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We are on ‘thin ice’ — IPCC report shows action needed to avoid 1.5°C of warming is now or never

a silhouette of smokestacks pump out big cloud smokes of emissions against a yellow sky
Photo credit: Unsplash / Chris LeBoutillier

“Our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, evoking the recent Oscar-winning film, following Monday’s release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest earthshaking report.

In his speech, the General said “humanity is on thin ice,” and like the sea ice caps and glaciers, that ice is “melting fast.”

However, unlike the characters of Everything Everywhere All at Once, we can’t travel to other dimensions in the multiverse to fight bizarre villains or escape the post-1.5°C fate of global warming. Still, like the movie, it isn’t an understatement to say actions are needed to “save existence.”

In 2015, 196 countries adopted the Paris Climate Agreement, which at the time, aimed to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels (1850–1900) by the end of the century. In 2018, that goal shifted to limiting warming to 1.5°C, or 2.7°F, to avoid some of the worst global catastrophes.

Now the IPCC Synthesis Report — the first comprehensive U.N. report since the Paris Agreement — warns that the 1.5°C limit will be reached in the near term, as early as the 2030s, the U.N. Secretary-General said.

According to the California-based environmental data science nonprofit, Berkeley Earth, as of 2022, the planet has warmed between 1.1°C and 1.3°C, which is about between 2°F. We are already seeing the repercussions of this warming, from mass extinction and fatal flooding to hurricane hotbeds and worsening wildfires.

The current scientific consensus is that after 1.5°C of warming, 10 million people will be put at risk due to storms, flooding, sea level rise, and extreme heatwaves while devastating the world’s ecosystems. At 2°C these effects will become twice as bad.

Graphic from the IPCC / Projected changes of annual maximum daily maximum temperature, annual mean total column soil moisture, and annual maximum 1-day precipitation at global warming levels of 1.5°C, 2°C, 3°C, and 4°C relative to 1850–1900.

While that sounds bleak, the IPCC report shows there is still time to avoid this picture of the future.

The needle moving dangerously close to 1.5°C may elicit feelings of existentialism and nihilism explored in Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAAO), but as Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy Wang all show, everything isn’t lost whether the antagonist is an interdimensional all-powerful being hellbent on destroying the multiverse, or in our case, fossil fuels.

The temperature is increasing due to the relentless release of greenhouse gases globally, however, if we are to limit the rise, the report says rapid and sustained emission reductions must happen across sectors and around the world.

These sectors include shipping, aviation, steel, cement, aluminum, and agriculture just to name a few, on top of phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable energy.

Graphic from IPCC / Multiple Opportunities for scaling up climate action.

The report notes that global emissions should already be decreasing, and if we are to make meaningful change, they will have to be slashed in half over the next seven years.

“Mainstreaming effective and equitable climate action will not only reduce losses and damages for nature and people, it will also provide wider benefits,” IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said in a statement.

The IPCC’s report was approved after a week-long session in Interlaken, Switzerland, providing world leaders with a complete picture of climate change, the science behind it, and the steps needed to address it. To quote the Secretary-General the report is a “survival guide for humanity.”

The report weaves together major findings over the last few years, taking into account the causes and impacts of warming, along with progress and gaps in mitigation and adaptation to climate change. It also integrates technological innovation, political action, international cooperation, and the necessity of climate and social justice.

The authors conclude that existing CO2 emissions would put us over the warming limit. If we delay increasing investment in mitigation and adaptation infrastructure, these measures will only increase in cost while decreasing in feasibility. Above all, the report emphasizes that the time for action is now. The main faucet of that action must be a just energy transition away from fossil fuels.

"The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years," the authors write.

Graphic from IPCC / The illustrative development pathways (red to green) and associated outcomes (right panel) show that there is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all. Climate resilient development is the process of implementing greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation measures to support sustainable development.

“The climate time bomb is ticking. But today’s IPCC report is a how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb,” he said in his press conference speech.

The report shows that despite our shortcomings, the 1.5°C is still attainable, “but it will take a quantum leap in climate action,” he says, calling on leaders of the world’s developed nations and private investors, to pull their resources, scientific capacity, credible innovation, and “proven affordable technologies” to make carbon neutrality a reality by 2050.

Underscoring the urgency, the U.N. chief announced an “all-hands-on-deck Acceleration Agenda,” urging governments to hit the “fast-forward” button on their climate goals to reach net zero as soon as possible. For richer nations, he says the target year should be 2040 if not 2035, and for poorer countries, 2050.

The 28th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change is nine months away, set to be held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in November.

By then, the U.N. hopes policymakers will help create new climate plans that speed up net zero goals. The report’s authors say that in addition to policymakers removing barriers, investors, central banks and financial regulators can also “play their part.”

“Today’s message from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) synthesis report is abundantly clear: we are making progress, but not enough,” U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said in a statement.

“We have the tools to stave off and reduce the risks of the worst impacts of the climate crisis, but we must take advantage of this moment to act now,” Kerry said.

Major organizations like the International Energy Agency, United Nations, International Institute for Sustainable Development, and the IPCC, have all said more fossil fuel development is incompatible with the climate agenda. Guterres even called the continued investment in fossil fuels “delusional.”

However, just last week, President Biden approved the controversial Willow oil drilling Project in Alaska, which will release 260 million metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Not only that but in 2022, big oil companies have raked in record profits. All the while, the U.N. chief points out, the Global South and other vulnerable communities are on the frontlines of natural disasters caused by these emissions, despite not causing the crisis.

The authors of the report emphasize that climate justice must come into sharper focus.

“Climate justice is crucial because those who have contributed least to climate change are being disproportionately affected,” Aditi Mukherji, one of the 93 authors of this Synthesis Report, said in a statement.

“Almost half of the world’s population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change. In the last decade, deaths from floods, droughts, and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions,“ she added.

Graphic from IPCC / Projected risks and impacts of climate change on natural and human systems at different global warming levels (GWLs) relative to 1850-1900 levels. Projected risks and impacts shown on the maps are based on outputs from different subsets of Earth system and impact models that were used to project each impact indicator without additional adaptation.

Still, amidst all the less-than-great news, there is a silver lining: Before the Paris Agreement, the world was on track to reach 3.5°C of warming before the end of the century. The picture was grim. Now we are on track for 2.5°C.

With the world’s pledges since COP27, we could reach only 1.7°C warming, and in the event that we reach net zero by 2050, that number could be limited to 1.5°C. COP28 will be as Guterres calls it, “the first global stocktake of the Paris Agreement.”

According to the IPCC the solutions are there. The panel calls for a greater focus on adaptation to climate change, more emphasis on equitable solutions, scaled-up financing, enhanced technology, and international cooperation.

The panel emphasizes that feasible solutions exist now, rather than far in the future or in another dimension of the multiverse. They hope the report will equip policymakers with the tools to catalyze change.

In November, we will see if the world lives up to the challenge.

All graphics are from the IPCC Synthesis Report. Please refer to this link for more detailed descriptions of the figures.

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