Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 423, 11 August 2021

Code Red: Key takeaways from the IPCC report 2021 on Climate Change
Rashmi B R

In the news
On 9 August, Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report "Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis", the first of the reports as released as part of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), 2022. The report has been approved by 195 member countries of the IPCC. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the report is a "code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable."

The report puts across the physical science of the climate crisis, talking extensively about the human influence over the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, land and biosphere at large. In a first, it also covers region-wise issues and analyses. Following are the key takeaways:

First, the global warming. There have been well observed anthropogenic-induced GHG concentrations since 1750. With four successive warmer decades, the estimated range of global surface temperature increase is between 0.8oC- 1.3oC, and the best estimate stands at 1.07oC. IPCC predicts that 1.5oC of global warming leads to increasing heatwaves, longer warm and shorter cold seasons, and a 2oC warming would affect agriculture and health severely.

Second, changes in the ocean and precipitation patterns. The report points to ocean acidification and increasing maritime heatwaves. Rainfall in the higher latitudes is predicted to increase, whereas it will decrease in the subtropics. At the global level, changes in the water cycle will lead to heavy rainfall and flooding and contrasting droughts simultaneously. Due to the rapid warming of the Indian Ocean, the littorals will experience changes in monsoon patterns, increased heavy rainfall in a shorter span of time, thereby giving rise to flooding.

Third, effects on the cryosphere. IPCC has observed that there is substantial thawing of the permafrost, a decrease in Arctic summer sea ice, seasonal snow cover and significant glacial melt. The greatest shrink in the Arctic Sea ice occurred between 2010 and 2019, though the intensity of melt has been observed since 1979. Data points to the human influence on the surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet over the past 20 years. It must be noted that scientists did not record significant decadal trends in the decrease of the Antarctic Sea ice area cover between 1979-2020 directly in proportion to the anthropogenic activities. The report also predicts a continuing shrinking of the mountain glaciers in all the places where they are present. In regions like the Hindukush-Himalayan region, there will be a rise in precipitation and a decrease in snow cover.

Fourth, irreversible changes. The study shows that many changes that the planet has undergone due to GHG emissions are irreversible. This is particularly applicable to the changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.
Issues at large
First, studies on climate change. IPCC, as an important body of the UN assessing climate change, provides a plethora of scientific data and analysis to the policymakers, helping them take necessary actions. It creates a massive ripple through the detailed "Assessment Reports" prepared by its working groups. Along with the IPCC, numerous scientific bodies and NGOs warn the governments across the world about the impending climate crisis, calling on them to undertake mitigation measures.

Second, lack of action. IPCC and other prominent organizations and scientific bodies have released multiple reports and issued warnings to states to take adequate action. Multiple international agreements and treaties have not brought the countries on the same board about the need to curb unsustainable activities.

Third, differences on the basics. Since the time of the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement, basics are the bones of contention. Debates on carbon credits, common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), development and climate change, transfer and access to green technologies continue to brew. Additionally, the developed countries continue to search for new sources of non-renewables both domestically and globally. Countries like the US, Norway and Russia have a substantial portion of their GDP drawn from the export of oil and gas.
In perspective
First, more evidence on the Anthropocene. In comparison to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the IPCC, the Working Group-I report of the AR6 emphasizes the "unequivocal human influence" on the earth's system. This provides more impetus to already loud calls to formally recognize the end of Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch.

Second, COVID-19 and its impact. The pandemic has severely affected the global economy and pushed millions into poverty. It is not a surprise if countries prioritize economic compulsions and sideline climate change. However, the pandemic has shown that the world is unprepared for a climate crisis. Responsible rebound adhering to sustainable development goals is the need of the hour.

Third, the report is a desperate call for action; however, translating it into action is a serious challenge. It sets a stage for the forthcoming COP-26, to be held in November 2021, and is sure to draw more attention to this report and pressure on countries to walk the talk.

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