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World’s climate plans won’t keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees - major UN report

Humanity can still prevent the worst-case climate scenarios – but we need to act now, the IPCC has confirmed.

LAST UPDATE | Mar 20th 2023, 3:51 PM

COUNTRIES’ CURRENT CLIMATE promises will likely not be sufficient to prevent temperatures from warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to a leading climate science body.

The amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are expected by 2030 under countries’ Paris Agreement plans make it likely that global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees during the 21st century and make it harder to keep it below 2 degrees – thresholds that the world faces staying within or being hit by major adverse impacts of climate change.

However, there is a wide range of feasible and effective options available to countries to reduce emissions, a major new UN report has confirmed.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a United Nations body that publishes reports written by hundreds of scientists – is releasing today what is perhaps its most important publication in nearly a decade.

How are rising temperatures affecting the earth’s climate system, and how will it be affected in the future? What are the impacts for humans, animals and nature? Who will be hit the worst – and crucially, what can we do to stop it?

These are among the questions that the research addresses in the IPPC’s synthesis report of its sixth assessment cycle (AR6).

Over the last several years, the IPCC has published a three-part series on the physical science of climate change; impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and mitigation.

Today’s report brings all of the evidence from the three parts together, as well as additional special reports on oceans, land, and global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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Climate change is already disrupting people’s lives in multiple ways across various regions of the world, the report makes clear.

Human activities have “unequivocally” caused global temperatures to rise, primarily by emitting greenhouse gases. It is also “unequivocal” that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.

Global surface temperatures were nearly 1.1 degrees higher in the decade from 2011-2020 than they were in the second half of the 19th century.

Least developed countries and small island developing states produce far lower emissions per capita than the global average, the report says. Between 34% to 45% of emissions caused by households worldwide are because of just 10% of households, while the bottom 50% contribute only 13% to 15%.

“Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected,” the report outlines, identifying that between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people live in circumstances that make them highly vulnerable to climate change.

In nature, climate change has already caused “substantial damages” and an increasing level of “irreversible losses” to ecosystems.

Although adaptation (putting in safeguards against adverse impacts of climate change) plans and measures have progressed, gaps still exist in implementation – and limits to adaptation have already been reached in some ecosystems and regions of the world.

“Current global financial flows for adaptation are insufficient for, and constrain implementation of, adaptation options, especially in developing countries,” the report says.

Similarly, policies and laws for mitigation (reducing emissions) have expanded in the decade since the IPCC’s last synthesis report, but countries’ collective plans for 2030 make it likely that temperatures will rise by more than 1.5°C during the 21st century and make it harder to limit warming below 2°C.

Without sufficient action, the risks and predicted impacts, losses and damages from climate change “escalate” with every increment of global warming, and will interact to create “compound and cascading” risks that are more complex and difficult to manage.

In the near term, every region in the world is projected to face further increases in climate hazards, increasing multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.”

In the short term, likely hazards and risks include:

  • an increase in heat-related human mortality and morbidity,
  • food-borne, water-borne, and vector-borne diseases and mental health challenges,
  • flooding in coastal and other low-lying cities and regions,
  • biodiversity loss in land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems,
  • and a decrease in food production in some regions.

But the IPCC is clear that there are still many actions that can be taken to reduce and even prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

The report identifies several mitigation options that are “technically viable” and are “becoming increasingly cost effective and are generally supported by the public”, including:

  • solar energy,
  • wind energy,
  • electrification of urban systems,
  • urban green infrastructure,
  • energy efficiency,
  • demand-side management,
  • improved forest- and crop/grassland management,
  • and reduced food waste and loss.

The panel is releasing today both its full synthesis report and a much shorter summary for policymakers. Scientists and diplomats held long meetings over the last week to finalise the summary for policymakers, which requires agreement from all member governments.

‘Textbook for addressing climate change’

Opening the conference on the report in the lakeside Swiss city of Interlaken, IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said that the report “will become a fundamental policy document for shaping climate action in the remainder of this pivotal decade”.

“For policymakers of today and tomorrow, [it is] a much-needed textbook for addressing climate change. Make no mistake, inaction and delays are not listed as options,” he said.

“Our reports, including the synthesis report, are solution-oriented. They clearly show that humanity has the know-how and the technology to tackle human-induced climate change.

“But not only that – they show that we have the capacity to build a much more prosperous, inclusive and equitable society in this process.

“Tackling climate change is a hard, complex and enduring challenge for generations. We, the scientific community, spell out the facts of disheartening reality, but we also point to the prospects of hope through concerted, genuine and global transformational change.”

Responding to the report, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said countries must “hit the fast-forward button” on their targets to reach net-zero emissions, telling wealthy countries to commit to net-zero by 2040.

Currently, Ireland and the EU as a whole are aiming to get emissions to net-zero ten years later than that in 2050. Some have more ambitious targets in place, such as Finland (2035) and Germany (2045).

The report comes before an important ‘stocktake’ of global progress on climate later this year in the years since the 2015 Paris Agreement, when countries agreed to take steps to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees and to aim to stay within 1.5.

The Global Stocktake will assess the collective progress that countries have made towards achieving the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement, looking at mitigation, adaptation and implementation means (such as finance and technology).

 ‘Urgent need to decarbonise’

The chairperson of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council, an independent body tasked with advising the government on climate issues, raised Ireland’s shortcomings to date in climate action.

“I remain concerned that a significant acceleration of existing and planned actions is required for Ireland to achieve its legally binding targets in full and on time,” said Marie Donnelly, the council’s chair and former Director for Renewables at the European Commission.

“There is an urgent need to decarbonise our economy and society through climate change mitigation while taking account of impacts on the economy, society and environment while ensuring a just transition. Every reduction in emissions in Ireland will make a difference.”

She said that Ireland is “not sufficiently prepared to adapt to the levels of climate change which we are currently experiencing”.

“Much of our infrastructure was built to cope with the climate of the mid-20th century, and therefore significant efforts are required to ensure resilience to the changed climate of the 21st century. Failure to urgently address these issues will magnify future costs and risks to society.

“There are significant opportunities to take actions that both reduce our emissions and build our resilience to these changes. These actions typically have significant co-benefits for health, air quality and biodiversity. The time to act is now.”

Interested in climate issues? Sign up for Temperature Check, The Journal’s monthly climate newsletter.

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