Climate Change in 2021
The Latest IPCC Report
On 9th August, the IPCC released its latest report on climate change. Based on a detailed assessment of the available scientific evidence, it concluded that we are virtually certain to see global warming of around 1.5oC over the next 20 years.
In the longer-term global warming could rise even further, potentially exceeding a 2oC increase by 2050. And, if it does exceed 2oC, that is bad news. At that level the report warns, “heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health”. Indeed, under one possible scenario we might be seeing a rise of as much as 4.4oC by the end of the century.
The report warns:
“…unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”
Who are the IPCC and why does this report matter?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. All 195 countries around the world support its work. Scientists from all around the world contribute to and assess its reports.
Every few years it publishes a detailed up-to-date assessment of where we stand. The first report was published in 1992 and this latest report (August 2021) is the sixth. As a result, its reports represent the most up-to-date, detailed and authoritative assessment of climate change available.
The impact of global warming
Delving into the detail of the report reveals some rather frightening statistics that bring home just how significantly climate change is impacting our world:
- In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least the past 2 million years.
- Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2000 years.
- Global mean sea level has risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in at least the last 3000 years.
Over the past century, our world has experienced an average temperature rise of around 1oC. We have only taken action to curb that increase relatively recently.
Where are we now?
Many nations have taken action to drive down CO2 emissions over the past two decades. And, of course, the COVID pandemic temporarily forced a significant short-term reduction whilst much of the world was in lockdown. So, we have made some progress.
Between 2000 and 2010, global CO2 emissions increased by just over 30%. Between 2010 and 2019, emissions have continued to increase but, overall, at a much slower rate (10%). Indeed, since around 2014/2015 the rate of increase has flattened significantly.
However, although CO2 emissions are no longer rising by much, they are not yet falling. We are still a very long way from achieving anything approaching net zero.
What does the future hold?
Where we go from here will, of course, depend very much on what we do. Do we take dramatic action now? Do we aim for sharp and significant reductions in emissions and take the economic and financial pain that such action would surely demand?
Or do we prioritise protecting the economy as far as possible and aim for much more gradual reductions? Depending on how fast (or how slowly) we act, the IPCC has calculated five possible scenarios. Everything from a best-case scenario, based on what is likely to happen if we take drastic action fast. Ranging through to a worst-case scenario, where CO2 levels continue to rise until late on in the century before finally seeing any reduction.
If we take drastic action now and achieve a global wide net zero for CO2 emissions by 2050 then the best-case scenario will apply. However, so far, only 137 out of 195 countries have published a target of achieving net zero by 2050 (and even this is still under discussion in 72% of these countries). Also, China (the world’s largest source of CO2 emissions) has set its net zero target for 2060, not 2050.
So, at present, the best-case scenario is unlikely. Indeed, even under this scenario we are still almost certain to see a mean global temperature rise of 1.5oC relative to the average temperature of the world in the period 1850-1900. It is now already too late to prevent that.
Given recent trends and current government targets around the world (and assuming those targets are all met), we are more likely to be looking at something similar to Scenario 2 or 3.
In Scenario 2, we would need to see a more gradual but sustained reduction in emissions, achieving global net zero by around 2070 or 2075. If we achieve that, we can just about avoid a temperature rise of 2oC.
Scenario 3 would assume a very limited/modest rise in CO2 emissions, gradually flattening as the century wore on, followed by a steady reduction in emissions from around 2060 onwards. In this scenario we would not achieve net zero until the end of the century. If this happened, we would see a rise of over 2oC by 2060, approaching a potentially catastrophic 3oC by the end of the century.
How will global warming affect us?
Depending on where you are in the world you are likely to experience different effects from global warming.
Global warming has led to significant Artic ice melt but less significant melt in the Antarctic. So it is not affecting us all equally.
However, places that have seen problems with extreme heatwaves leading to wildfires will see these events become increasingly common. Places that have experienced more spells of torrential rain, leading to serious flash flooding will see such problems become a more frequent occurrence in future.
For northern Europe, global warming is likely to mean more heat waves in summer and fewer cold snaps in winter. It will also mean more rain, especially in the winter, and more flash flooding following heavy downpours. We can also expect to see more coastal flooding in those areas that have experienced such problems in the past twenty years or so.
For southern Europe and the Mediterranean region droughts, increased aridity and an increased incidence of wildfires in summer are very likely if global warming hits 2oC. Agriculture in these areas is likely to become a lot tougher and the threat posed by wildfires will mean scenes like those in Greece in the summer of 2021 will become increasingly common.
Right now, we stand at a crossroads. We can, if we so choose, act and limit the impact of global warming to something closer to that forecast in Scenario 1 or 2. However, if we decide to act more slowly and opt to place short term economic and financial concerns before the longer-term environmental impacts, we may well be facing a serious crisis situation by the middle of the century.
In the light of this report, the decisions made at Cop26 this autumn will have a critical impact on our future.
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