Without urgent, effective and equitable mitigation, climate change increasingly threatens the health and livelihoods of people around the globe, ecosystem health and biodiversity, but current policies are inconsistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the UN body responsible for climate science, today released the Synthesis Report, the final report of the sixth assessment cycle (AR6 SYR). The report said the physical impacts of climate change are causing substantial damages and, in some cases, irreversible losses. People in every part of the world are suffering the physical and mental health impacts of climate change, but a storm, drought or flood is 15 times more likely to kill people in the most vulnerable regions.
The report captured the latest findings from the three AR6 working group reports and the three preceding Special Reports and covered the current status of, and trends in climate change, near-term responses between 2030-2040 and long-term climate and development impacts. It will be several years before the world will hear from IPCC again as it closes this cycle of reports. The AR6 reports have clearly defined the goals humanity as a whole needs to achieve this decade and the threats that loom large otherwise.
According to the report, climate change is making extreme heat, heavy rain, drought and fires more intense and frequent. Rising temperatures are causing mass loss of ice sheets, glaciers and snow cover, driving sea-level rise, ocean acidification and intense tropical cyclones. The report said human actions have warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the past 2,000 years and the last decade was the warmest decade for 125,000 years.
Economic harm and cascading impacts
The effects of climate change are not limited to extreme weather events alone. The report said the changing climate is causing economic harm, particularly affecting agriculture, fisheries, forestry, tourism and labour productivity of outdoor workers. Extreme events like tropical cyclones are reducing short-term economic growth.
Extreme events have had cascading impacts — wildfires have harmed nature, people, infrastructure and the economy. Economies and societies beyond borders are threatened, while supply chains and natural resource flows are disrupted by extreme events driven by climate change.
Heat extremes are causing mass animal and plant deaths, and widespread deterioration of ecosystems. The report estimated that there will be significant increases in ill-health, premature death and the spread of disease as a result of more extreme weather and heatwaves. Water and food availability will also come under increasing pressure as the world warms. This shows that hard limits to adaptation could be reached with continued temperature rise, where no amount of adaptation can prevent intolerable risks.
The report said the impacts of climate change will increasingly interact with each other and with other risks, with progressively dangerous consequences. For example, increased heat and drought will combine to harm food production and reduce agricultural labour productivity, in turn increasing food prices and reducing farmers’ incomes, triggering more malnutrition and death, particularly in tropical regions.
In addition to that, extinction risk for unique and threatened species will be at least 10 times higher if temperature rise continues to 3°C, compared to 1.5°C, but even at this lower level of warming, 3%-14% of terrestrial species will be at very high risk of extinction.
Need to cut reliance on fossil fuels and fight misinformation
Mentioning that GHG emissions have increased dramatically since pre-industrial times, the report said that emissions were higher between 2010-2019 than in any previous decade. Of the GHGs, CO2 has contributed the most to recorded warming to date, followed by methane.
In 2019, coal contributed to 33% of all human-related CO2 emissions, followed by oil (29%) and gas (18%). Public and private finance continue to flow into fossil fuels and, as a result, GHG emissions continue to rise across all sectors and subsectors, and most rapidly in transport and industry. Between 2019-2020, investment in fossil fuels was greater than that for climate adaptation and mitigation. In the power sector, fossil fuel-related investment was, on average, $120 billion a year. An average of $650 billion was invested in the oil supply and $100 billion in coal supply. In comparison, actual global public finance for adaptation was $46 billion.
The report also mentioned concerted efforts to generate rhetoric and misinformation that undermine climate science and disregard risk and urgency. Despite scientific certainty of the anthropogenic influence on climate change, misinformation and politicisation of climate change science has created polarisation in public and policy domains.
Window of opportunity closing in and need for better adaptation
The report warned that national commitments made by governments prior to COP26 are inconsistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, and are likely to lead to global warming of 2.8°C by 2100. Even in the most ambitious emissions reduction scenario, it is more likely than not that global warming will reach 1.5°C by 2030 and overshoot to 1.6°C, before dropping back down.
Adaptation is currently insufficient to reduce risks from climate change. The report estimated that most adaptation so far has been fragmented, small-scale, incremental and responsive to current impacts and near-term risks. The shortage of international finance for adaptation is preventing countries across the world from adapting to climate change. The report also warned against poorly executed adaptation that can cause serious problems and perpetuate existing inequalities, particularly when it focuses on single sectors, single risks or prioritises short-term gains.
The report appreciated the sustained decreases in the unit costs of solar energy (85%), wind energy (55%) and lithium-ion batteries (85%), and large increases in their deployment between 2010–2019. Citing evidence of climate policy beginning to have a positive real-world impact on emissions reductions, the report mentioned that at least 18 countries have now sustained production-based GHG and consumption-based CO2 emissions reductions for more than 10 years.
However, people who have contributed the least to the existing climate crisis are likely to be the most vulnerable and least able to adapt. The report said there are mitigation options available in all sectors that could, together, halve global GHG emissions by 2030.