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12 years to limit climate change catastrophe

This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency

Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC working group on impacts.

There is nothing opaque about this new data. The illustrations of mounting impacts, the fast-approaching and irreversible tipping points, are visceral versions of a future that no policy-maker could wish to usher in or be responsible for

Christiana Figueres, former UN climate chief

Climate change is already a fact of life. Impacts of global warming on nature and on human systems are already visible – even in our temperate country. The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stresses the urgency of action by politicians, and indeed by all sectors to avoid catastrophe in the not too distant future. They recommend a maximum rise of 1.5°C in average global temperature (the Paris Agreement pledges to keep the rise between 1.5°C and 2°C.) This rise of 1.5°C is imminent, expected between 2030 and 2052, unless drastic action is taken.

The report presents the latest data and its conclusions in a measured, scientific fashion, but it reads as an alarming wake-up call to us all, individuals, activists, politicians. Its starting point is that there are “multiple lines” of evidence showing increased risk with temperature increases of between 1.5°C and 2°C in the five areas of concern (Unique and threatened systems, Extreme weather events, Distribution of impacts, Global aggregate impacts, Large scale singular events).

What difference does half a degree make?


What comes out loud, clear, and shocking is the difference between a rise of 1.5°C and 2°C of warming.

  • At 1.5°C, the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress (difficulty obtaining fresh water) could be 50 per cent lower than at 2°C.

  • Sea-level rise at 2°C is estimated to be 10 cm more than at 1.5°C and would affect 10 million more people by 2100. The collapse of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which is much more likely with additional .5 of a degree, could lead to rises of several metres.

  • Biodiversity loss: the proportion of species that will “lose half their geographic range” is striking – out of 105,000 species studied, the rate doubles between 1.5°C and 2°C warming to 16 per cent for plants and 8 per cent for vertebrates, and triples to 18 per cent for insects.

  • Corals, which are very important for maintaining marine biodiversity and for protecting coastlines against storms, would be 99 per cent lost at 2°C, but more than 10 per cent have a chance of surviving at 1.5°C.

  • Climate related risks to human existence would increase even with warming of 1.5°C. These include risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth. Anyone interested in social justice will be concerned that impacts will fall most heavily on disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, some indigenous peoples, and local communities dependent on agriculture (as are many people in High Peak) or coastal livelihoods; limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared with 2°C, could reduce the number of people exposed to climate related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.

  • Limiting warming to 1.5°C, compared with 2ºC, could result in smaller reductions in yields of maize, rice, wheat, and potentially other cereal crops, particularly in poorer regions. It is not only people who would be affected by reductions in the availability of food: livestock are projected to be adversely affected with rising temperatures, depending on changes in feed quality, spread of diseases, and water availability.

Can we limit warming to 1.5°C?

In its careful measured way, the report answers Yes, we can. But only if we are prepared to make radical changes.

Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°… would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems … These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, … and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.

The report discusses adaptations (adjustment to changes) and mitigations (intervention to reduce emissions or improve sinks of greenhouse gases). Adaptations include ecosystem restoration, avoiding deforestation, managing biodiversity, and local knowledge; efficient irrigation, social safety nets, disaster risk management, risk spreading and sharing, community-based adaptation.

Limiting global warming means limiting CO2 emissions to a total carbon budget- this includes all emissions, past, present and future. There are various strategies that could achieve the emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The four pathways described all depend on Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). However, they are very different, varying widely in their projected energy and land use, as well as their assumptions about future socioeconomic developments, including economic and population growth, equity and sustainability.

The first seems, on the face of it, to be “greener” – or at least to reflect Green Party policies most closely. It assumes social, business, and technological innovations result in lower energy demand up to 2050 while living standards rise, and uses reforestation as the means to remove CO2. (Other natural CDR methods include soil carbon sequestration, as in the Peak District moorlands.) In contrast, the fourth envisages a resource and energy-intensive scenario in which economic growth and globalization lead more greenhouse-gas intensive lifestyles, including high demand for fuel and livestock products; technological means (as yet unproved) are used to reduce CO2.

Many of the specific changes discussed may be familiar: renewables supplying 70–85% of electricity in 2050, as well as some nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS), while the use of coal shows a steep reduction to close to 0%. Dramatic reductions in emissions from industry can be achieved using technologies which have already been tested at various scales. Huge changes in land use are required, from food production to reforestation and fuel crops. The demand for land can be reduced through sustainable intensification of agriculture, ecosystem restoration and changes in diet.

But will we do it?

As Jim Skea, a co-chair of the IPCCC working group on mitigation, said:

We show it can be done within laws of physics and chemistry. Then the final tick box is political will. We cannot answer that. Only our audience can – and that is the governments that receive it.

There are many barriers to making the necessary changes: social, economic, institutional, technological, financing and environmental barriers, which differ across regions. At the financial level, the costs look enormous, but not acting now risks even greater costs in the future. Also, some options to reduce emissions can lead to cost savings, for example in buildings.

At the political level, the various national commitments made under the Paris Agreement and the actions proposed by countries to meet these would not limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°. Though the UK has had a good record on climate change action, with the current government we are slipping back when we should be pushing forward towards greener technologies.

Clearly changes are needed at the political level. The report advocates working together globally- in line with Green thinking, rather than the confrontational approach of many current politicians. Through international cooperation combined with sensitivity to local conditions, actions to keep global warming 1.5° would contribute to sustainable development, eradication of poverty and reducing inequalities. Taking equity into account could help address uneven distribution of adverse impacts of global warming, for poor and disadvantaged populations, in all societies. On the other hand, less effective adaptation or mitigation could worsen gender and social inequality, and adversely affect health and ecosystems.

The report was commissioned to follow up on the Paris Agreement and the summary is addressed to policy-makers: it frequently mentions action which needs to be taken by national governments. But limiting the risks from global warming of 1.5°C requires change at many levels: investments, policy, faster technological innovation and behaviour changes.

The challenge looks daunting even to a committed Green. But there are things you can do:

  • Lobby politicians and others

  • Use public transport (hard in High Peak)

  • Drive an electric car

  • Don’t fly

  • Eat less – or no - meat.

  • Buy locally produced seasonal food as far as possible

Rapid transformational action and commitment are needed from government at all levels from the international to the local; and from the financial sector, scientific institutions, NGOs, the private sector generally, local communities.

It’s late in the day now for a gentle transition. It’s time for all to recognise what the Green Party has been saying: we need to work together to organise an economy that is fair and sustainable and lifestyles that are satisfying without damaging the future of our planet.

As Kaisa Kosenen of Greenpeace said in response to the report:

This is the moment where we need to decide. We want to move to clean energy, sustainable lifestyles. We want to protect our forests and species. This is the moment that we will remember; this is the year when the turning point happened.

Let’s make sure we turn in the right direction.

In the UK only the Green Party is addressing climate change and associated risks to people and planet with the urgency the IPCC’s report so vividly presents. So, as well as the individual actions described above: join the Green Party, vote Green Party and persuade others to do so too.

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