₂ after 2022, if we are to have a 66% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

For even a 50:50 chance of staying under 1.5°C we would need a remaining budget of 150 gigatonnes – or four years of current emissions.

James Hansen, the “father of global warming”, argued last month that 2024 might well see temperatures in the NASA database exceeding the 1.5° threshold, and that “global temperatures might never dip back much below that mark… “. 

The 1.5° aspiration is and was no more than a dishonest political trick. It was, and still is, used as a gaudy but artificial lever to coerce lower carbon budgets, while every climate scientist knew it could never have been actually delivered.

1.5°C was never remotely possible

As Professor Pielke points out in “The 1.5 Degree Temperature Target is a Dead Man Walking“, the 1.5° aspiration has long been linked to an atmospheric GHG concentration of 350 ppm – a level that was already exceeded more than a decade prior to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

In 2018, a non-peer-reviewed IPCC report called “SR1.5” attempted to address this paradox. The authors found that initial over-shooting of the RCB for 1.5° was already unavoidable. However, the goal just might be resuscitated in the second half of the century by using hypothetical “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) to drag down atmospheric GHG levels.

Unfortunately, no NETs had actually been invented in 2018 – or in 2023. The great hope in 2018 was bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which would involve growing sufficient quantities of new biomass to generate about half the world’s energy needs and then capturing and permanently storing the CO2 released when it is burned. Because plants absorb CO2 as they grow, this was seen as a way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere while also displacing fossil fuels.

After years of disappointing research, experiments and trials, the BECCS dream is now widely recognised as a “tempting chimera” that just couldn’t work. The land requirement would supplant more than half the world’s food production. Bender et al (2019) found that a large-scale NETs programme such as BECCs could require public subsidies equal to one-third of all government spending.

That ought to be the end of the 1.5° charade, once and for all. Without NETs, it is no more than a pipe-dream.

But there was also a second insurmountable problem. The SR1.5 scenario required emissions to  peak by 2023 and then decline by 45% – about 18 gigatonnes per annum – by 2030. As I pointed out some 5 years ago this was yet another pipe-dream, if only because China and India combined are expected (by the IEA) to account for 23.1gigatonnes by 2030. Even if all the rest of the world were to slash their emissions to zero before 2030 (a ridiculous notion) the RCB could still not be met. It was and is arithmetically impossible.

Now, in its position paper for COP28, the UNFCCC sadly estimates that emissions will reduce by only 0.3% below 2019 levels by 2030. To be clear, that’s a current expectation of – 0.3% against a published 2019 requirement of – 45%. No joke!

That also ought to be the end of the 1.5° charade, once and for all.

In “A history of the 1.5° target”, Cointe & Guillemot (2023) explain “how an unreachable target became the reference for climate action, analysing the political calibration” of climate science and politics”

These claims are not even controversial. A google search throws up 555 million results for the input “why the 1.5°C goal is impossible”. The top 5, which include most of the world’s  “greenest” media (Bloomberg, Reuters, The Economist,The Atlantic, etc) are here, here, here, here and here.   

The 1.5° artifice has always lacked credibility. It has kept limping along for seven years only because the global media cartel has shamelessly thrown its whole weight behind the pantomime. But it is now quite evident, in Pielke’s words, that “the 1.5° aspiration is obsolete and always has been”.

As Vaclav Smil puts it: Whats the point of setting goals that cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.”

Paris: One target, one aspiration

Now for some history. The first draft of the Paris Agreement – which aimed for a consensus ceiling of 2.0°C – was ground out over five years of quite intensive negotiations between representatives of the Environment Ministries of more that 190 Countries.

The breakthrough finally came with Hon Tim Groser’s 2014 proposal that the final document ought not to be legally binding, so that it would not be classified as a “Treaty”. This manoeuvre circumvented the constitutional requirement for ratification by a two-thirds vote in the US Senate – an impossible task.

Then, at the 11th hour, an attempt to hi-jack the process was made by a vociferous group of rich-world climate campaigners[2] (led by USA extremist Bill McKibben of 350.org) demanding that the temperature ceiling be reduced to 1.5°C.

As is frequently the case in climate negotiations, the global North and global South were put at loggerheads.

Global temperatures had already risen by about 1° by 2015 – so that a 2° target would limit future warming during 2015-2100 to just one further degree (or a 0.12°/decade trend). Amending the 1870-2100 target to 1.5° would halve the allowable further warming to half-a-degree (0.06°/decade).

The “G77” group of 135 poorer countries – representing most of the world’s population – were appalled by this cavalier proposal to slice away half of the “carbon headroom” that remained available for their economic development. As the 2023 UNFCCC Stocktake (para 39) puts it:

“developing countries who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected, and are limited to consuming the remaining carbon budget, reinforcing climate injustice and inequity”.

The proposed 1.5° amendment could never have succeeded. But then the wordsmiths got to work and the following draft of Article 2 was finally approved:

“This Agreement .. aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, by:

a. Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;

b. Increasing the ability to ..foster climate resilience and low-emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production.

The non-rich countries, mollified by the strong words about “efforts to eradicate poverty”, protection for “food production”, and the express mention of “development”, saw little residual threat in the relatively soft words about “pursuing efforts” towards 1.5°C.

The COP20 Chair said it was merely “an aspiration”. There is no language anywhere in the Agreement suggesting that this doubled ambition could ever be actually achieved. It was just one further instance of the all-pervasive hyperbole that surrounds all climate change topics.


Immediately after COP21, hordes of climate activists, along with their media cartel Covering Climate Now, set out to re-interpret the Paris Agreement as mandating two official targets for peak AGW. The US-led media endlessly hammered the angle that the Paris Agreement demanded the achievement of the 1.5° target and “the world could end in 12 years” if we failed.

These misrepresentations then fostered the canard that the Paris Agreement called for “net zero emissions by 2050”. It evidently mattered little that this was a direct contradiction of the wording of Article 4(1):   [emphasis added]

“…to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”

On any reading, it is immediately obvious that the Paris Agreement actually sets a ceiling of (not 1.5°) and calls for net zero before 2100 (not 2050). But it is very rare to find any of these truths being acknowledged by the watchdogs of the Fourth Estate. They are more-than-willing parties to the meretricious but successful political manipulation of the past seven years.

New Zealand was the world’s first Parliament to enshrine the confected ’targets’ into its domestic law. Just one MP, out of 120, voted against this odious political sleight-of-hand.

Several other developed countries have since followed in New Zealand’s footsteps.  These carefully curated misrepresentations of the Paris Agreement’s terms now dominate climate policy discussion throughout the global North.

Impacts of these distortions

The obvious consequence is that the economic cost of climate policy has been doubled in many countries. Taxpayers who were already struggling with an unprecedented pandemic, high inflation and record debt were burdened by doubled energy taxes and an endless slew of other unaffordable climate policies. All this has been visited upon them dishonestly by their own ideology-driven politicians.

The high-water mark of climate hysteria must surely be the absurd virtue signal of New Zealand politicians spending $23-30 billion on buying carbon credits from overseas sellers. Why? Nobody knows.

This is real hard-earned taxpayers’ money that flows directly out of our hospitals and schools and public housing and law enforcement, and directly into the faceless maw of the UN climate machine. By orders of magnitude, the largest purchase agreement in the country’s history.

As Adrian Macey and David Frame have pointed out, this promise remains the elephant in the climate policy room. It has no co-benefits to NZ. The Climate Change Commission advised that it would cause damaging and inequitable economic and social disruption levels, especially for Māori. But the Labour Cabinet did it anyway – because pursuing 1.5° had by now become obsessional. 

In return for this, our Ministers might get a standing ovation at a future COP; while hard-pressed taxpayers get nothing at all – except more debt and crime,` homelessness and child poverty. This is the very epitome of a ‘political crime’.

The ‘eradication of poverty’

But the calculated skewing of the Paris Agreement has far more dire consequences for the bulk of the world’s population, who live in relative or absolute energy poverty.

The US and EU, asserting that the 1.5° aspiration is not yet dead, have successfully coerced the World Bank, the IMF and the entire global finance industry to deny funding for new fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation in undeveloped countries. While this ban may not deter the self-sufficient BRICS nations, it callously destroys the dreams of the “absolute poverty” people (less than $2.15 per day) living in the G77’s 135 poor countries.

As seen above, the Paris Agreement, and its parent the 1992 FCCC Treaty, only became possible because every country in the world agreed and solemnly recorded that climate policy would always and everywhere be subordinate to the “eradication of poverty”, “food production” and “sustainable development”. 

The rich world now consciously ignores these fundamental commitments. The stench of hypocrisy is pervasive. The UK is reopening closed coal-powered stations; Germany is building new ones; and the US still derives over 40% of its electricity from coal. If all that was somehow stopped tomorrow, the rich world’s standards of living would be dented to an extent that would imperil incumbent politicians. So that won’t happen.

On the other hand, there are an estimated 800 million people who have no access to any electricity at all and a further 2.9 billion people whose total annual electricity use (for lighting, cooking, healthcare, food production, communications, etc) is less that that of a single US household refrigerator. These groups – about 47% of all the people on the planet – are dubbed by Robert Bryce as “the Unplugged World”, and include such high-density countries as Pakistan, India and Indonesia.

In Africa, an area the size of Switzerland is cleared of forest every year, with an estimated 90% of the wood used for cooking or to heat the home. Without any alternative supply of reliable and affordable energy, the forest will continue to be converted to charcoal until it ultimately vanishes.

Worldwide, as many as 1.6 million people per year die premature deaths due to indoor air pollution from the use of charcoal or animal dung for cooking. The impacts on overall health are incalculable. Were it not for the colonial grip of financiers obsessed by their 1.5° aspiration, these primitive stoves could be fuelled by LPG, in the short term, and by hydrocarbon-powered electricity in the longer term.


The 1.5° delusion has become a major roadblock on the road to global eradication of poverty. It induces extreme energy poverty which shortens global average life expectancy and drives infant mortality – including the 5 million children under the age of 5 who die every year.

One might argue that aspiring to 1.5° was well-intentioned back in 2015 – perhaps it was then (marginally) ethical to vote for that clever but deceitful wording.  But not today.

Today it is no more than a cold-blooded lie that unscrupulous politicians tell to manipulate their own voters. It is a lie that rich countries use in aid of their economic colonisation of poor countries. And worst of all, it is a lie which quite deliberately keeps half of humankind locked into endless energy poverty and misery.        


[1] The IEA calculates that global temperatures will have risen about 2.4°C by 2100, based on today’s governmental policy settings. In other words, if no more changes are made, temperatures over the next 80 years will continue rising at about the same rate as they have risen over the last 80 years.

[2] The spokesmen were professional climate campaigners from USA and EU, but were notionally speaking for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).