Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a landmark report outlining the latest scientific assessment of the likely impact of climate change, the first such assessment for eight years. Highly anticipated, it comes less than 100 days before COP26 and as a forerunner, paints a decidedly gloomy picture.
The report makes clear that whatever we do to tackle climate change, the world is now on a dangerous path. The earth has already warmed by 1.1 degrees from pre-industrial levels. The past decade was hotter than any previous one in the last 125,000 years. Extreme weather events are already here to stay and will become ever more frequent, with a twice in a century heatwave is now likely to occur every six years.
Sea levels are now rising 0.1 inch every year and global mean seas level has risen faster in 20th century than in any other century for the last 3000 years. In 2011-20 Artic Sea ice reached its lowest level since 1850 and is now smaller than at any time in the last 1000 years.
Worse is to come. In all scenarios modelled by the IPCC, the world will be subject to 1.5 degrees warming in the early 2030s and will reach 2 degrees later in the 21st Century without dramatic reductions in global emissions kicking in immediately. This will worsen the incidence of extreme whether events, but also risk the earth reaching “tipping points” from which there is little hope of turning back.
But there is also hope. For the first time, the IPCC concludes that there is still a good chance of keeping warming at or below 1.5 degrees if the world can achieve swift emission reductions by 2030 and reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. While this will rely on thus unproven carbon-removal technology, it is possible to stabilise global temperatures, significantly mitigating the long-term impacts of manmade climate change. In other words, acting now will pay off.
While the IPCC tries to avoid prescribing solutions, the challenging data it has produced will serve as a universal critique of global climate action to date, as well as a direct rebuttal to those who have criticised it for overestimating the short-term impact of climate change in the past. Whether they say so or not, IPCC have thrown the gauntlet back to national Governments, business and policymakers to act now, before it’s too late.
This major intervention by the IPCC comes at a critical moment. Momentum heading into COP26 in November has slowed. The UK Presidency has been buffeted by a range of headwinds in recent months, including the difficulties of running complex international negotiations virtually and a series of domestic policy challenges that have negated its ability to convince others to take effective action, such as the decision to cut overseas development aid. Something needs to change for COP26 to have any chance of bending the curve on climate change.
The stark assessment offers Boris Johnson and Alok Sharma a much-needed piece of collateral to convince other nations that they must up their game ahead of the Glasgow Summit. Despite the US coming back into the fold since the arrival of the Biden administration, there has been little evidence that major emitters are thus far willing to do more. There is particular focus on China given it is now responsible for 27% of global emissions and other laggards tend to follow China’s lead when negotiations reach a crunch point.
The hope in government circles is that the IPCC analysis puts renewed pressure on those countries who are yet to submit more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, namely China, India and Brazil. The IPCC points to the damage already baked in by 1.5 degrees of warming, let alone warming far beyond that level which would occur under the current set of NDCs. The IPCC backs up the UK’s argument that there is a moral case for acting given extreme drought, flooding, and sea-level rises will impact emerging markets first and foremost.
There is no guarantee that the new analysis shifts the diplomatic dial sufficiently. The UK Presidency still faces significant challenges, with all eyes now turning to the United Nations General Assembly in September to turn scientific data into firm political action. The report fires the starting gun on what could prove a defining few months for the global climate agenda.
The impacts of the latest intervention by the IPCC goes beyond international diplomacy. Given the gap in international ambition, businesses will also come under greater scrutiny on the actions they are taking. This includes a renewed legal dimension – IPCC analysis is often cited in climate change related litigation which is becoming an increasing trend as civil society pushes companies to do more.
The moral dynamic of the climate agenda also puts renewed focus on the private sector to play its role in supporting developing nations to prepare and adapt to the impact of climate change. The $100bn in climate finance promised to emerging markets has not been forthcoming. With global asset managers talking up their ESG credentials, scientists, politicians and NGOs are entitled to ask how much of it is truly being put to good use in helping countries mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change.
The IPCC report also make clear that the impact of climate change is now permanent, regardless of whether we can limit warming to 1.5 degrees. This means that the need to urgently identify, measure and manage climatic risks is becoming more pressing, with financial markets and national regulators expecting firms to be doing far more. More ambitious corporate decarbonisation targets are now just a minimum requirement, with the expectation being that companies will have detailed action plans to deliver rapid emission cuts over the next decade.
As time ticks down to COP26, the IPCC report is an invaluable reminder of what all the green hype is really about. It will raise the stakes internationally for the UK Presidency as they seek to make tangible progress ahead of November, but also add fuel to the debate as to whether the private sector is up to the scale of the challenge. There is little more that the science can tell us. If the world doesn’t act now, it likely never will.
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