The Road to 1.5 Degrees: McKinsey Tackles the Trade-offs

What will it take to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius?

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By Tod Ginnis


Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 16 seconds

Scientists believe achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels would reduce the negative impacts of climate change. The specific (potential) effects of limiting warming to 1.5°C are described in an IPCC Special Report.

But exactly what actions would businesses and people have to take for the world to reach this objective? Few researchers have attempted to explain it. That is the purpose of McKinsey & Company’s recent report, “Climate Math: What a 1.5-Degree Pathway Would Take.”

The authors lay out their case without complicated jargon. They acknowledge some of their plans would require significant economic incentives. In brief, McKinsey cites five “shifts” necessary to achieve the temperature goal:

  1. Reforming food and forestry. Agriculture and food systems contribute 20% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; nearly 70% of that total comes from meat production. Convincing people to eat significantly less meat—particularly cows and sheep—is necessary to help deliver the emissions reduction required to reach the 1.5° Halting deforestation is also important.
  2. Electrifying our lives. Personal and mass-transit road vehicles must shift to cleaner fuels.
  3. Adapting industrial operations. Increased recycling and greater use of advanced analytics are among the moves recommended to increase industrial efficiency.
  4. Decarbonizing power and fuel. Switching vehicles to electricity is only helpful if the electricity is produced from cleaner fuels. Dramatically increasing the use of renewables is an important part of the plan.
  5. Ramping up carbon-capture and carbon-sequestration activity. Stopping the release of carbon at the source, and removing it from the atmosphere, will be crucial aspects of any successful plan to reduced GHGs. Reforestation would be an important part of this objective.
How will meeting the goal of 1.5° Celsius impact our lives?


Success, say the authors of the report, requires (a) immediate action to implement a plan; (b) embracing the five major shifts, which span business, the economy and society; and (c) ensuring business leaders understand and buy into the trade-offs, as they could experience all of them.

What Makes 1.5 Degrees So Important?

Why target a more aggressive 1.5° rise rather than 2.0°, which was an alternate target in the Paris Agreement? The seemingly small difference could yield some dire consequences if the eventual results match the less stringent 2° objective.

McKinsey is concerned the current focus on the coronavirus pandemic—which they concede is completely appropriate—could cause us to lose sight of a key sustainability goal. The authors stress their paper is not a prediction, but, rather, an optimistic and achievable scenario.

It’s easy to support calls to create a better future without considering the implications for our lives. Limiting warming to 1.5° Celsius since industrialization will require many members of society to accept trade-offs. Click the Download button below to read the report and decide for yourself if their plans seem realistic.

Climate Math: What a 1.5-Degree Pathway Would Take