The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) is out and it reiterates what all of us should already know about the dangers of climate change and the routes to effective action.
It also brings key messages into stark relief: first, the world is already at 1.1°C of global warming above pre-industrial times today, and climate-related losses and damages suffered by the most vulnerable people are already widespread.
And second, the world will breach 1.5°C of global warming above pre-industrial times in the next few years. One-point-five is a ‘critical’ threshold acknowledged in the Paris Agreement, beyond which climate change will drive particularly dangerous impacts on societies and ecosystems. Here’s the catch: as the IPCC’s report and people’s lived experience makes clear, the current impacts of 1.1°C of warming are much worse than scientists earlier expected.
Action to mitigate global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions has been lacklustre – and very far short of what’s needed. Now, the IPCC estimates that the 1.5°C threshold will be passed in the early years of the 2030s. As such, the IPCC’s statements have pivoted toward discussing ‘overshoot’. That’s the concept of exceeding 1.5°C but accelerating the use of carbon dioxide removal to bring atmospheric CO2 levels down and restore average warming again to 1.5°C.
This is more than a small matter of ‘fine print’: the IPCC warns that vulnerable systems will be irreversibly damaged and unable to recover, even if we then claw our way back down to 1.5°C. That includes the permanent loss of sensitive, important ecosystems, such as coral reefs.
Third, we already have the means to solve the climate crisis, by drastically reducing emissions in the coming decades through phasing out fossil fuels and curbing harmful land use changes. We do not need to wait for tomorrow’s technology. Cost-effective emissions reductions will be achieved with existing renewable energy technologies, efficiencies in industrial, energy and food systems, and appropriate restoration of ecosystems. All these measures are within reach. Transformations in political motivation and social behaviours are the tougher test.
Fourth, we need political will and greater social equity. The people on lowest incomes and in the most precarious situations face the greatest challenge in surviving climate change impacts and securing safe, dignified futures. They are also the lowest greenhouse gas emitters. Both climate change mitigation – the pursuit of net zero development – and adaptation to the inevitable impacts of climate change ought to be steered by social equity concerns. The greatest welfare gains from climate adaptation investments will be made by reducing scope for further runaway climate change and climate disaster risks in low-income communities, particularly in the Global South, and in informal settlements.
What happens now?
We need to focus on the implications of the IPCC’s findings, and use them as a catapult for truly ambitious climate actions:
Don’t waste time chasing false solutions with unknown risks: fossil fuel phaseout must take centre stage. There is now strong evidence that fossil fuel reserves, including oil and gas, should not be considered ‘transition fuels’ but simply must be kept in the ground while genuinely zero-emission energy alternatives are rolled out. That’s because the global ‘carbon budget’ for limiting warming to 1.5°C does not have space for further fossil fuel exploitation. Making the switch away from fossil fuels has proven challenging for industrialised countries, who have been seen as too slow and hypocritical when they should be leading the transition. Not only domestically but internationally, they must achieve a step change in their financing of a transition to a net-zero, climate-resilient and more socially equitable global economy.
Furthermore, political attention and public finance needs to pivot away from technically questionable solutions. Carbon capture and storage is a case in point – not only is it difficult to achieve in purely geological and practical terms, but it remains to be proven as financially viable at commercial scale. It is often used by the powerful fossil fuel industry and fossil fuel-rich nations as an excuse to justify continued production. The focus must be on proven, scalable solutions such as solar and wind energy, which are already highly cost effective.
Both governments and businesses need to rise faster to the challenge. The role of governments in delivering policies to meet climate ambitions and enable economic transformations is fundamental and it is clear. The IPCC finds that “without a strengthening of policies, global warming of 3.2 [range of 2.2–3.5]°C is projected by 2100 (medium confidence)”. But climate action needs more innovation and leadership from the private sector too. Backed by supportive government policy, business is positioned to drive the revolution in green jobs and sustainable consumption.
In the world of work, green jobs and green enterprise initiatives are slowly emerging (the UN Green Jobs for Youth Pact is a notable one) but they are still far short of the need and opportunity: they especially need to reach women, girls and marginalised groups with prospects for decent, low-carbon and climate-resilient work. Public-private initiatives must consider how skilled labour and those on the move can help meet the urgent labour and skills needs that the climate transformation entails.
Every political vote counts and every purchase can be a vote for the environment. For those of us who can elect our political leaders, we must insist that climate ambition is at the top of the political agenda and choose on this basis. It’s not just a case of voting for pro-environment leaders in elections every few years. In the face of the climate crisis, new democratic innovations are emerging that hold promise: like country platforms for climate action to represent diverse stakeholder concerns, and citizen committees. We can learn from and continue to improve on these.
Likewise, for those of us with consumer choices, we can make every euro and yuan, dollar and rupee count for the planet in large and small transactions every day. There’s little choice for those who are struggling to pay their food, shelter or energy bills due to poverty or poor services. But for those who can choose, we can be voting ‘for’ or ‘against’ the planet every day. And it’s everyone’s right and responsibility to press for inclusive, sustained collective action, to help protect our planet and future generations. (Mairi Dupar/ODI)