Understanding the latest IPCC report on climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today released the first comprehensive assessment of scientific knowledge about the threat to the environment from humans since 2013. Like thousands of other people around the world, I watched the livestream of the press conference, as members of the Panel presented the findings of the report. Here is what stood out most for me.

The IPCC Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, is intended to provide research, information and guidance to policymakers around the world, to influence and support their decisions, primarily on policies around emissions reductions and targets.

The last report was released in 2013 and since then, there have been important advances in climate science worldwide. According to the Panel, today we have the clearest picture of how the earth’s climate functions and how human activities affect it.

The report has to be approved and accepted by the Panel before it’s released, and this year was the first time in IPCC history that the approval session was held virtually, due to the pandemic. It was also a session that had the largest participation of delegates in the Panel’s history.

Before I take you through the key points from the report and press conference, I wanted to first share a bit about the IPCC.

What is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?

Since 1988, the IPCC has been providing governments and policymakers at all levels with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies. The Panel’s reports are a vital element in international climate change negotiations.

The IPCC is an organisation of governments that are members of the United Nations or World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). The Panel currently has 195 members, but thousands of people from all over the world contribute to its work.

IPCC reports

For reports like the one released today, IPCC scientists volunteer their time to assess thousands of scientific papers published each year, to provide a comprehensive summary of what is known about the drivers of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and how adaptation and mitigation can reduce those risks.

Each report is said to be open, transparent, objective and complete, and is reviewed by experts and governments around the world. The IPCC does not conduct its own research, rather its assessments identify the strength of scientific agreement in different areas and indicate where further research is needed.

So, for example, in the Climate Change 2021 report, 14,000 scientific publications were assessed and 234 authors from 65 countries were involved (28% women, 72% men).

Then there is the review process. Climate Change 2021 received more than 78,000 review comments (each of which were addressed) and 46 countries commented on the final report.

So, it’s a hefty piece of work!

IPCC Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis

It was very clear from the presentation of this year’s report in today’s press conference that climate change is here now. That governments must make the climate crisis a priority. We need to decarbonise faster. We need to restore natural systems and draw down on carbon.

Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said at the conference that every business, investor and citizen needs to play their part. She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that this generation of political and business leaders and conscious citizens CAN make things right, by making the systemic changes needed to stop the planet warming, and by creating a world of peace, prosperity and equity.

The IPCC report expands our knowledge of attribution of climate change, including the human contribution to extreme weather events. It has three core findings, none of which will come as a surprise:

  1. It is indisputable (90% likely) that human activities are causing climate change and making extreme weather events more frequent and severe.
  2. Climate Change is affecting every region on our planet.
  3. Reduction in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is required to limit global warming.

So, what does this all actually mean for humanity and the natural world?

As we learned in the press conference, in each of the last four decades, temperatures have increased, as have levels of CO2, which are the highest they have been in at least two million years; the sea level has risen at its fastest rate in at least three thousand years; the area of arctic sea ice is the lowest it’s been in at least the last thousand years; while glaciers are retreating at a rate that’s unprecedented in at least two thousand years.

Climate change is contributing to increases in extreme heat that are more frequent and more intense. It is also contributing to an increase in heavy rainfall that leads to flooding, but also to increasing drought. These changes affect plants and animals as well as people – for example, the growing season for plants has lessened, which directly affects agriculture and the very food we eat.

We are seeing more dry, hot and windy conditions leading to wildfires. The ocean is warming, acidifying and losing oxygen, affecting ocean life and the people who depend on it.

Have we lost hope?

Petteri Taalas, the head of the World Meteorological Organisation, asked the rhetorical question “have we lost hope?” and the answer was no, and yes. He said we still have the opportunity to stop negative climate change by stabilising temperatures at 1.5’C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, but the fact is that at current levels, we are heading towards 3’C warming in that time instead.

In fact, we are set to pass 1.5’C warming by 2040 – less than 20 years away. Every additional half degree of warming would cause increases in extreme weather, and at 2’C of global warming, we would reach thresholds for agriculture and human health. So that means, the changes we have been experiencing or have seen making headlines almost every day – fires, droughts, floods – these will increase with further warming.

There is good news… kind of…

Although the current levels of warming are irreversible, they can be slowed down by rapid reductions in greenhouse emissions.

CO2 is the key greenhouse gas driving change and this comes from the burning of fossil fuels. If we stop burning fossil fuels, we will reduce carbon emissions.

There is a near-linear relationship between the cumulative amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from human activities and the increasing temperatures. As was said in the press conference – this is physics! If we rapidly decrease greenhouse gas emissions, we CAN keep global warming below 2’C and global temperatures would gradually decline by the end of the century, but every additional tonne of CO2 emissions adds to global warming.

CO2 is the dominant greenhouse gas, so reducing CO2 is vital, but strong reductions in other greenhouse gases are also needed. Methane reductions and air pollution controls would benefit the climate and air quality.

Some changes are long-lasting – such as the changes to ocean temperatures and the cryosphere (the frozen water part of the Earth system). These changes will continue for centuries or thousands of years.

So in summary, it IS possible to limit future warming, within a few decades, but this depends on the decisions of policymakers NOW.

Climate adaption needs to happen

Besides climate mitigation, it is essential that policymakers pay attention to climate adaptation, as the impact of the damage that’s already been done will continue for decades or even thousands of years, so humanity needs resources and tools in place to manage that and survive.

Perhaps this is the most important point of it all and it wasn’t made loudly enough. The extreme weather that we are experiencing across the world right now – the fires, the floods, the droughts – is here to stay. This is the new normal. The damage has been done, it is irreversible. We can only mitigate it getting worse, and put measures in place to protect the people, animals and environment in the areas around that world that are already feeling the greatest effects of the impact of climate change.

Ok, deep breath.

What can WE do?

The message is clear. Policymakers need to stop relying on fossil fuels NOW, raise the level of mitigation and pay attention to climate adaptation.

Climate Change 2021 is a “Toolbox for negotiators as they consider their level of ambition for COP26.” COP26 will be a critical milestone. It’s being held in Glasgow in Scotland on 31 October – 12 November 2021 and by then, our leaders MUST have firm plans in action to slow down global warming.

What we can do is demand that our local, national and global policymakers make this a priority. That your vote depends on it.

Write, tweet, call, meet with your local MP. Cite information, facts and evidence from this report.

Write to your local newspaper to the same effect. Sign petitions. Attend peaceful protests. Become an activist. Keep sharing the facts.

Keep talking to friends and family about the science, the evidence, the action. It’s not about fear mongering – I think we are scared enough already! It’s about taking action in any way we can, and encouraging those you love to do the same. It’s a rally cry.

Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, summed it up well when asked a question in the press conference about the report not having enough drama in it. She said (and I paraphrase again): “As citizens, businesses and governments, we are well aware of the drama. The expression of what the science says is exhibited before our very eyes. The report projects these scenarios outwards and says if we do or do not take action, this is what the various outcomes will be.”

As Greta Thunberg tweeted about the report: “It doesn’t tell us what to do. It is up to us to be brave and take decisions based on the scientific evidence provided in these reports. We can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis like a crisis.”

I encourage everyone to do their own reading and research on the report. These are just my takeaways from the press conference and there is lots more to learn.

Please do send us your thoughts, questions and comments. We love hearing from you. For now, stay safe and keep positive.

You can watch the Instagram Live with me on this topic here.

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Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (weareearthcollective.com), and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

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