On 18 January 2024, the House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Baroness Sheehan (Liberal Democrat) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of recent reports that global heating is likely to pass the 1.5-degree celsius threshold this year, and how they intend to cooperate with international partners to mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

1. What is the 1.5-degree celsius threshold, and could it be breached in 2024?

1.1 The 1.5-degree celsius threshold

The method used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to measure levels of global warming is to compare average global temperatures to the average temperatures in the pre-industrial period (1850–1900).[1] It is measured as an average across long timeframes (30 years) and across temperatures over land and ocean. Long-term temperature rises over 1.5 degrees celsius are projected to result in various risks to natural and human systems, including more extreme weather events, sea level rises, risks to marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and risks to human health and wellbeing.[2] 

In 2015, the United Nations COP21 climate change conference was held in Paris, France. A central aim of the conference agreement (known as the ‘Paris agreement’) was to strengthen the global response to climate change by:  

Keeping a global temperature rise this century well below two degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees celsius.[3]

The Paris agreement is a legally binding international treaty. It entered into force in November 2016.[4] 

The IPCC’s most recent assessment of the scientific evidence on climate change, ‘Climate change 2023: Synthesis report’, concluded that: 

Human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming, with global surface temperature reaching 1.1°C above 1850–1900 in 2011–2020.[5] 

Although the IPCC noted that the international community had made progress in implementing emissions reductions, it stated that “current mitigation and adaptation actions and policies are not sufficient”.[6] It said that projected global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 meant it was “likely that warming will exceed 1.5°C during the 21st century and would make it harder to limit warming below 2°C—if no additional commitments are made or actions taken”. 

1.2 Temperature records in 2023 and projections for 2024

There were record-breaking global temperatures in 2023 and it has been projected that 2024 could be even warmer. The EU’s Copernicus Earth observation programme stated that: 

Unprecedented global temperatures from June onwards led 2023 to become the warmest year on record—overtaking by a large margin 2016, the previous warmest year.[7]  

Copernicus listed a range of ‘temperature highlights’ in 2023, which included: 

  • 2023 is confirmed as the warmest calendar year in global temperature data records going back to 1850. 
  • Global average sea surface temperatures remained persistently and unusually high. 
  • 2023 was remarkable for Antarctic sea ice: it reached record low extents for the corresponding time of the year in eight months [of the year]. Both the daily and monthly extents reached all-time minima in February 2023. 
  • A large number of extreme events were recorded across the globe, including heatwaves, floods, droughts and wildfires.[8]

Copernicus also estimated that it was “likely that a 12-month period ending in January or February 2024 will exceed 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level”.

The UK’s Meteorological Office (the Met Office) has also projected that global temperatures could temporarily exceed the 1.5°C threshold in 2024.[9] It said that “2024 will be a further record-breaking year, expected to exceed 2023”. The Met Office pointed out that the spike in global temperatures in 2023 was given a “temporary and partial boost by the current El Niño event warming the tropical Pacific”. However, Professor Adam Scaife at the Met Office stated that the “main driver for record-breaking temperatures is the ongoing human-induced warming since the start of the industrial revolution”. Regarding 2024, the Met Office said:

The average global temperature for 2024 is forecast to be between 1.34°C and 1.58°C (with a central estimate of 1.46°C) above the average for the pre-industrial period.[10]

The Met Office’s Dr Nick Dunstone, who led the forecast, stated:

The forecast is in line with the ongoing global warming trend of 0.2°C per decade, and is boosted by a significant El Niño event. Hence, we expect two new global temperature record-breaking years in succession, and, for the first time, we are forecasting a reasonable chance of a year temporarily exceeding 1.5°C.[11]

Dr Dunstone added that it was “important to recognise that a temporary exceedance of 1.5°C won’t mean a breach of the Paris agreement”. The Paris agreement target is based on longer-term average temperatures. However, Dr Dunstone concluded that “the first year above 1.5°C would certainly be a milestone in climate history”.

2. What is the UK government doing to mitigate the impacts of climate change?

2.1 UK net zero targets

In 2019, the UK committed itself to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.[12] This target was made legally binding by the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019. The government has also committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

In June 2023, the UK’s independent statutory advisory body, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), published its ‘2023 progress report to Parliament’. The CCC concluded it was less confident the UK was on track to achieve its net zero target than it had been the previous year. The CCC argued the government lacked “urgency” in implementing its planned green energy transition. It also argued the UK needed to regain a clear international leadership role on climate. For further information on the CCC’s assessment of the government’s international actions to mitigate climate change, see section 2.2 below.

On 20 September 2023, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, gave a speech setting out what he described as the government’s “new approach to achieving net zero”.[13] Mr Sunak argued the government’s recent approach did not account for additional costs to households and disruption to people’s lives. He said net zero measures risked “losing the consent of the British people” and that therefore the government would adopt a “more pragmatic, proportionate, and realistic approach […] that eases the burdens on working people”.

Mr Sunak said his government remained committed to meeting its net zero targets. However, he said this could be achieved in a “fairer, better way” by changing the following policies. He announced the government would:

  • Push back the planned date for phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030 to 2035. 
  • Delay the planned date for phasing out the installation of new oil and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) boilers and new coal heating for off-gas grid homes from 2026 to 2035. The government has announced it intends to consult on options for the decarbonisation of off-grid properties in 2024. 
  • Increase the cash grants available as part of the government’s boiler upgrade scheme by 50% to £7,500. 
  • Exempt some households from the requirement to phase out fossil fuel boilers, including gas. 
  • Reverse the plans to introduce a new requirement for landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their properties

The CCC published a response to Mr Sunak’s announcement on 12 October 2023.[14] The committee said it remained concerned about the likelihood of the UK meeting its net zero targets. It also criticised the government, saying the recent policy changes had not been accompanied by estimates of their potential effect on emissions or evidence supporting the government’s claim that the UK’s overall net zero targets could still be met.

Al Gore, former US vice-president and climate campaigner, said the announcements in Mr Sunak’s speech were “shocking and disappointing” and were “not what the world needs from the UK”.[15] The shadow secretary of state for climate change and net zero, Ed Miliband, also criticised the policy changes, accusing the government of “dither and delay”.[16]

2.2 Collaboration with international partners

The government has set out how the UK would collaborate internationally to meet its climate commitments in the ‘2030 strategic framework for international climate and nature action’, published in March 2023. The document stated that climate change and nature loss were two of the “defining challenges of our time” and the 2020s were the critical decade for action. It said there was a “closing window to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C and to halt and reverse biodiversity loss”.[17]

The strategic framework set out the government’s three priorities for its “2030 vision”:

  • keep 1.5°C alive by halving global emissions 
  • build resilience to current and future climate impacts 
  • halt and reverse biodiversity loss[18]

It said this would be achieved by using several ‘levers’, which included international partnerships, finance and trade, to tackle six “global challenges” of climate change:

  • transition to clean technologies and sustainable practices across all sectors 
  • build resilience and adapt to climate impacts, supporting communities, economies and ecosystems 
  • increase protection, conservation and restoration of nature and tackle key drivers of nature loss 
  • strengthen international agreements and cooperation to accelerate delivery of climate and nature commitments 
  • align global financial flows with a net zero, climate resilient and nature positive future 
  • shift trade and investment rules and patterns to support the transition to a climate and nature positive future[19]

Specifically on the challenge of strengthening international agreements and collaboration, the government made the following commitments:

We will continue to uphold the importance of international cooperation and consensus in this critical decade, and champion efforts to urgently scale up action. The UK will continue to play a prominent role in coordinating multilateral action through the three Rio Conventions—on Climate Change, Biological Diversity and Combatting Desertification—as well as the Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer and through fora such as the G7, G20 and the UN Environment Assembly. Our strong track record in reducing emissions, technical expertise, international development offer, partnerships and extensive diplomatic network mean we are well placed to continue to drive forward collaboration.[20]

The CCC’s ‘2023 progress report to Parliament’ included an assessment of the UK government’s international climate policy and its performance as an international leader on climate issues. The report argued that the UK could influence global progress on climate change “through domestic action on emissions reduction and adaptation, international policy and utilising UK convening power in international climate fora”. The CCC said the government should ensure that:

[…] its international climate reputation is not undermined by perceived retreat from leading and convening climate discussions on the international stage and domestic policy decisions that contradict the UK’s international messaging.[21]

Specifically on its assessment of the government’s ‘2030 strategic framework’, the CCC said that its overall aim was “commendable”.[22] It welcomed the government’s commitment to “deploy joined-up efforts using domestic levers such as trade, aid and finance to meaningfully contribute to global climate and nature goals”. However, it stated that “more must be done to support the ambitions expressed in the document with detailed future actions”.

On the UK’s role as a climate leader, the CCC was more critical of the government. It said there had been a “clear decline in profile for international climate issues in government over the past year”.[23] The committee argued that domestic policy decisions that “clash with the UK’s international messaging”, such as the government’s decision to approve a new coal mine in Cumbria, represented a “retreat from the strong leadership position established during the UK’s COP presidency” in 2021. The CCC claimed that the “UK has lost its clear global leadership position on climate action” and it needed to “redefine its role in the international climate space”.

Further information on UK government policy to collaborate internationally on climate change mitigation, including its impact on developing countries and on climate-induced migration, can be found in the following House of Lords Library briefings:

2.3 New oil and gas licences

Since the publication of the CCC’s report, the government announced in July 2023 that “hundreds of new oil and gas licences will be granted” for fossil fuel exploration and extraction in the North Sea.[24] The government argued that the announcement was consistent with its net zero commitments, as it would make the UK less dependent on “higher-emission imports”. The government claimed that “domestic gas production has around one-quarter the carbon footprint of imported liquified natural gas”. The government has also said that the enabling legislation for the new licenses—the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill—would include emissions tests that would “ensure that future licensing supports the transition to net zero”.[25]

The CCC had stated in its report that it did not believe an expansion in fossil fuel production was in line with net zero.[26] Although it accepted the UK will continue to need some oil and gas until it reaches net zero, it stated that this “does not in itself justify the development of new North Sea fields”. The announcement has also been criticised by environmental campaigners.[27]

On 5 January 2024, the Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, a former minister for energy and clean growth, announced that he would resign his seat over the issue.[28] Mr Skidmore said he could not support the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 8 November 2023. Mr Skidmore said it was a “tragedy that the UK has been allowed to lose its climate leadership”.[29] He claimed that issuing new licenses would send a “global signal that the UK is rowing ever further back from its climate commitments”.

The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, told the BBC that he “profoundly disagreed” with Mr Skidmore’s reasons for resigning.[30] Mr Hunt reiterated the claim that domestic oil and gas is “four times cleaner than imported oil and gas”. The Labour Party welcomed Mr Skidmore’s resignation and has claimed it would not issue any new licences if it forms a future government.[31]

3. Read more

Cover image by NASA.


  1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Special report: Global warming of 1.5°C: Summary for policy makers’, 2018. Return to text
  2. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, ‘Limiting global warming to 1.5°C’, 11 February 2019. Return to text
  3. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, ‘Key aspects of the Paris agreement’, accessed 11 January 2024. Return to text
  4. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, ‘The Paris agreement’, accessed 11 January 2024. Return to text
  5. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Climate change 2023: Synthesis report’, 2023, p 42. Return to text
  6. As above, p 57. Return to text
  7. EU Copernicus Climate Change Service, ‘Copernicus: 2023 is the hottest year on record, with global temperatures close to the 1.5°C limit’, 9 January 2024. Return to text
  8. As above. Return to text
  9. Met Office, ‘2024: First chance of 1.5°C year’, 8 December 2023. Return to text
  10. As above. Return to text
  11. As above. Return to text
  12. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, ‘UK becomes first major economy to pass net zero emissions law’, 27 June 2019. Return to text
  13. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘PM speech on net zero’, 20 September 2023. Return to text
  14. Climate Change Committee, ‘CCC assessment of recent announcements and developments on net zero’, 12 October 2023. Return to text
  15. Oliver Milman, ‘Al Gore leads international chorus of disapproval for Sunak’s climate U-turn’, Guardian, 21 September 2023. Return to text
  16. HC Hansard, 16 October 2023, cols 104–5. Return to text
  17. HM Government, ‘2030 strategic framework for international climate and nature action’, March 2023, p 4. Return to text
  18. As above, p 6. Return to text
  19. As above. Return to text
  20. As above, p 29. Return to text
  21. Climate Change Committee, ‘Progress in reducing UK emissions: 2023 report to Parliament’, June 2023, p 63. Return to text
  22. As above. Return to text
  23. As above, p 68. Return to text
  24. Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, ‘Hundreds of new North Sea oil and gas licences to boost British energy independence and grow the economy’, 31 July 2023. Return to text
  25. Cabinet Office, ‘King’s Speech 2023: Background briefing notes’, 7 November 2023, p 15. Return to text
  26. Climate Change Committee, ‘Progress in reducing UK emissions: 2023 report to Parliament’, June 2023, p 15. Return to text
  27. Greenpeace, ‘Greenpeace is suing the UK government over its unlawful oil and gas decision’, 25 July 2023; and Friends of the Earth, ‘Rishi Sunak unveils energy security plans’, 31 July 2023. Return to text
  28. Helena Horton and Kiran Stacey, ‘Chris Skidmore resigns Conservative whip over Sunak’s oil and gas licence plan’, Guardian, 5 January 2024. Return to text
  29. BBC News, ‘Chris Skidmore: Tory MP quits over new oil and gas licences’, 5 January 2024. Return to text
  30. BBC News, ‘Resigning ex-minister Chris Skidmore wrong on climate, says Jeremy Hunt’, 6 January 2024. Return to text
  31. BBC News, ‘Chris Skidmore: Tory MP quits over new oil and gas licences’, 5 January 2024. Return to text