A new IPCC report suggests that the world is completely off track when it comes to limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius — instead, we’re more likely to go towards 3 degrees. The window isn’t shut just yet, but we need to act now, otherwise, the worldwide damage would be massive.
The world is heating up. We can put our heads in the sand all we want, but the fact is temperatures are rising as a result of us burning CO2 — and it’s time to act. Three years ago, in Paris, world leaders made a necessary first step: they agreed to take measures to limit at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. They even snuck in the more ambitious goal of sticking to 1.5C. While many rightfully feel that the Paris Agreement is not nearly enough and we need much more ambitious actions, it was still a critical step in the right direction. Finally, it seemed that the world had come together to tackle climate change. But in the three years that have passed, politicians have not brought about that much change. This is where the new report comes in.
The 33-page report titled ‘Summary for Policymakers’ was published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific and intergovernmental body that provides a scientific view of climate change and its political and economic impacts. The IPCC is essentially the leading body monitoring climate change research, which they use to provide recommendations to policymakers.
The picture this report paints is essentially saying that our planet is feverish because of us, and we need massive investments to curb this heating.
“Scientists might want to write in capital letters, ‘ACT NOW, IDIOTS,’ but they need to say that with facts and numbers,” said Kaisa Kosonen, of Greenpeace, who was an observer at the negotiations. “And they have.”
We must try and stick to 1.5C
Although the report bears clear scars of political interference, it still makes a few clear and undiluted points. Among them, it urges leaders to understand that there’s a huge difference between 1.5C and 2C, and we need to aim for the former, not the latter.
“The first is that limiting warming to 1.5C brings a lot of benefits compared with limiting it to two degrees. It really reduces the impacts of climate change in very important ways,” said Prof Jim Skea, who co-chairs the IPCC.
“The second is the unprecedented nature of the changes that are required if we are to limit warming to 1.5C – changes to energy systems, changes to the way we manage land, changes to the way we move around with transportation.”
A 2C warming would likely destroy around 13% of the world’s ecosystems, it would drive coral reefs essentially extinct, and cause dramatic risk for a massive number of animal and insect species. The Arctic would be completely ice-free once or twice a decade, and for most humans, summer temperatures would simply be unbearably hot. By the end of the century, the situation would likely escalate to a full-blown disaster — and considering the scale of things, the end of the century is really not that far off.
If we manage to stick to 1.5C, that risk would be halved. But according to current projections, we’ll reach 1.5C by 2030. This seemingly small difference of a half a degree is absolutely huge. The world is already 1C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and we’re already seeing the effects.
“It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts. “This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.”
A half of degree
The one good thing the report highlights is that we still can remain in the 1.5C warming interval — but we need massive investments, from both governments and individuals, and we need them as soon as possible.
The core of the action is transitioning to renewable energy. A 1.5C scenario requires us to generate around 75-80% of our energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. We also need to expand reforestation efforts, to take advantage of trees’ ability to suck out carbon out of the air. This, however, requires 2.5% of global gross domestic product (GDP), the value of all goods and services produced, for two decades, something which most governments don’t seem convinced to invest in.
Even so, this would still require us to develop technologies to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely underground by the end of the century. This technology is already in its nascent stages, and there’s a good chance it will be developed in a few decades, given proper investments.
The big problem, of course, is the 2.5% GDP figure. However, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re not talking about sending money down the drain. There’s a good chance that much of that figure will be gained back by avoiding damage caused by climate-related events such as droughts and hurricanes. There’s actually a very good chance that we will get a return on this investment.
“Every extra tonne of carbon that we dump into the atmosphere today is a tonne that will have to be scrubbed out at the end of the century,” says Myles Allen, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford, UK, and one of the lead authors of the report.
“I think we need to start a debate about who is going to pay for it, and whether it’s right for the fossil-fuel industry and its customers to be enjoying the benefits today and expecting the next generation to pay for cleaning it up,” Allen says.
Globally, 2.5% of GDP is a huge sum, and as Allen hints, no one will likely want to pay for it — even though, at the end of the day, we all have a lot to gain from it. We just need to convince policymakers to act on it. But it’s not just politicians that need to act.
What all of us can do
The problem of climate change can seem overwhelming. Here’s a huge problem that requires international, large-scale cooperation, and we’re all just one person. But each and every one of us can still make a big difference, as the IPCC report also highlights. We all have the power to change things. Dr. Debra Roberts, the IPCC’s other co-chair, explains:
“That’s a very empowering message for the individual,” she said. “This is not about remote science; it is about where we live and work, and it gives us a cue on how we might be able to contribute to that massive change, because everyone is going to have to be involved.”
“You might say you don’t have control over land use, but you do have control over what you eat and that determines land use. We can choose the way we move in cities and if we don’t have access to public transport – make sure you are electing politicians who provide options around public transport.”
Some simple lifestyle measures include:
buying and eating less meat, particularly beef;
buying and eating less cheese and butter;
eating more locally sourced foods;
wasting less food;
driving an electric or hybrid car;
using public transportation, biking, or walking;
using videoconferences instead of business travel;
using a washing line instead of a tumbling dryer;
demanding clean energy and low-carbon in every product we consume.
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.