ODI reflections on the IPPC Report

1st September 2021



Climate impacts to date

The first instalment of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report established unequivocally that human influence is having a catastrophic impact on the planet. It concluded that there is no doubt that increased levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are contributing to extreme weather events and changes in seasons and that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.

The planet’s oceans and cold places are being hit particularly hard, with glaciers and ice sheets melting apace. Sea levels have risen by around 20 centimetres since 1901, with the rate of sea level rise accelerating since 1971 and especially since 2006. Heat extremes, heavy precipitation and droughts are increasing in frequency across every region of the world.

What is more, with each additional increment in global warming, extreme weather events become more extreme. The IPCC finds, for example, “every additional 0.5°C of global warming causes clearly discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, including heatwaves (very likely), and heavy precipitation (high confidence), as well as agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions (high confidence).” These findings will come as no surprise to the millions of people who have faced super-cyclones, unprecedented wildfires, heat records or catastrophic droughts in recent years.

Climate impacts going forward

The new report focused on the physical climate system, presenting the consequences of five GHG emissions scenarios. Even the very lowest GHG emission scenario considered by the IPCC would more likely than not see average global temperatures rise to 1.6°C by mid-century before settling toward 1.4°C by the end of the century. As previous IPCC reports have made clear, even global warming limited to this level would still have dire consequences for humanity and nature.

The IPCC’s report also includes the possibility of less likely but certainly catastrophic events that could happen if the world stays on its current trajectory. These include the potential for a massive sea level rise of greater than 1.5m by 2100 under a high emissions scenario. Even if warming is limited to 1.5°C, the report notes that “global mean sea level will rise by 2 to 3 m” over “centuries to millennia”.

Hundreds of millions of people live on land less than 2 metres above sea level, the majority in the tropics. This alarming finding has therefore energised political leaders in these vulnerable areas – especially those from atoll nations and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS), who have adopted the rallying cry ‘1.5 to stay alive’. The high sea levels and more destructive waves, as well as high temperatures and droughts associated with more than 1.5°C of global warming, are considered a critical risk to their future as nations.

Humanity at a crossroads

The latest IPCC report makes clear that we do still have a choice: to cut carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 to try to limit global warming to 1.5°C within this century. Or, to continue to choose higher emissions and face global warming above 2°C – a scenario in which our homes, infrastructure and food and water supply are at risk.

The stark scientific evidence outlined in the IPCC report ought to send political reverberations through the forthcoming global climate change negotiations, COP26, in Glasgow. The Summary for Policy Makers has been approved by governments around the world. Now the talks are in urgent need of invigoration after their pandemic-related postponement from 2020. The IPCC’s report could provide the scientific impetus that is needed.

Stronger climate plans and more climate finance are now needed. The G20 countries are responsible for the vast majority (78%) of today’s greenhouse gas emissions, but several G20 members are still to submit their updated climate action plans, known as the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), to the United Nations. Meanwhile, research by ODI and partners shows that G20 countries have pumped nearly $300 billion into fossil fuels since the pandemic began, compared to around $230 billion for clean energy.

Paying the bill

Many climate-smart options such as solar power, energy-efficient appliances and electric cars are increasingly competitive with high-carbon measures, or even cheaper in today’s markets. However, they may have higher upfront costs, even if they make up for it with lower running costs. Many low- and middle-income countries are struggling to meet these costs, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic squeezes fiscal space.

Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have contributed the least to climate change but are suffering the worst consequences. For this reason, they are redoubling calls for international support for low-carbon development and climate adaptation, plus compensation for climate-related loss and damage.

In 2009, rich nations committed to disburse $100 billion a year by 2020 to low- and middle-income countries to finance climate-smart development. They have fallen short of this target in 2020 and look set to do so again in 2021. ODI research reveals that the most significant shortfall comes from the US, though Australia, Canada, Italy and Spain also need to step up to close the climate finance gap. High-income countries will need to meet their own target to stimulate more ambitious climate commitments from low- and middle-income countries.

The IPCC is a scientific body, not a political one. But its latest findings have urgent political implications. Without rapidly and massively slashing greenhouse gases, humanity faces a much less inhabitable climate. The first instalment of the IPCC sixth assessment report therefore underscores – again – the urgency of action. Now all eyes turn to the next two instalments, due early in 2022, which will illuminate how humanity can mitigate and adapt to the climate emergency.

This article was selected from the CGLN news network.
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