On Monday, the so-called “synthesis report” was published by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body made up of hundreds of international scientists from a dizzying array of disciplines. The new report boils down six previous IPCC reports, published since 2018, which pulled together and analyzed thousands of climate science studies.
It amounts to the most clear-eyed, up-to-date assessment of the climate crisis: how it’s affecting all corners of the world and its systems, and how humanity is faring in its attempts to mitigate disasters and adapt to those that are now unavoidable.
What is key about the IPCC report is that it’s signed off by national governments to confirm that they accept the scientific findings – and will incorporate them in their response to the climate crisis.
That being said the report is clear that if major transformations take place across society to cut planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions this decade, it’s still possible to hold average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). (The world has warmed 1.1C (2F) since industrialized countries began burning oil, gas and coal 200 years ago.)
But so far the pace and scale of emissions cuts have been insufficient, the IPCC warns. What’s more, emissions continue to rise largely due to existing fossil fuel infrastructure – with major projects still being built.
At current levels of emissions, humanity will breach 1.5C in the coming decade. Beyond 1.5C – a limit that all countries agreed to under the 2015 Paris Agreement – the threats increase rapidly.
The IPCC found that the impacts of global heating are hitting harder and faster than previously expected while countries are swiftly approaching some limits on being able to adapt to extremes.
Therefore, every incremental amount of warming avoided will matter immensely, especially to the most vulnerable.
“The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years,” the IPCC states.
The findings, while bleak, remain tinged with resolve.
Emissions need to start decreasing now, and be cut roughly in half by the end of the decade.
Yet it will be difficult to get rid of all emissions in areas like agriculture, aviation, shipping, and industry, and these will need to be “counterbalanced” by carbon removal from the atmosphere to achieve net zero. This could be done with natural solutions like planting trees, sequestration of carbon in the soil through peatland restoration, and in ocean and coastal ecosystems.
But while the IPCC says that a “substantial reduction” in fossil fuels is the number one priority, there will be a role for technologies around carbon capture and storage which are currently in limited use.
“The climate time-bomb is ticking,” UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said. “[The] IPCC report is a how-to guide to defuse the climate time-bomb.
“It is a survival guide for humanity.”