World leaders must drastically scale up their plans to curb CO2 emissions if humanity is to avoid the worst consequences of a warming world outlined in last week’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Unfortunately, there is no sign of that happening yet, but observers say the publication should boost political action on emissions.
The report, coupled with current extreme weather events such as Greece’s wildfires and a record 48.8°C temperature in Europe, has been seen by many as a wake-up call that should galvanise societies to take action.
Environmental leaders have called for new versions of the climate plans that countries are meant to submit every five years as part of the Paris Agreement’s framework. Without stronger plans, “the Paris Agreement goals will be out of reach,” said Patricia Espinosa at United Nations Climate Change, the body that oversees international climate talks, which will reach a crunch moment at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, UK, this November.
Nations’ current plans are estimated to put the world somewhere around the middle of the five emissions scenarios considered in the IPCC report. This scenario would see Earth warm by 2.7°C by the end of the century – well above the 1.5°C and 2°C goals of the Paris Agreement.
COP26 president Alok Sharma has asked countries to produce bolder plans before the meeting. Last week, he called for “major emitters to play their part”, a phrase that is typically used to refer to China, the US, the European Union and India, which together account for more than half of global emissions. In response to the IPCC report, China gave no hint that a new plan is in the works, instead referring back to its existing long-term plan of carbon neutrality by 2060.
Nonetheless, the IPCC’s work should give a boost to COP26 and politicians who are in favour of climate action, according to veterans of international climate talks. “I think the IPCC report is a massive wake-up call,” says Peter Betts, a former lead EU negotiator on climate and now an associate fellow at UK think tank Chatham House. “It is really worrying. Coupled with these extreme weather events, I think this does reinforce the politics for action.”
Most high-income nations have already upgraded their plans from their 2015 versions, so there is little hope for more action from them. In April, the US pledged a 50 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050 and the EU committed itself to a 55 per cent reduction over the same period. “You’ve got pledges of action from all the big developed countries, apart from Australia, which are at very top of what we thought possible a year ago,” says Betts.
This means that the lion’s share of the gap between government pledges today and the action needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s warming goals must be closed by middle-income nations, says Betts. That doesn’t seem to be happening. “You’ve got some big emerging economies like Brazil and Indonesia basically not moving, or even going backwards, so this is a problem,” he says.
Whether a strong new plan is forthcoming from China, which emits more than a quarter of the world’s CO2 and currently only plans to peak CO2 emissions by 2030, will be crucial. “My guess is they will revise it. The question is, will they do something incremental that looks good or something transformational? You can construct a powerful set of reasons why it [China] will do something ambitious, and why it might do something incremental,” says Betts.
The IPCC report may help bolster the case for other governments too, even if they stop shy of a new climate plan. India, for example, was thought to be on the brink of issuing a net-zero goal ahead of US president Joe Biden’s climate summit in April, but failed to do so. We also know that South Korea, the world’s seventh-biggest CO2 emitter, is working on a new plan.
The biggest political consequence of the IPCC report may simply be to put the issue back at the top of the agenda for governments distracted by the pandemic, economic problems and other pressing domestic concerns. “Leaders have an enormous number of issues on their plate every day, covid being the obvious one. This issue struggles to get to be the number one priority,” says a UK government source.
Referring to the IPCC report, the source says: “It just moves the issue up front and centre. It can [sometimes] be perceived as a longer-term agenda, or an agenda [only] for the heaviest-emitting countries or those already feeling the most impacts. The message [from the IPCC] is that it’s global and requires a global solution. This sets out very starkly for every world leader that this has got to be at the top of their inbox from now right through to Glasgow, so big enough decisions can be made to avert catastrophe.”
Low-income countries responded to the report by calling for more climate finance, including high-income nations delivering on their 2009 promise of $100 billion a year by 2020, which is only at $80 billion according to the latest estimate. “The IPCC report findings reinforces the urgency to step up and take action – with more ambitious [climate plans], long-term decarbonisation plans and more climate finance – well before the doors open at COP26,” said Sonam Wangdi at the Least Developed Countries Group in a statement.
One message of the report that may have an instant impact is that “it is now an established fact” that climate change is linked to extreme weather events like the heatwaves and floods that have hit countries from Canada to China this year. “I think the increasing ability to link specific events with confidence to climate change, that boosts the narrative [for action on emissions],” says Betts.
This stronger link could spur greater investment in adaptation to a warming world. “Now that people are joining the dots that climate change is here and it’s having nasty impacts, that has the potential to focus the minds of individuals,” says Bob Ward at the London School of Economics. “It’s no longer a theoretical, remote issue, but it’s here and now.” Societies will have to increase their resilience as many climate change effects are already locked in for decades, he says.
Liz Stephens at the University of Reading, UK, who works with humanitarian organisations including the Red Cross movement, says such groups will be calling for more investment in “anticipatory action” at COP26. This involves early warning systems for flooding and heatwaves caused by extreme weather, as well as making sure that those systems are used by communities. “The countries most at risk of climate change are really seeing the impacts of extreme events now. They will rightly be looking for support from countries that have caused climate change to help them adapt,” she says.
The report could also positively influence political debate about the cost of measures to make economies hit net zero. This will be high on the agenda in the UK in coming months, as the government outlines new elements of its net-zero strategy this autumn, including what to do about fossil fuel heating in homes, which is expected to cost billions of pounds to change.
In that respect, the report should strengthen the hand of politicians justifying the costs of strong action. Ward says: “The point about extreme weather is it’s damaging. While people go on about the cost of having to make changes [for net zero], they can now see on the other side of the ledger is this damage, which is not just economic but human too. People can now see there is no cost-free option here.”
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