What is the 1.5-degree target and why is it absolutely crucial to meet this goal?

Surrounding the subject of climate change, sustainability, and the circular economy is the 1.5°C target, the goal of the Paris Agreement. Adopted by 196 Parties at COP 21 in Paris, the goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. In order to reach this goal, countries, governments, businesses, and individuals will all have to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their respective ways to keep our planet from further warming. In this blog post, we will be discussing how and why this target came to be, the main causes of this rapid global warming, and the actions that must be taken before it’s all too late. In part 2, we will be delving further into this topic, and specifically on how the fashion industry can help to reach this target.

So, how did we get here? Although climate change can be a natural and gradual process that occurs over decades or more, we are facing extreme weather conditions and dangerously rapid warming due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels that generate massive amounts of greenhouse gasses. These greenhouse gas emissions then wrap around the earth, trapping the sun’s heat, and causing temperatures to rise at alarming rates. Human activities—burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, landfills and improper waste disposal, non-recyclable and regenerative products, agriculture, etc. produce mass amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and other greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change and harm to our planet. 

And, what exactly do we need to do to achieve this target? As stated in the McKinsey article Climate math: What a 1.5-degree pathway would take, “every part of the economy would need to decarbonize to achieve a 1.5-degree pathway”. Without global action, from individuals making lifestyle changes to companies investing in decarbonization efforts, the earth will soon reach a point where the effects of climate change are irreversible.

“The good news is that a 1.5-degree pathway is technically achievable. The bad news is that the math is daunting. Such a pathway would require dramatic emissions reductions over the next ten years—starting now.”

McKinsey & Company, Climate math: What a 1.5-degree pathway would take

The five major shifts that need to happen for us to reach the 1.5°C pathway:

  1. Reforming food and forestry
  2. Electrification
  3. Adapting industrial operations
  4. Decarbonizing power and fuel
  5. Ramping up carbon-capture and carbon-sequestration activity


    Shift 1: Reforming food and forestry

    This shift is about changing what we eat, how it is farmed, and how much we waste. Annually, 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, with methane being the primary contributor. With the continuous population growth and meat consumption in most diets across the globe, emissions derived from agriculture are estimated to increase by 15 to 20 percent by 2050. Nearly 70% of agricultural emissions come from ruminant meat; beef and lamb are the most GHG-intensive foods, producing more than ten times the amount of emissions compared to that of poultry or fish, and 30 times more than that of legumes.

    If we are looking to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector and reach a 1.5-degree pathway, it comes down to three main points of change. Individuals will have to make dietary shifts and reduce the consumption of ruminant animal protein. With less demand for meat in our diets, there will be a reduction in supply, meaning that less land needs to be cleared (deforestation), less animals exploited for human consumption (industrial agriculture), and altogether less carbon dioxide and methane produced in these processes.

    Additionally, deforestation, the intentional clearing of forested land to make space for industrial agriculture and to obtain wood for fuel and infrastructure, contributes greatly to climate change and global warming—accounting for around 15% of global CO2 emissions. The process of removing trees, which is mostly done through burning, not only releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but also takes away those trees’ potential to take in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. 

    By minimizing deforestation while actively working on reforestation—the process of replanting trees in areas affected by natural disturbances and unnatural ones such as logging, mining, agricultural clearing, and development—in order to replenish and restore forest land. The benefits of reforestation include improved water and soil quality, cleaner air, habitat restoration, and an overall healthier planet. This will in turn help to slow down the effects of global warming and help reach the 1.5-degree pathway.

    Furthermore, with one-third of global food output lost in the production or wasted in consumption, food waste is a bigger contributor to climate change than we might think. When we waste food, whether during the cultivation process or post-consumer use, the greenhouse gas emissions have already been produced and released during the process; the damage is already done. Curbing food waste not only reduces the emissions associated with growing, transporting, and refrigerating, but also reduces the amount of methane released as food waste decomposes. 

    Shift 2: Electrifying our lives

    The global transportation sector accounts for 15% of CO2 emissions each year. In 2020, greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector made up around 27% of GHG emissions in the United States, making it the largest contributor of GHG emissions in the U.S. This is because the majority of vehicles, including passenger cars, light to heavy-duty trucks, pickup trucks, buses, minivans, and more rely on gasoline and diesel fuel. Large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions—mainly carbon dioxide—are released into the environment as a result of the combustion of petroleum-based products that power these vehicles. 

    “To reduce transport emissions, a widespread shift to zero-carbon alternatives such as electrification would be required.”

    McKinsey & Company, The 1.5-degree challenge

    In order to reduce global transport emissions, we must shift to greener practices and renewable energy to decarbonize our planet and prevent further warming. In the vast majority of cities, transportation and home appliances for heating rely on
    fossil fuels like natural gas, fuel oil, and coal. Implementing cleaner and more efficient technologies means that the traditional will have to be replaced on a large scale to truly make an impact. This is neither a quick or simple task, but in doing so, we will be able to significantly reduce emissions. 

    We are already beginning to see some of these changes. For example, in 2021, global sales of electric passenger vehicles, including hybrids, doubled to 6.6 million, which is around 9% of all car sales that same year. Additionally, more cities are investing in urban heating systems, also known as district heating, a network of underground heating pipes that replace individual household boilers. District heating helps to reduce carbon emissions as the network is designed to capture and redistribute heat that would otherwise be wasted. The excess heat produced by other industries gets funneled into the heating system, thereby eliminating waste and reducing emissions as well as fuel consumption. Expanding district heating could potentially reduce emissions by 40%.
    Shifting to electricity-powered technology will not solve climate change. However, it will significantly reduce emissions and help to achieve the 1.5-degree target.

    Shift 3: Adapting industrial operations

    Industrial process heat is defined in the book Energy Developments: New Forms, Renewables, Conservation as: thermal energy used directly in the preparation or treatment of materials used to produce manufactured goods. 
    Different industries have their own heat requirements to process specific materials. Some examples of industries requiring low to medium-temperature heat processing include: food and beverage, textile, machinery, pharmaceutical, and general manufacturing. Those that require high-temperature heat processing are industries such as oil, gas, coal-mining, steel, metal, and cement.

    All this industrial heat combined amounts to nearly one-fifth of global energy consumption, and about 10% of global emissions comes from fossil-fuel combustion used in these industries. If we want to successfully reach the 1.5-degree target, decarbonization needs to happen in all sectors, and as soon as possible. Industries must make the shift to hybrid-electric equipment, fully-electric equipment, and/or renewable energy such as solar and wind power rather than relying solely on fossil fuels.


    “These industries would need to electrify at more than twice their current level by 2050 (from 28 percent in 2016 to 76 percent in 2050) to achieve a 1.5-degree pathway.”

    McKinsey & Company, The 1.5-degree challenge

    This type of industrial change across a wide range of sectors is extremely challenging because many rely on huge amounts of high-temperature heat as well as different processing methods and procedures, and the current replacement options available are very limited.

    Shift 4: Decarbonizing power and fuel

    Studies show that nearly two-thirds of the world’s power is currently generated using coal and natural gas, contributing to 40% of global CO2 emissions every year. If we want to achieve the 1.5-degree goal in time, eight times more solar panels and five times more wind turbines will need to be installed compared to current levels. Coal-powered electricity generation would need to decrease by nearly 80% by 2030, while renewable and sustainably sourced energy—biokerosene, biogas, biodiesel, etc.—will have to increase significantly.

    Shift 5: Ramping up carbon-capture and carbon-sequestration activity

    Investing in and utilizing technologies for carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS) and carbon-dioxide removal are crucial and necessary in achieving the 1.5-degree goal. CCUS are technologies that collect CO2 at their source, usually at industrial sites. They prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere by compressing, transporting and either storing CO2 underground or using it as an input for products. Such technologies are vital in meeting net zero targets and tackling the consequences of climate change resulting from the industrial sector. On the other hand, carbon-dioxide removal is just as important as carbon-capture.

    Carbon-dioxide removal, as the name suggests, involves capturing and permanently removing CO2 that has already been emitted. This is done through nature-based solutions such as reforestation, and technology that uses chemicals to remove carbon dioxide. No matter what technologies and procedures are used to capture and remove carbon dioxide, all are absolutely necessary and need to be put into action as soon as possible to stay on the 1.5-degree pathway.


    How likely are we to stay on track? It’s hard to say, but what is certain is that there is no time to waste. Immediate action must be taken across all sectors of the economy, with the aim to reduce carbon emissions, invest and switch to renewable energy sources, and carry out more circular design and production processes. 

    Decarbonizing our planet is our top priority, and all governments, businesses, and individuals will have to take part for us to stay on track. It is a global effort, and delays in any sector will lead to others needing to compensate through further CO2 reductions. We only have one earth, and it is our responsibility to take care of it. 

    “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F); without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

    Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III



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