The dangers of climate change are mounting so rapidly that they could soon overwhelm the ability of both nature and humanity to adapt unless greenhouse gas emissions are quickly reduced, according to a 90 page report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on 28 February.
Written by 270 researchers from 67 countries, the report warns that if average warming passes 1.5 deg C, the situation could be beyond recall. Many leaders, including president Biden, have undertaken to limit total global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels, but achieving that goal would require nations to all but eliminate their fossil-fuel emissions by 2050. Most are falling well short of that target.
Some efforts to invest in adaptation measures, such as flood barriers to limit damage, are often too ‘incremental’, and future threats will require transformational changes in how we live. The report also carries a stark warning: if temperatures keep rising, more and more people will suffer unavoidable loss or be forced to leave their homes, creating population shift and dislocation on a global scale.
The report says that few nations will escape unscathed and effects are already being felt. Ferocious heat waves made worse by global warming have killed hundreds in the USA and Canada, huge floods have devastated Germany and China, and wildfires have raged out of control in Australia and Russia.
The following consists of extracts from a digest of the report put together by the BBC.
- Things are worse than we thought. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the destruction of coral reefs are among climate related impacts at the more severe end of what predictive models have expected. And more quickly than previously assessed by the IPCC. Right now, around 40% of the world's population is "highly vulnerable" to the impacts of climate change. And the burden is falling mainly on those who did the least to cause the problem.
"For Africa around 30% of all the maize growing areas will go out of production, for beans it's around 50% on the current emissions trajectory solutions – so there are certain parts of the world, particularly in Africa, which will become uninhabitable." said Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of the Global Centre on Adapation
- Severe loss and damage is inevitable. For several years, developing countries have been trying to get richer nations to take the idea of loss and damage seriously. It is defined as those impacts of climate change that can't be adapted to, or slow onset events like sea level rise.
At COP26 in Glasgow, political progress on the issue stalled when the US and EU blocked a dedicated funding facility for loss and damage. Now the IPCC clearly states that the observed impacts of climate change include ‘widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people.’
The endorsement by the IPCC is likely to give loss and damage a major boost in climate talks, a fact recognised by the UK's COP President, Alok Sharma, who is in charge of UN negotiations until COP27 begins in Egypt later this year.
- Technology is not the whole answer. According to the IPCC, the use of some technologies designed to limit warming or reduce CO2 could make matters worse rather than better, for example machines that extract CO2 directly from the air, a process that could trigger the release of more warming gas. "If you remove CO2 from the atmosphere, you'll get a rebound effect from elsewhere in the carbon cycle," said Linda Schneider from the Heinrich Böll Foundation. “The oceans, the land reservoirs, will have an outgassing effect. And so some of the CO2 … removed from the atmosphere will be returned."
- Cities offer hope. As cities continue to grow they can push for renewable energy, greener transport, and buildings. This could limit destructive climate impacts for millions, in particular in coastal cities where the options exist to begin to mobilise around coastal urban development.
- The small window is closing fast. Nonetheless the report’s authors remain convinced that the worst impacts can be averted - if we act in time. The IPCC says this opportunity for action will only last for the rest of this decade. "Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future." If the world can cut emissions drastically and significantly boost spending on adaptation, that could avoid locking in certain disaster.
Investing in nature will also be a bulwark against the worst, says the IPCC, which calls for 30-50% of the world to be conserved. "Nature can be our saviour," said Inger Anderson, the head of the UN Environment Programme, "but only if we save it first."