The special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C, just issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, has gotten lots of media attention—which is very good news. It confirms the credibility and the scientific reputation of the IPCC, and the importance that the majority people attach to the issue of climate change.
Much of the information set out in the IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers has been reported and analyzed before in documents published by the UN Environment Program (for instance, the Emissions Gap Reports), and in many other reports by environmental organizations—but the IPCC gets much more international media coverage than these UN agencies and NGOs, which is why their publications are so important.
The IPCC report is scrupulously careful to avoid the slightest charge of exaggeration. Every statement is calibrated in terms of the confidence the IPCC authors have in its veracity—to the point where it is sometimes a struggle to get to the real meaning of what the report is saying. But the essential key messages of the report are crystal clear: global warming is caused by human activities; it is happening now; and the environmental impacts will only get worse unless governments take immediate and forceful action to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases–predominantly carbon dioxide, but also methane and the air pollution caused by black carbon.
The outlook is bleak. If things continue as they are, the climate will keep warming–reaching 1.5°C above preindustrial levels within about 12 years. Even at this level of global warming, the report makes clear that the impact on the global environment will be increasingly severe—much worse than it is now. Extreme heat, wildfires, and catastrophic storms will be the norm.
The impact on ecosystems is the most alarming. At 1.5°C of warming, 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates are likely to lose their geographic range. At 2°C of warming these numbers double. Marine species will migrate to higher latitudes and the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture at lower latitudes will decline. Coral reefs are especially badly hit: declining by 70-90% at 1.5°C of warming with close to total loss if global temperatures rise further. This scenario will cause almost insurmountable problems for the food security of many small island states.
The commitments made by the countries that signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases are not enough. On its present track, the world is heading towards 3 degrees of global warming by the end of the century. It is not an exaggeration to say that that world will be almost unrecognizable. Coastal cities, submerged by sea level rise and uninhabitable, will have been abandoned—causing massive social and economic problems as nations struggle to adapt to accommodating more people on a smaller land area. Population density will trend inexorably upwards. Large countries will find a way to manage; for small island states in the tropics the future is grim.
Is there a way to avoid these disaster scenarios?
There is. The technology to solve these problems has been around for decades. The three economic sectors that generate most of the greenhouse gases: electricity generation, transportation, and industry can each transition towards energy than comes from technologies that emit almost no carbon into the atmosphere. Apart from hydropower, these technologies were always too expensive. This is no longer the case.
Solar photovoltaic energy, wind farms, and hydropower can provide all the energy the world needs without generating a gram of carbon. These technologies are cost-competitive now, and are already beginning to replace fossil fuels.
A future path?
The IPCC reports sets out several pathways to limiting global warming to 1.5°C. They all require the rapid and widespread deployment of renewable energy technologies, and the phasing out of coal—which drops to almost zero by 2050. The UK and most of Europe are quite a way down these pathways. In North America, we are pretty much at the starting gate.
In the US, President Trump continues to pretend that climate change isn’t a problem, and is incrementally strengthening the capture of federal regulatory agencies by people with ties to the fossil fuel companies. It will be left to states like California and Hawaii to show how the transition to 100 percent renewable energy can be accomplished.
In Canada, climate change policy is in complete disarray. The federal carbon tax is being opposed by the premiers of several provinces who almost echo Donald Trump in their opposition to putting a price on carbon emissions.
The IPCC report is a loud wakeup call to the world that we need to move faster, more urgently, and more effectively to transition to net zero emissions of greenhouse gases. But this can only happen if politicians and policymakers forcefully lead the way. In Canada and the US, there are few signs that this is going to happen soon.
For more information check out:
The IPCC report (Global warming of 1.5C : Summary for policymakers) can be accessed at http://ipcc.ch/report/sr15/
An excellent review and summary of the IPCC report has been published by World Resources Institute. Find it at : https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/10/8-things-you-need-know-about-ipcc-15-c-report?
The Emissions Gap Report 2017 can be accessed at : https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22070/EGR_2017.pdf