People, nature will struggle to adapt to rise in global warming if emissions aren’t rapidly cut, says IPCC

The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will “miss the brief and rapidly closing window” to secure a livable future. 

This statement best summarises the sobering findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest flagship report, according to Debra Roberts, the co-chair of its working group II.

Roberts, the head of the sustainable and resilient city initiatives unit at the eThekwini municipality, was speaking at the launch of the assessment on Monday. The report’s key findings, she said, “provide the best understanding yet of climate impacts and risks, options to adapt, and the limits we face”.

Running to more than 3 600 pages, the newest instalment is the result of five years of work by 270 scientists from 67 countries, including several from South Africa, and was approved by 195 member governments.

Dangerous, pervasive impacts

It describes how the dangerous and pervasive effects of climate change are occurring faster and will worsen sooner than previously predicted. 

At 1.1°C of warming, increasing heatwaves, droughts and floods are pushing plants and animals beyond their ability to adapt, driving mass mortalities in tree and coral species and have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, particularly in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Small Islands and in the Arctic.

These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage, according to the report. Where trends intersect they can reinforce each other, “intensifying risks and impacts, which affect the poor and most vulnerable people the hardest”. Up to 3.6 billion people live in hotspots of high vulnerability to climate change. 

Every small increase in warming will result in increased risks, the authors warn. The impacts are expected to intensify with additional warming interacting with multiple other societal and environmental problems. These include a growing world population, unsustainable consumption, a rapidly increasing number of people living in cities, significant inequality, continuing poverty, land degradation, biodiversity loss caused by land-use change, ocean pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction as well as a global pandemic. 

IPCC working group II co-chair Hans-Otto Pörtner said the impacts of human-induced intensification of tropical cyclones, sea level rise and heavy rainfall has resulted in increased losses and damages. These are magnified in cities, where more than half the world’s population lives. 

“Heatwaves amplify urban heat islands and air pollution to affect people’s health. Critical infrastructure such as transport, water and energy systems have been compromised by extreme events,” Pörtner said.

Future risks

Future global climate risks include exposure to heat stress that continues to increase with additional warming; at 2°C regions relying on snow melt could experience a 20% decline in water availability for agriculture after 2050; and about a billion people living in low-lying cities by the sea and on small islands are at risk from sea-level rise by mid century.

Children aged 10 or younger in the year 2020 are projected to experience a nearly four-fold increase in extreme events under 1.5°C of global warming by 2100, and a five-fold increase under 3°C warming. “Such increases in exposure would not be experienced by a person aged 55 in the year 2020 in their remaining lifetime under any warming scenario,” the scientists say.

Nature’s crucial services are at risk in a warming world, including coastal protection, pollination, water filtration and clean air. According to the scientists, current projections imply that at a global warming level of 2°C by 2100, up to 18% of all species on land will be at high risk of going extinct. 

“The extinction risk is especially high for cold-loving species living in the high mountains or in polar regions, where climate change impacts are unfolding at global maximum speed and extent.” 

Even at lower levels of warming of 2°C or less, polar fauna, including fish, penguins, seals, and polar bears, tropical coral reefs and mangroves will be under serious threat.

The report identifies the overlapping problems as limited access to water, sanitation and health services; climate-sensitive livelihoods, high levels of poverty, weak leadership, lack of funding and lack of accountability and trust in government.

Climate change risks and impacts can be reduced, within limits, if humans and nature adapt to the changing conditions. Although the scale and scope of actions to reduce climate risks have increased worldwide, large gaps exist between ongoing efforts and adaptation needed to cope with current levels of warming, with the scale of the challenge varying in different regions. 

The authors describe how current global financial flows are insufficient and most finance targets emission reductions rather than adaptation. Furthermore, climate impacts can slow economic growth.

United Nations secretary-general António Guterres described the report as “an atlas of human suffering” and a “damning indictment of failed climate leadership”.

“With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change. Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone — now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return — now. Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frogmarch to destruction — now. The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal.” 

The report underscores “two core truths”, Guterres said: that coal and other fossil fuels are “choking humanity” and that investments in adaptation work. “Adaptation and mitigation must be pursued with equal force and urgency … Delay means death.”

The report emphasises that near-term actions that limit global warming to close to 1.5°C

would substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change

in human systems and ecosystems, compared with higher warming levels, but “cannot

eliminate them all”. Current emission policies and commitments put the world on

course for warming of about 2.3°C to 2.7°C.

Losses and damages from climate change will increase rapidly with further warming,

in many cases creating risks that people and nature will not be able to adapt to. 

IPCC chair Hoesung Lee described the report as a “blueprint for our future”, which recognises the interdependence of climate, ecosystems, biodiversity and people. 

“The report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our well-being and a healthy planet. 

“It also shows that our actions today will shape how people adapt to climate change and how nature responds to increasing climate risks … But, most importantly, it emphasises the urgency of immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risks. Half measures are no longer an option.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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