Don’t be fooled by El Niño’s end – net zero is more urgent than ever


md zakirul mazed konok/Alamy

The past few years have seen a significant rise in inflation in many countries, driven by a range of factors from pandemic-fuelled shortages to the war in Ukraine. But even now, as inflation is falling, prices are still rising, albeit more slowly. This subtlety is often missed, intentionally or otherwise, by politicians seeking to claim victory over inflation.

Don’t worry, you haven’t accidentally started reading The Economist. The point is that we may soon see a similar effect in the global climate. As we report in “El Niño is ending after a year of driving extreme weather“, the El Niño climate pattern is about to come to an end. Just like the recent inflationary period, El Niño has seen graphs soar, with a nearly year-long streak of record-breaking temperatures.

The trouble is, just as prices continue to rise when inflation falls, the carbon dioxide we have pumped into the atmosphere will keep pushing up temperatures, even without the influence of El Niño. While coming years may be cooler, overall, the planet is still warming at an alarming rate.

Precisely how close we are to exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, a key limit to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, is hard to assess. Traditionally, climate scientists look at this over decades, meaning we would only confirm a breach in retrospect.

There is some good news here at least, as a new analysis shows that we can simply count the number of years in which average global temperatures exceed 1.5°C (see “Three years of high temperatures will mean we have breached 1.5°C“). It found that just three years above 1.5°C is enough to confirm a breach. The bad news is that 2024 may be the first.

As we have said many time before, despair isn’t the answer. Unlike inflation, climate spikes are somewhat predictable. The next El Niño is likely to occur between two and seven years from now, so almost certainly within this decade. Before it comes, bringing yet more heat, the world should use this period to finally bend the curve on carbon emissions with a proper push for net zero by 2050. We will all benefit – and politicians might have something real to celebrate.

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