“Code red for Humanity” - My Key Takeaways from the Latest IPCC Report on Climate Change
Updated: Oct 21, 2022
By Camille Socquet-Clerc, Co-founder and Director of Bloom Impact Investing
Would you fly on a plane, if it had a 50% chance to crash?
Nope? Me neither. However, you and I are on a crazy plane, and we desperately need to turn it around.
The plane is obviously a metaphor for planet earth, which I hope will convey how precarious, stressful, urgent, and serious the climate situation is.
Yesterday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change) has released its latest report. UN Secretary-General António Guterres summarises perfectly in this formula "a code red for humanity".
This 6th assessment report explains, with the utmost clarity, that our plane (planet earth) is well and truly flying in a sky of human-induced climate change.
Personally, I sometimes feel like reports like this could push us collectively over the edge of despair. But I don’t want to be on the bad side of history - so if anything - reports like this actually give me extraordinary fuel - or should I say - renewable energy - to fight.
I think extraordinary threats require extraordinary courage.
And from an intellectual perspective, is there anything more exciting than working on a global issue that requires interdisciplinary brilliance and collaboration? Covid has proven to some degree that we can act collectively to address a global crisis (although not perfectly, but done is better than perfect). Before Covid, would you have imagined a day where the world would stop travelling? Would you have imagined billions of people wearing masks and complying with lockdown restrictions?
Covid is a global health crisis, and we are fighting it as if our lives depended on it. We could very well deploy the same resilience and resources to fight Climate Change. Via this report, I hope millions of human beings will feel in their heart the life and death threat looming, without losing courage.
If you have the privilege of living a westernised-country lifestyle as an adult, you have a responsibility. Climate Change is the job of this decade, and we’ve all been hired for it, whether we like it or not.
So to get to work, I decided to review the report and share my key takeaways, extracted from "The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers." In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. I encourage you to read it too here.
I am no scientist, just a global citizen trying to understand the facts. A lot of what I will share is simply paraphrasing from the report and other trustworthy sources, so you can grasp the essence of the report without spending hours reading it. At the end of the summary, I will also share why and how I think we should fight this crisis and simple things you can do today, to drive climate impact at scale.
1. Humanity, through its actions, or lack of action, has unequivocally overheated the planet.
The IPCC report found that 2,400 billion tonnes of CO2 have been emitted by humanity since 1850 and that we can only leak another 400 billion tonnes to have a 66% chance of keeping to 1.5 C.
This means the planet has spent 86% of its carbon “budget” already. It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred.
The global surface temperature was 1.09 [0.95 to 1.20] °C higher in 2011– 2020 than in 1850–1900
Global mean sea level increased by to 3.7 [3.2 to 4.2] mm yr–1 between 2006 and 2018
Human influence is “very likely” (90%) the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s and the decrease in Arctic sea ice.
1.5 C will be reached by 2040 in all scenarios unless emissions aren’t slashed in the next few years.
Keeping to 1.5 C will require “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in emissions and slower action leads to 2 C and more suffering for all life on Earth.
2. The future looks scary as hell - and nowhere on Earth is escaping rising temperatures, worse floods, hotter wildfires, or more searing droughts (yes, even the richest nations)
Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the last IPCC report.
What if we stopped all emissions today?
The future looks worse - even if we stopped emissions today, the effects of climate change are set to last for decades.
“If we do not halt our emissions soon, our future climate could well become some kind of hell on Earth,” says Prof Tim Palmer at the University of Oxford.
Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades. Based on the assessment of multiple lines of evidence, global warming of 2°C, relative to 1850– 1900, would be exceeded during the 21st century under the high and very high GHG emissions scenarios considered in this report.
The key facts from the report:
What we already know:
Heatwaves have become more frequent and more intense since the 1950s, while cold events have become less frequent and less severe.
Drought is increasing in more than 90% of regions.
The global surface temperature was 1.09 C higher in the decade between 2011-2020 than between 1850-1900.
The past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850.
The recent rate of sea-level rise has nearly tripled compared with 1901-1971.
What the future will look like:
The Arctic is likely to be practically ice-free in September at least once before 2050 in all scenarios assessed
There will likely be increases in “fire weather” in many countries.
A rise of around 2 meters in sea levels by 2100 cannot be ruled out — and neither can a 5-meter rise by 2150, threatening millions of people in coastal areas.
Extreme sea-level events that occur once a century are projected to occur at least annually.
Sea level change through 2050 is largely locked in: Regardless of how quickly nations are able to lower emissions, the world is likely looking at about 15 to 30 centimetres (6 to 12 inches) of global average sea-level rise through the middle of the century.
3. Is it too late?
Yes and no.
In a way, yes, it is too late. Today’s world has already changed in an irreversible way. But this report also carries hope and explains that a drastic change now could help us avoid the worst and repair the climate over time.
Immediate action is the only way to avoid ever-worsening impacts, of which today’s wildfires in California, Greece and Turkey, floods in Germany, China and England, and heatwaves in Canada and Siberia are merely a foretaste.
Once 1.5 degrees of warming is surpassed, scientists expect that various environmental tipping points will be reached, setting in motion potentially unstoppable climate deterioration. These tipping points include the melting of polar regions, the loss of forests, the desertification of regions, the alteration of ocean currents, and much more.
The authors believe that 1.5C will be reached by 2040 in all scenarios. If emissions aren't slashed in the next few years, this will happen even earlier.
Can temperature rise be kept below 1.5°C?
1.1°C The increase in temperature since pre-industrial times
2,400bn tonnes of CO2 humans have emitted to date
500bn tonnes more would leave only a 50-50 chance of staying under 1.5°C
40bn tonnes Roughly amount of CO2 humanity emits every year
The report says that for a 67% chance of limiting warming to 1.5C, the world has a remaining carbon budget of 400GtCO2 – or less than a decade of current emissions. - if emissions stayed the same as today (!) - to make an extraordinary U-turn.
Key facts from the report:
Projected changes in extremes are larger in frequency and intensity with every additional increment of global warming (read ‘every little bit of progress counts’)
Under scenarios with increasing CO2 emissions, the ocean and land carbon sinks are projected to be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.
Past GHG emissions since 1750 have committed the global ocean to future warming.
Over the rest of the 21st century, likely ocean warming ranges from 2–4 (SSP1-2.6) to 4–8 times (SSP5-8.5) the 1971–2018 change.
Mountain and polar glaciers are committed to continuing melting for decades or centuries.
4. So, have we already gone over some climate tipping points?
Not yet, but we are close - and we don’t fully understand how horrible earth will be passed these points.
“Tipping point” is a vague term used in many different ways by different people. The IPCC defines tipping points as “critical thresholds beyond which a system reorganizes, in a way that is very fast or irreversible” – for example, a temperature rise beyond which climate dynamics commit an ice sheet to massive loss.
Because the term is so vague, the IPCC generally focuses on characteristics of changes in a system – for example, whether a system might change abruptly or irreversibly – rather than whether it fits the strict dynamic definition of a “tipping point.”
2 Climate tipping points to remember
Land and sea will slowly become less effective at capturing the Gigatons of emissions we throw in the air every day.
The report outlines that the biosphere won’t behave as it has for the past couple of centuries. The report notes that as emissions rise, the land and ocean won’t be so cooperative and take up as much of the extra emissions we’re sending up.
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation: A crucial system of ocean currents that help control the planet’s temperatures could be close to collapse.
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation is very likely to weaken over the 21st century for all emission scenarios. If such a collapse were to occur, it would very likely cause abrupt shifts in regional weather patterns and the water cycle, such as a southward shift in the tropical rain belt, weakening of the African and Asian monsoons, and strengthening of Southern Hemisphere monsoons, and drying in Europe.
5. "What about here, mate"? Australia is and will be impacted harshly.
Australia is about to get barbecued and soaked
The improved resolution of climate models has allowed this IPCC report to provide a closer look at how regions of the world might fare as the planet heats up.
You can Zoom in on each climate metric and region of the world here and see a fact sheet of Australasia here.
Land warms faster than the ocean. In Australia, land has warmed about 1.4 degrees so far, since 1910. Projected warming doesn’t look good, particularly for maximums, and that’s not considering heatwave spikes.
Rainfall is likely to be heavier when it comes, as the atmosphere holds about 7 percent more moisture per degree. Unfortunately, southern Australia will remain on its drying trend, particularly in winter, as west-to-east storm tracks shifting closer to Antarctica. Other unpleasant outcomes await those living near the coast as sea levels rise, while the “intensity, frequency and duration of fire-weather events are projected to increase throughout Australia” the report states with “high confidence”.
6. What can we do now?
If we had to write a simple to-do-list, it would look like this:
Reduce global emissions by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030
Reach “net-zero” by 2050.
The report said that in order to limit warming to 1.5C with “no or limited overshoot”, net global CO2 emissions need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach “net-zero” by around 2050.
How much more can we burn? (Carbon budgets)
Very little, and that means we need to leave fossil fuel in the ground once and for all. Carbon budgets are a simplified way to measure the additional emissions that can enter the atmosphere if the world wishes to limit global warming to levels such as 1.5C. They are based on the fact that the amount of warming that will occur can be approximated by total – that is, cumulative – CO2 emissions. In practice, though, carbon budgets mask a lot of complexity. Due to the world being already most of the way to 1.5C of warming, the remaining budget is relatively small and, therefore, quite sensitive to the approach used.
António Guterres, the UN secretary general: “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet. If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as the report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses.” (Source: Guardian)
From a physical science perspective, limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions. Strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 emissions would also limit the warming effect resulting from declining aerosol pollution and would improve air quality.
Key facts from the reports:
Anthropogenic CO2 removal (CDR) leading to global net negative emissions would lower the atmospheric CO2 concentration and reverse surface ocean acidification (high confidence).
Anthropogenic CO2 removals and emissions are partially compensated by CO2 release and uptake, respectively, from or to land and ocean carbon pools (very high confidence).
If global net negative CO2 emissions were to be achieved and be sustained, the global CO2-induced surface temperature increase would be gradually reversed but other climate changes would continue in their current direction for decades to millennia (high confidence). For instance, it would take several centuries to millennia for the global mean sea level to reverse course even under large net negative CO2 emissions (high confidence).
Achieving global net zero CO2 emissions is a requirement for stabilizing CO2-induced global surface temperature increase, with anthropogenic CO2 emissions balanced by anthropogenic removals of CO2.
6. How do we turn this plane around, and who will be held accountable if we don't?
Governments and Businesses need to do the heavy lifting.. or else we will see them in court
For those governments and businesses that still chose inaction, the IPCC report may well end up being used as key evidence against them in real courtrooms. “We’ll be taking this report with us to the courts,” says Kaisa Kosonen at Greenpeace.
In February this year in France, a group of NGOs backed by two million citizens had filed a complaint accusing the French state of failing to act to halt climate change in what has been dubbed the "case of the century". The Paris administrative court recognised ecological damage linked to climate change and held the French state responsible for failing to fully meet its goals in reducing greenhouse gases.
Every choice made now matters. Helen Clarkson, the CEO of the Climate Group, which represents 220 regional governments and 300 multinational businesses, covering 1.75 billion people and 50% of the global economy, says: “Every decision, every investment, every target, needs to have the climate at its core.”
“It’s suicidal, and economically irrational to keep procrastinating,” says Prof Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh.
Christiana Figueres, who was UN climate chief when the Paris deal was sealed in 2015, says: “Everything we need to avoid the exponential impacts of climate change is doable. But it depends on solutions moving exponentially faster than impacts.”
That means political leaders are now in the dock, and the vital UN Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November may be the last hearing at which they can avoid the judgment of history.
Businesses can be catalysts for change
Understanding a problem intellectually is not the same as feeling its presence in your daily life. As the global climate becomes more threatening, the business community self-organises into one giant green monster - launching initiatives to tackle challenges such as decarbonisation even without strong national climate policies.
My ambition as a founder is to build Bloom into a small but courageous cog of this business community working hard to make the world spin in the right direction. In the future, I see a big wave of business joining us. For businesses, the economic benefits of free-riding on the depletion of natural resources will soon end up becoming a huge risk and cost.
6. I’m just one small citizen, and I feel powerless, how can I drive action at scale?
Ditch your eco-anxiety and start scaling your impact.
Stop feeling guilty about small eco-actions you don’t always do perfectly (driving your car alone, forgetting your keep cup, not shopping for local fruits and veggies etc…)
Sure, every little bit helps - But now is the time to think BIG and SCALABLE solutions.
In my mind, individual actions you can take to have a systemic and scalable impact are:
1. Use your Democratic Power
Vote with climate action in mind
Write to your MP and local government
2. Reclaim your Money Power
Divest from fossil fuels - switch your bank, super, insurance and loans over sustainable options that don’t support the fossil fuel industry - Jump on MarketForces to have the full list of fossil fuel-free options.