The latest UN assessment on climate change is clear: the time to act is now
Since 1990 the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been producing “assessment reports” every seven years on the state of our planet.
This year 278 scientists from 65 countries produced the 6th assessment report aimed at policymakers. With each publication, the warnings about climate catastrophe get increasingly disquieting. With this last report the concerns are not only alarming but also crystal clear: global temperature rise above 1.5 °C is now “almost inevitable”. However, this “overshoot” can be temporary if governments radically cut greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors.
In its 2018 special report, the IPCC warned about the catastrophic impacts on our planet of 1.5 °C increase above pre-industrial levels. The conclusions challenged the fuzzier goal of the Paris Agreement – the international treaty on climate change – of limiting warming “to well below 2 °C”. The IPCC’s message to governments was that the focus should be on the lower threshold in the Agreement of 1.5 °C to avoid catastrophe.
It is no coincidence that the Fridays for Future movement was born in that same year, inspired by Gretha Thunberg’s school strikes, spreading worldwide. Young people, tired of empty promises from governments, took to the streets emboldened by science and the stern warnings of the IPCC. The European Green Deal was unveiled the following year, chartering Europe’s path to climate neutrality by 2050.
"Increasing arable land has been proposed but this harms biodiversity. If we want to face climate change, we need to have strong biodiversity." pic.twitter.com/OhQ0MgPwuz
— The Left in the European Parliament (@Left_EU) April 4, 2022
Have the actions taken by governments been sufficient?
The IPCC’s 6th assessment report, which is being published in four parts from August 2021 to October 2022, concedes that while steps have been taken to tackle the problem, they have been shy of what is needed to steer us from this destructive course. More ambition and radical action are required to cut greenhouse gas emissions and transition away from fossil fuels.
The first part of the assessment, from August last year, delved into how and why the climate is changing, concluding that human activity has changed the climate in unprecedented and even irreversible ways. Temperatures are now likely to rise above 1.5 °C with catastrophic consequences for people and the planet, as foreseen by the 2018 special report.
The second part of the assessment, released in February, looks at the impact of global warming on humans and the planet, focusing on adaptation. More than 3.5 billion people are highly vulnerable to global warming, and about half of the world’s population suffers severe water shortages. Extreme weather events are becoming more common, with one in three people across the world already exposed to deadly heat stress and a billion people facing coastal flooding by 2050. These changes are likely to have a dramatic impact on food security, with hunger and famines becoming more widespread. The report calls for biodiversity protection and conservation measures for land, freshwater, and oceans.
The latest instalment of the report looks into practical actions, such as reducing the use of fossil fuels, enhancing energy efficiency, and investing in renewables, among others. The report also highlights that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is now unavoidable if we are to reach net zero. There is some hope that technologies for renewables are becoming more affordable and accessible, making the transition within reach if there is political will to do so.
The big question is whether the latest geopolitical developments, triggered by the war in Ukraine, will delay and even undermine progress on climate action. The latest signs indicate this might be the case.
The IPCC criticises the continued use of coal-fired power plants and gas. Nonetheless, last month, the EU Commissioner for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, authorised member states to delay the coal phase-out to avoid Russian gas. At the same time, the EU is multiplying its investments in gas, effectively locking itself in fossil fuel use for decades to come. Against all logic, the EU has even given gas a green label.
Furthermore, the IPPC criticises the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), particularly its investor-state dispute settlement clause, as an obstacle to climate action. As emphasized in the report “Transactions in the energy sector show a high level of investor protection also against much-needed climate action which is also well illustrated by share of claims settled in favour of foreign investors under the Energy Charter Treaty and investor-state dispute settlement.” Nevertheless, the EU continues to engage in negotiations to “modernise” the ECT despite appeals from The Left and civil society groups for a coordinated EU withdrawal from the failed treaty.
The alarming warnings of the climate crisis might no longer make the headlines, but this does not mean it has disappeared. If we continue at this pace, we will be heading straight into climate chaos. It is urgent and essential to step up global mobilisations to hold governments to account for their commitments under the Paris Agreement and demand more radical action to save our planet.