It has been little over a week since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its pivotal report on the true extent of global climate change. All at once, the panel’s findings were both predictable and shocking; a stark look at what we all knew was coming, and outcomes that seemed, for the past few years, to be far more remote than they really are.
The findings can be summarised within three statements that are as scientifically definitive as they are philosophically weighty. The first two are as follows:
- Across thousands of years of human history, the patterns of change within the climate system have never been seen at the scale or severity of those being recorded right now.
- The deadline for dramatic change needs to be brought forward, but the true benefit these changes offer may well be more remote than we first thought, and some worst-case-scenarios are now inexorable.
The United Nation’s Secretary-General António Guterres deemed it a ‘code red for humanity’ – and it is. But, like any code red alarm, it is a call to all involved to stop, to change, and to do something to reverse the situation, rather than a signal of doom or finality.
For that reason alone, the report can be interpreted as a sign of hope for humanity, and the rest of the planet. Yes, we are far enough down the road that our hope will always be curtailed, to a certain extent, by so called ‘grim reality’, but that does not detract from the third and final statement we can use to summarise the report:
- Global warming is a fact, but not yet an accomplished fact.
What Were the Key Findings?
The IPC’s Climate Change 2021 Report comprises four key sections, the first of which addresses the climate in which we are all currently living. It adds further testimony to the notion of which we are all aware (though to varying extents): that the world has been substantially altered by humans, particularly in the last few decades.
Their focus is divided between the cornerstones of the climate system: global surface temperature, atmospheric conditions (emissions), weather patterns, sea levels and glacial retreat – all of which not only corroborated our current understanding, but shed new light on quite how desperate the situation is.
To put it into perspective, here are a few key findings detailed in section A of the report:
- the report’s ‘best estimate’ for the global surface temperature increase that has occurred between 1850-1900 and 2010-2019 is 1.07°C.
- In the past 70 years, glacial retreat has been faster than any other period of time in the last 2,000 years (at least).
- And, as of 2019, CO2 concentrations reached a 2 million year high. The history of CO2 on earth is incredibly complex, and still largely enigmatic, but one key takeaway is that the delay between emission and effect is around half a century. This means that the symptoms of high CO2 that are observable today don’t even represent a yardstick for the earth’s future, and the future of humanity.
What are the Symptoms?
These numbers are incredibly daunting but, at the same time, they feel remote – at least to those of us not spending our lives compiling, sorting and analysing them. The most compelling results of our climate catastrophe are those that are found and observed off the page – and, unfortunately, there are plenty.
Catastrophe is a human experience, not a statistic, and the report continuously refers back to the experiences it is likely that we can all expect to live through with increasing regularity.
Increases in hot extremes, intense and heavy precipitation and tropical cyclones, fire weather, agricultural and ecological drought and compound flooding are all, to varying extents, attributed to human influence.
While ‘global warming’ is not a misnomer, it falls short on covering the full extent of the climate and human crisis. We need to recognise the lives impacted by every new statistic, and the potential devastation that goes far beyond anything we have seen in living memory.
Future Possibilities and Near-Certainties
Arguably the most significant takeaway given by this report is the fact that, under any prediction for the future – even a prediction modelled upon the absolute best case scenario in terms of human effort, change, and reform – some outcomes are unavoidable.
For instance, the report states that even under a ‘very low GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions scenario’, the 21st century would see a global warming of 1.5°C from the average recorded across 1850-1900. Even in a best case scenario, this will occur by 2040. If we don’t take considerable action right now, it will happen before then.
What’s more, every (seemingly) minor increase in global temperature further exacerbates the ‘symptoms’. Heatwaves and drought, and heavy rainfall and flooding, will all become more likely with this almost inevitably temperature increase. Similarly, under all scenarios for GHG emissions, September in the Arctic is likely to be ‘practically ice free’ (ice coverage of less than 1 million km2) at least once between now and 2050.
The oceans are on track to continue warming, and their oxygen levels will decrease while acidity levels will increase, while the sea levels will continue to rise, and glaciers continue to melt.
Does This Change Our Target for Sustainability?
Around the world, around 137 countries have made a pledge to drastically reduce their carbon emissions, with a view to reaching carbon neutrality within the century. The largest group comprises countries focused toward 2050, with the UK among them.
But, with the IPCC’s latest report, is 2050 enough? If we are to expect global warming of 1.5°C by (or well before) 2040, can we afford to aim our efforts beyond that?
Yes and no – but the good news is that we can do better than that original target. It’s not an impossible goal to halve global emissions within the next decade, nor to become carbon neutral by 2050, but it will take a concerted effort from the world’s governments and businesses – a greater effort than we might have anticipated.
The planet, humans and many other animals can adapt to certain less-than-ideal changes in conditions, but only if we act now to stop them from snowballing into something untenable.
What Can Businesses Do?
It is almost certain that the world will continue to experience unprecedented climactic conditions in the near and remote future – but what we can do is ensure that they remain ‘unprecedented’, rather than giving into doom and allowing them to become the norm for as long as the earth remains habitable.
The proposed methodologies behind lowering greenhouse gas emissions remain the same – only the speed and commitment with which we embrace them has changed.
So, not only do we need to modify the world’s energy supply, but to reform it. We need focus every effort on solar energy, wind farm technology, hydroelectricity, biomass and geothermal energy production.
The report also states that ‘reaching at least net zero CO2’ is essential – meaning that, in an ideal world, we will be exploring technologies that actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere. In other words, alongside sustainable energy production, we will be investing great efforts into augmenting the world’s forests and farms, and technologies like Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage, all of which offer effective ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Alongside governments, businesses will need to lead this process of adaptation and positive change. The IPCC’s report does not offer a roadmap, but a definitive ray of hope – a reason to spur ourselves into action that is as encouraging as it is threatening.
Embracing technologies such as commercial solar, EV charging points for employees and/or customers, investing into start-ups that are currently driving forward new ventures in agriculture and CO2 reduction, and proactively encouraging other businesses and government officials to follow suit are all essential practices for any business looking to drive the world from shaky to stable ground.
We already know the rules on avoiding a climate disaster, it is just a matter of instating them.
The report has found its way onto the desks of governmental officials and policy makers, business leaders and individuals around the world – and, undoubtedly, set plenty of minds racing. Already, two countries – Suriname and Bhutan – have achieved a carbon negative status, which means that all countries are now privy to a strong roadmap for success.
The G7 Summit held this summer garnered mixed reactions from bystanders but, following the release of this critical and stark report, there is a growing sense of hope for the COP26 Global Climate Summit, which will be held in Glasgow this October and November.
There, world leaders will meet under the menacing cloud this report has created – but, as usual, it will offer a silver lining to those willing to take the action required to find it.
Until then, our duty remains limited to what we can do as individuals and as businesses. Every ton of carbon impacts our world, which means that every time we embrace renewable technologies and practices over the ‘old ways’, we are making a genuine difference on the world, and, more importantly, on our collective future.