Summary: Human-induced warming has already reached about 1°C above pre-industrial levels at the time of writing of this Special Report. By the decade 2006–2015, human activity had warmed the world by 0.87°C (±0.12°C) compared to pre-industrial times (1850–1900). If the current warming rate continues, the world would reach human-induced global warming of 1.5°C around 2040.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions with a view to ‘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’. While the overall intention of strengthening the global response to climate change is clear, the Paris Agreement does not specify precisely what is meant by ‘global average temperature’, or what period in history should be considered ‘pre-industrial’. To answer the question of how close are we to 1.5°C of warming, we need to first be clear about how both terms are defined in this Special Report.
The choice of pre-industrial reference period, along with the method used to calculate global average temperature, can alter scientists’ estimates of historical warming by a couple of tenths of a degree Celsius. Such differences become important in the context of a global temperature limit just half a degree above where we are now. But provided consistent definitions are used, they do not affect our understanding of how human activity is influencing the climate.
In principle, ‘pre-industrial levels’ could refer to any period of time before the start of the industrial revolution. But the number of direct temperature measurements decreases as we go back in time. Defining a ‘pre-industrial’ reference period is, therefore, a compromise between the reliability of the temperature information and how representative it is of truly pre-industrial conditions. Some pre-industrial periods are cooler than others for purely natural reasons. This could be because of spontaneous climate variability or the response of the climate to natural perturbations, such as volcanic eruptions and variations in the sun’s activity. This IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C uses the reference period 1850–1900 to represent pre-industrial temperature. This is the earliest period with near-global observations and is the reference period used as an approximation of pre-industrial temperatures in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.
Once scientists have defined ‘pre-industrial’, the next step is to calculate the amount of warming at any given time relative to that reference period. In this report, warming is defined as the increase in the 30-year global average of combined air temperature over land and water temperature at the ocean surface. The 30-year timespan accounts for the effect of natural variability, which can cause global temperatures to fluctuate from one year to the next. For example, 2015 and 2016 were both affected by a strong El Niño event, which amplified the underlying human-caused warming.
In the decade 2006–2015, warming reached 0.87°C (±0.12°C) relative to 1850–1900, predominantly due to human activity increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Given that global temperature is currently rising by 0.2°C (±0.1°C) per decade, human-induced warming reached 1°C above pre-industrial levels around 2017 and, if this pace of warming continues, would reach 1.5°C around 2040.
While the change in global average temperature tells researchers about how the planet as a whole is changing, looking more closely at specific regions, countries and seasons reveals important details. Since the 1970s, most land regions have been warming faster than the global average, for example. This means that warming in many regions has already exceeded 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Over a fifth of the global population live in regions that have already experienced warming in at least one season that is greater than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.