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Climate change ‘unequivocal’ and ‘unprecedented,’ says new U.N. report

Humans are unequivocally warming the planet, and that’s triggering rapid changes in the atmosphere, oceans and polar regions and increasing extreme weather around the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns in a new report.

The IPCC released the first part of its much anticipated Sixth Assessment Report on August 9, 2021. In it, 234 scientists from around the globe summarised the current climate research on how the Earth is changing as temperatures rise and what those changes will mean for the future.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

What are the IPCC report’s most important overall messages ?

As a result of human activities, the planet is changing at a rate unprecedented for at least thousands of years. These changes are affecting every area of the planet.

While some of the changes will be irreversible for millennia, some can be slowed and others reversed through strong, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

But time is running out to meet the ambitious goal laid out in the 2015 international Paris Agreement to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels (2°C equals 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Doing so requires getting global carbon dioxide emissions on a downward course that reaches net zero around or before 2050.

One should definitely read the Hard truths of Climate Change given in the PDF and realize where we are going ahead in the era of globalization where the need of hour is sustainable development.

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Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

What are scientists most concerned about right now when it comes to the oceans and polar regions?

Global sea level has been rising at an accelerating rate since about 1970 and over the last century, it has risen more than in any century in at least 3,000 years.

In the years since the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2013 and the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate in 2018, the evidence for accelerating ice sheet loss has become clearer.

Over the last decade, global average sea level has risen at a rate of about 4 millimeters per year (1.5 inches per decade). This increase is due to two main factors: the melting of ice in mountain glaciers and at the poles, and the expansion of water in the ocean as it takes up heat.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Ice sheets in particular are primarily responsible for the increase in the rate of sea level rise since the 1990s. There is clear evidence tying the melting of glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet, as well as ocean warming, to human influence. Sea level rise is leading to substantial impacts on coastal communities, including a near-doubling in the frequency of coastal flooding since the 1960s in many sites around the world. We don’t well understand the potential speed of these changes, but they have the potential to lead to much more rapid ice sheet loss if greenhouse gas emissions grow unchecked.

These advances confirm that sea level is going to continue to rise for many centuries to come, creating an escalating threat for coastal communities.

Are the oceans or ice nearing any tipping points?

Tipping point” is a vague term used in many different ways by different people. The IPCC defines tipping points as “critical thresholds beyond which a system reorganises, in a way that is very fast or irreversible” — for example, a temperature rise beyond which climate dynamics commit an ice sheet to massive loss.

Because the term is so vague, the IPCC generally focuses on characteristics of changes in a system — for example, whether a system might change abruptly or irreversibly — rather than whether it fits the strict dynamic definition of a “tipping point.”

One example of a system that might undergo abrupt changes is the large-scale pattern of ocean circulation known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, of which the Gulf Stream is part. Paleoclimate evidence tells us that AMOC has changed rapidly in the past, and we expect that AMOC will weaken over this century. If AMOC were to collapse, it would make Europe warm more slowly, increase sea level rise along the US Atlantic coast, and shift storm tracks and monsoons. However, most evidence indicates that such a collapse will not happen in this century.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

From above observations, there are no ‘maybes’ any more. The threat of climate change is real; dangers are imminent and the future is catastrophic. This message from the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms what we already know and can see in the world around us — from wildfires because of extreme heat and moisture loss; to devastating floods because of extreme rain events and tropical cyclones because of the changing temperatures between the sea and land surface.

The future is here and it should worry us enormously. Indeed, this report, coming as it is from the normally conventional and conformist world of buttoned-up scientists, should scare us into action — real and meaningful.

There are key takeaways from the report. One, it is now clear that the world may be hurtling towards 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise by 2040. Meaning, the guard rail of what is relatively safe could be breached in the next two decades itself. Given that we are already seeing huge wide-scale devastation with current temperature rise of only 1.09 degree Celsius from the 1880s — Industrial Revolution times — we need to understand just how dire and urgent this call from science is.

Two, scientists at IPCC are no longer coy about telling us clearly that climate change is caused by human activities.

This is important because till now we have only been able to understand climate change impacts in terms of the increased frequency of such events in the world. But now, we know with greater certainty the role of climate change in, say, the extreme heat event in Canada or wildfire in Greece or the floods in Germany. No more ifs or buts.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The question is if we are listening. If action is being taken at the scale and pace needed. This is still not happening. And this is where the third big highlight of the IPCC report must be understood. Science is telling us that the relative efficiency of sinks — the earth’s natural cleaning system, the oceans, forests and soils, will go down in the coming years as emissions continue to rise.

Currently, oceans, land and forests together absorb some 50 per cent of the emissions that we release into the atmosphere each year. In other words, without these sinks, we would have already breached the 1.5 degree Celsius warming by now.

But what this report also tells us is that we cannot ‘bank’ on the sinks to clean up the emissions in the future at this same rate. This means the ‘net zero’ plans of countries will have to be revisited.

Under the net zero plan, countries like the United States (by 2050) and China (by 2060) have declared that their emissions will remain below what their terrestrial sinks or carbon capture technologies will be able to clean up.

Now, if we take on board what the IPCC is saying, then the sinks have reached their tipping points — and countries will have to work even harder to plant more trees to even sequester carbon dioxide (CO2), forget adding to the sinks to do more.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Therefore, this report from global scientists must be a wake-up call. We can no longer lose time in prevarication or in finding new excuses not to act —including empty promises of net zero by 2050. It is time we got serious and started meaningful action on the ground — today.

The good news is that technologies are available to disrupt the current fossil fuel-driven industrial system. We do not have to wait for disruptive technologies. Instead we have to be disruptive in action. The problem is that even today, the action on ground is too little and too late.

In fact, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will rise as economies, hit by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, rush to get back to the normal. Every country is desperate for recovery and this means doing all that can be done with the current brown economy — including using coal and gas and oil and domestic manufacturing — to ratchet up growth as fast as possible.

The science is also clear. The world needs to reduce GHG emissions by 45-50 per cent below the 2010 level by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. In other words, we need transformational action and not some itsy-bitsy stuff of new cars to e-vehicles by 2030, or stopping coal but then moving on to natural gas — which is also fossil fuel. We need hard and drastic action.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

This is where the scientists, being scientists, cannot call out the most inconvenient of inconvenient truths. There is no doubt that top contributors to climate change are a handful of countries — the US and China, put together, add up to roughly half the world’s annual emissions.

If you add up emissions from 1870 to 2019, then US, EU-27, Russia, the UK, Japan and China contribute 60 per cent of the global carbon dioxide budget. Now, the IPCC has told us that this budget itself is even more limited. So, consider the sheer inequity. But also consider where there is need for action.

If you take even the Paris targets, the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of these countries, then in 2030, they will increase their share of the budget to 68 per cent, not decrease it as needed and provide space for the rest of the world to grow. This is because their targets are abysmally low and disproportionate to the contribution to the problem and that China will increase its share of CO2 emissions.

This is where we need to discuss India. We would like to sit on the high-table of polluters — and technically, India is the third-highest annual polluter of CO2 in the world (fourth if you take EU-27 as a group). But the scale of our contribution is so insignificant that it cannot be compared.

Between 1870 to 2019, India’s share of the global CO2 budget is some three per cent. While China emits some 10 Gt/CO2 (10 gigatonne of carbon dioxide) and the US 5Gt/CO2; India emits some 2.6 Gt/CO2 (2.6 gigatonne of carbon dioxide) annually. And even if you take India’s business-as-usual scenario, we will still emit less than what the US emits today, or one-third of China at 2030.

But this is not to say that India must not act. In fact, it is in our best interest to take steps to combat climate change — at speed and at scale. First, we are already seeing the worst impacts of climate change hit our people — from extreme rain, cloud bursts, floods and temperature rise. Second, we can act because we have tremendous opportunity to reinvent the way we do things — from the way we practice mobility in our cities and the way we build houses with thermal comfort to the way we provide access to affordable energy to the poor in the country.

For us, action on climate change comes out of self-interest and co-benefits — reducing local air pollution and in this way, also cutting back on GHG emissions.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

And, we have to say this clearly: We are not walking the talk on this. The Indian government is sanguine about doing more than other countries in terms of comparable action to reduce CO2 emissions.

But the fact is we have no measurable targets to reduce emissions and this is why, we are doing well — our NDC is to reduce not absolute emissions but the emission intensity of our economy. In this way, we cannot and must not boast of our climate change action.

We can only say we are doing as little as we need in terms of our responsibility or contribution to CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, which demands very little from us. In these climate-risked times, when science has a tough and uncompromising message, this is just not good enough. The fact is that climate change demands effective global leadership. And one thing that we also know from our pathetic track record in delivering vaccines to all in the world is that global leadership is at its lowest point in human history — at least in our lifetime.

Climate change is yet one more global crisis that needs a global response — we cannot win this without cooperation of all and this needs climate justice for all. But as with the war we are losing to the virus and the variants, climate change is also a great leveler — today, not only the poor are hit by extreme weather events but also the rich. So, we need to act. And act fast and together. Science has spoken. Now action must follow.


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