By Shawna Healey
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC, is an intergovernmental United Nations body formed in 1988 that is dedicated to providing the world with an objective, scientific view of climate change, and its political and economic impacts. At its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, it is chaired by Dr. Hoesung Lee, professor in the economics of climate change, energy and sustainable development in the Graduate School of Energy, Policy and Technology in South Korea.
It’s important to note that the IPCC doesn’t carry out research or testing, or collect and collate data. The IPCC, which is a collective of experts from around the world, synthesises the most recent developments in climate change, adaption, vulnerability, and mitigation every five to seven years. Governments request these reports through an intergovernmental process, and the content is deliberately policy-relevant, but steers clear of any policy-prescriptive statements. This means that the reports are relevant to specific countries’ policies surrounding climate change and sustainability, but the IPCC do not decide these policies. Government representatives work with experts to produce the “summary for policymakers” (SPM) that highlights the most critical developments in language accessible to the world’s political leaders.
On the 8th of October 2018, the IPCC released a SPM on the impacts of global warming 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, warning that we have just twelve years to limit climate change catastrophe. This report was commissioned in 2016 following the Paris Agreement. Since then, the dissonance between politics and scientific findings has widened, due especially to countries such as the USA, with Trump downplaying the importance of combating climate change by promising to withdraw the USA from the agreement, despite the fact that the nation contributes the most significantly to CO2 emissions globally. The Paris Agreement, adopted by 195 nations at the 21st Conference of the Parties at the UNFCCC in December 2015, included the aim of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change by “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” 91 authors and review editors from 40 countries prepared this report with more than 6,000 scientific references cited, and thousands of contributions from dedicated experts and government reviewers worldwide.
The report focuses on the potential for the mitigation of climate change. The IPCC states that the planet will reach the crucial threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, precipitating the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people. The report says that, while technically possible, counteracting climate change would require widespread changes to energy, industry, building construction, transportation and city planning on a global scale. Andrew King, a lecturer at Melbourne University, states that: “The window on keeping global warming below 1.5°C is closing rapidly, and the current emissions pledges made by signatories to the Paris Agreement do not add up to us achieving that goal.”
The IPCC has upgraded the risk warnings from previous reports, and states that every bit of additional climate change could worsen the impact. The report highlights a number of effects of climate change that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C: “Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems.” For example, the likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with global warming of 2°C. Additionally, with climate change limited to 1.5°C, coral reefs will decline by 70-90%, whereas virtually all coral reefs – up to 99% – would be lost at 2°C.
The IPCC states that “Limiting global warming would also give people and ecosystems more room to adapt and remain below relevant risk thresholds.” The report examines four pathways available to limit warming to 1.5°C, what it would take to achieve them, and what the consequences could be. They all include reforestation as a key element to reducing the impacts of climate change, but also include different combinations of land use management and technological change. The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.
The report also explores how different global communities would be affected by a 2°C rise in climate change, compared to 1.5°C. At 1.5°C, the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress could be 50% lower than at 2°C. Additionally, food scarcity would be considerably less of a problem, and hundreds of millions fewer people, particularly in less economically developed countries, would be affected by climate change related poverty. Sea levels will also increase and affect ten million more people by 2100 if the climate rises by 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Oceans today are already suffering at the mercy of climate change from elevated acidity and reduction in oxygen. The report also states that temperatures during summer heatwaves, such as those just experienced across Europe this summer, can be expected to increase by 3°C. More frequent or intense droughts, such as the one which nearly ran the taps completely dry in Cape Town, South Africa, as well as more frequent extreme rainfall events such as hurricanes Harvey and Florence in the United States, are also pointed to as expectations as we reach the global warming threshold.
As the report makes clear, climate change is a real and considerable threat to our planet, but with global effort, we still have time to undo some of the damage and preserve the world we live in for future generations.