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The new intergovernmental report on climate change: A reality check and what it means for us

  • Published at 10:43 pm September 8th, 2021
IPCC
IPCC Report on Climate Change

AR-6 unequivocally blamed the Anthropocene emission of GHGs and exploitation of nature that is making the earth a hotter place

On August 9 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change released the first installment of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR-6) ie, Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. The report approved by 195 governments is the outcome of scientific research and the hard works of 234 scientists. It is built upon more than 14,000 research papers.

What does it mean for us? Does it contain anything new? Does it show us the way toward sustainable living for us and our future generations? If not thousands, there are hundreds of questions that we need to have answers to. But all the answers will lead to one big question – will the earth survive the looming human-induced catastrophe? 

While it is not easy for the people to understand the science presented in scientific papers, recent flash floods in Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg, China, India, Saudi Arabia, the US and Bangladesh and wildfires in Australia, Turkey, Italy, Greece, the US, Russia, present us a stark reality that life can be wiped out from the earth in days. And, these are disasters culminated by abrupt changes in weather patterns as a result of temperature rise at a much faster rate than scientists had predicted in the past.  

Reason? AR-6 unequivocally blamed the Anthropocene emission of GHGs and exploitation of nature that is making the earth a hotter place, melting the ice at the fastest rate ever in history and rising the sea level. It is perhaps the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers and the reduction of sea ice in the Arctic. It also said that extreme weather events like heat waves are more frequent while cold weather events are fewer and less severe. This change in weather is supported by the scientific data that the past five years have been the hottest since 1850.

The extreme weather events that we have witnessed recently makes it clear that no country in the world – whether rich or poor is safe from the effects of climate change. The fact is, unless the world does enough to reduce CO2 emissions, it will invite an apocalypse. In this perspective, AR-6 is just an official admission of the dangers of climate change. 

According to the AR-6 is that the under the very high Green House Gas (GHG) emission scenario, the temperature can rise by 3.3°C to 5.7°C under a very high GHG emission scenario. Without an ambitious emission cut, it is impossible to keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C necessary to avoid the worst climate impacts. 

Is this achievable? Is the world on track in terms of policy and actions? Who are the big emitters and what is their plan in reducing carbon dioxide emissions? let us have a reality check and understand the CO2 emission at the global level. 

China, the US and India are the three biggest three emitters of CO2. Although there are arguments that should be taken into account whether the total amount of emission by country or emission per capita, one thing is certain unless the world has significantly reduced carbon and other greenhouse gases, climate impacts will be even deadlier than anticipated. If we flip to zero-emission growth globally right away, it will take another few centuries to put the current warming at a halt.

China is likely to continue its dependency on coal-based energy 

China, the most populous nation in the world is the world's largest producer of fossil fuel CO2 emissions (27.9%). Thanks to its rapid economic growth over the last 20 years fuelled by coal-based energy consumption. In 2020, the country burned over half the world’s coal. 

It will hit its peak in 2030 in terms of carbon emission. It will take another 30 years to reach net-zero carbon emission in 2060. China has pledged its people cleaner and less polluting air. It is gradually changing its energy mix and now investing heavily in solar energy. But it is very unlikely that China will get rid of coal that may endanger its economic growth. 

The US may shift climate priorities with change in the government 

The US, the biggest economy in the world is the second-largest producer of fossil fuel CO2 emissions (14.5%). It is also the largest net emitter of CO2 worldwide that has roughly emitted 400 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. The country is also paying the price of climate change — severe heatwaves and drought are fuelling colossal wildfires across the northwest of the US. 

So, people in the US perhaps do not need to understand the impact of climate change from a scientific report. They are already living with it. In early June, President Joe Biden termed climate change as the 'greatest threat' to US security and he intended to talk with the key European allies for a unified approach to fight climate change. 

For now, President Joe Biden has reversed his predecessor’s rollback on climate regulations and welcomed the AR-6 as an urgent call for action. On the contrary, the Republicans are largely silent on AR-6. So, the big question remains — whether the climate regulations and ambitious climate agenda will get the same priority and will not be reversed again with the change in the presidency. It is worth mentioning here the US is grossly bi-partisan in the question of climate change. When Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement following his victory in the 2016 Presidential election, the Democrat governors were still clinging to their state-level climate change strategies. However, the US’s withdrawal would certainly cause huge damage to the global climate finance initiative.

There are also concerns about whether the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill will effectively contribute to combatting climate change. While the bill has $73 billion for clean energy, climate advocates have been critical about the provisions on carbon capture, hydrogen fuel, liquid natural gas, etc are likely to prop up fossil fuels.

India is yet to pledge net-zero carbon emission

Although India is the third-largest emitter, the country only emits 7.17% of CO2 with 17% of the world population. The country is also highly exposed to extreme weather events like flash floods. The recent flash flood and landslides killed more than 100 people in several states. While India has an ambitious target of 450 Gigawatt of renewable energy by 2030, the country is far away from reaching the target with only 100-gigawatt production capacity in August 2021. Fossil fuel is playing a major role as India is growing and developing. So, it is evident that India will not be able to significantly reduce its dependency on fossil fuels. 

India is not even considering a net-zero emission target as it is likely to be the most impacted by it. According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), India will emit approximately 30 million tonnes of CO2 in 2021 (higher than 2019) as demand for coal is likely to rebound to meet the rising electricity demand.

It is pertinent to mention that India’s stance on net-zero targets is not illogical as the 2015 Paris Agreement is not mandatory and requires a signatory to adopt the best climate action it can. Furthermore, India is insisting that developed countries should compensate for the unfulfilled promises and take more ambitious targets. 

Oil and gas infrastructure projects are still receiving momentum in the EU

The European Union in a landmark move passed the legally binding Climate Change Law on 28 June that will enable its 27 nations to jointly reduce GHG emission by 55% by 2030 (from 1990 level) and net Zero by 2050. Under the law, an advisory committee will be set up to advise the government on achieving the target and monitor the outcome. There are even talks about whether a more achievable target can be set by 2040. These are indeed commendable steps in combatting climate change. 

However, there are concerns about whether this law will bring the desired results – earlier in February, the EU formally backed 32 gas infrastructure projects worth 29 billion euro. Environmental activities termed it climate hypocrisy that will engulf Europe with emissions for generations. 

While Norwegian polar and marine research scientists have urged for an Arctic no-go zone for oil extraction, instead of imposing sticker restrictions on explorations in the arctic, the government awarded a fresh exploration permit in the Arctic Barents Sea, the Norwegian Sea. 

The world is still exploring fossil fuels

While the world is talking about ‘Code Red for Humanity’, new fossil fuel discoveries are being made in different parts of the world. ExxonMobil, one of the largest international oil and gas exploration giants in the world, made significant discoveries of oil reserves at Whiptail in the Stabroek Block offshore Guyana. These discoveries are likely to turn Guyana into a major oil producer.

On June 19 of this year, China’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) announced the discovery of a super-deep oil and gas reserve  in the Tarim Basin with an approximate reserve of 1 billion tons. This basin is the largest oil and gas reserve in China with around 16 billion tons of fossil fuel discovered as of this date.

In March this year, the UK Government published its landmark North Sea Transition Deal. Under this deal, the oil and gas industry and the UK government will work together to deliver the skills, innovation and new infrastructure required to meet stretching greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. 

Although the deal is considered as a decarbonisation blueprint of its fossil fuel industry, the deal did not set out any plan for its upstream oil and gas industry to end fossil fuel explorations. The UK has also decided to move forward with its £16 billion joint investment program that will allow the companies to explore new fossil fuel reserves in the North Sea. 

Can the world achieve net-zero by 2050? 

In the middle of a climate emergency or code red for humanity, there is no other alternative but to stop spending more public money on fossil fuel. Now coming back to the Working Group I Report, humans must act and stop their self-destructive activities. Oil and gas giants will leave no stones unturned to continue their business in newer forms — be it carbon capture or in the name of zero-emission technology. 

In its report Net-Zero by 2050, the IEA has rightly pointed out that as the major source of global emission, the energy sector holds the key to responding to the world’s climate challenge. Despite many pledges and efforts by the governments to tackle the causes of global warming, CO2 emissions from energy and industry have increased by 60% since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. 

Global commitments and actions are growing but they still fall well short of what is needed to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 °C and avert the worst effect of climate change. It is the duty of the policymakers across the world, the super developed nations in particular and turns their commitments into actions.

Human civilization will suffocate without growth, and an enormous supply of energy is essential to stimulate industry and products to sustain that growth. So, only clean energy can promise such desired growth. Talking of energy, we have invested immensely in wind and solar energy, putting a blind eye on the carbon footprint of panels, environmental consequences of batteries and associated social justice issues. 

At the same time, we seemingly became resistant to nuclear power, which is much cleaner if we can manage and recycle its waste efficiently. We also focused less on energy from organic waste (faecal, cow dung, etc) as it cannot produce energy to support large scale production. We failed to go beyond the neoclassical economics textbook and envision the environmental sustainability of money. The coming years would be a phase of a huge paradigm shift in terms of understanding and valuing the environment over financial accumulation. 

There is still an opportunity to prevent even more severe impacts, by cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But this requires an extraordinary effort on clean technologies as such electric vehicles, renewable energy, energy-efficient infrastructure across the globe with equitable access irrespective of the economic condition of the nations.  

Although Paris Agreement is a legally binding treaty, most of the countries will not meet 2030 climate goals. Against this backdrop, the COP26 will be a credibility test as well as an opportunity to regain the trust among the parties.   

If not decades then centuries from now, the future generations of humans will judge our actions whether we had done enough to save mother earth.


Meer Ahsan Habib is a Communication for Development Professional working on climate change.

Md Nadiruzzaman, PhD is working at CLISEC Research Group, Centre for Earth System and Sustainability (CEN), Hamburg University, Germany. Find more work by the author(s) at muktochinta.wordpress.com.

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