The IPCC Report on Climate Change: Facts & Scenarios – Part I

What’s the Issue?

Welcome to my second post of ‘What’s the Issue’. This post looks at the long-awaited IPCC Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change and will be in two parts: first I will outline the main findings of the report, its facts, and scientific bases for climate change.

The report details some sombre conclusions. “This report is a reality check,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.”

This can leave us all a little disillusioned about the future of our planet, so part II will focus on the positive aspects of the report and notwithstanding changes in policy, look at ways we can all help slow the changing of our climate.

Let’s get into the facts…

In my last post I explained a little of the background of the report and what we might expect from this Sixth Assessment on Climate Change – the physical basis. Climate change and sustainability experts were not expecting good news from this report, and while the findings are somewhat unsurprising, they are a sobering account of the state of our planet. The report findings combine “multiple lines of evidence from paleoclimate, observations, process understanding, and global and regional climate simulations”, and is the most comprehensive study on climate change yet.

The IPCC has affirmed that human activities are responsible for climate change, with the main driver being CO2 emissions. “Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850.” Global surface temperatures in the first two decades of the 21st century (2001-2020) was 1.1°C warmer than 1850-1900. If we average this trend over the next 20 years, we will exceed 1.5°C warming, or even 2°C by the end of the century.

Importantly though, global surface temperatures will continue to increase to at least mid-century under all scenarios.

There will be no cherry-picking. Every region on earth will be affected. This concerns us all from all corners of the globe, and as we know that climate change is emmeshed with social justice the outcomes for the world’s most vulnerable are looking dire. We only need look at the news this week and see the devastation occurring in Haiti with a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and awaiting tropical storm Grace with all its fury.

On the current trajectory, the outcomes will be unthinkable. We are already seeing the extreme changes in weather patterns around the world, and in the coming few decades there will be multiple climatic changes which will intensify with further warming scenarios. We will see:

  • harsh changes in urban climates
  • intense wetness and drought with affected rainfall patterns
  • already occurring sea-level rise leading to more severe flooding in low-lying regions, and increased coastal erosion
  • amplified changes to and melting of snow, ice and permafrost
  • more marine heatwaves, ocean acidification and reduced oxygen levels acutely affecting ocean ecosystems.

With higher global ocean and land temperatures, both ocean and carbon sinks will be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere – driving further acute changes to climate.

Despite this, there is some hope if we enact immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in CO2 emissions and other GHG emissions globally. The most positive conclusion from the IPCC is that strong and sustained reductions in CO2 would limit climate change and give us a chance to slow warming. With radical wholesale transformation of our political, economic and social systems this could be below 1.5°; however more realistically if we see immediate drastic global reductions in emissions, we could limit warming to below 2°. This means 1.5° is almost certainly locked in.

The news is not good. But we can turn it around!

To even remotely have the chance of achieving these reductions governments globally must take multiple paths to reducing emissions, in global concertation with business, and citizens. A post-extractive economy is most certainly a necessity – that means an end to fossil fuels as the mains source of energy, but also changing the economic system to limit the exploitation and exportation of natural resources (especially from the Global South) for economic growth and wealth accumulation. COP26 in November will be a momentous opportunity for world leaders to leverage on this report for change.

Technology will play an important role in lowering industrial and consumer emissions, but it will not be a silver bullet. The way governments understand and “do” development must change. The argument for relying on extractivist policies heavily based on fossil fuels to raise global development expectations to a universal Westernised standard is redundant. The problem is not just fossil fuels, but all capitalist levels of extractivism of natural resources.

In light of the work that needs to be done there is a strong impetus on looking beyond ‘development’ and ‘sustainable development’ to other decolonised ideas about how we can better approach the transformation needed to slow climate change and its impacts.

We need to ask ourselves and our leaders: is the idea of development now redundant? And, be prepared for hard truths.

The future needs all-hands-on-deck, not just a motivated few. Behavioural change in the world’s most consumerist societies will help us avoid the worst case scenario, as will a realisation of the consequences our disconnection from nature is having on the natural world. Most of all, a positive future needs people everywhere, everyday doing what they can. The next part of this post looks at what that might look like.

Sources:

www.ipcc.ch

Full report

IPCC, 2021: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J. B. R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press.

Summary for Policymakers

IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [MassonDelmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J. B. R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press.