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9 August 2021

“Dangerous climate change has arrived”: IPCC report is a warning to the world ahead of COP26

The latest UN climate assessment is out and the message is clear: wake up and act now or face the consequences.  

By Philippa Nuttall

If anybody still had any doubts, yes, climate change is caused by humans; yes, there is a direct link between this summer’s extreme weather and a warming world; and yes, floods and wildfires will get worse unless we take drastic action to rapidly curb emissions. The sixth and latest report published today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a robust read. The 195 governments that have pored over every word of this scientific report are in no doubt about the seriousness of the situation confronting the world. 

The report, which shows the effects of global warming are unprecedented and sometimes irreversible, confirms “the climate is changing and there is no question this is due to human activity”, Bob Watson, a leading environmental scientist and a previous chairman of the IPCC, told the New Statesman. Written by scientists based on the most up-to-date modelling, and then finessed and signed off by governments, the report should be enormously influential on political decision-making.

“Governments discuss every sentence,” said Joeri Rogelj, who works at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London and is a lead author of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment. “They don’t change the science, but co-design the summary for policymakers. The report will be on the desk of every energy minister and nearly every prime minister in the world in advance of COP26 in Glasgow this November.”

One major update on previous IPCC reports relates to the so-called “carbon budget”, or how much carbon can be emitted while keeping below the limits agreed in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. “Our new estimates show that to have a 50 per cent probability of limiting warming to 1.5°C, we would need to be at net zero in the next 20-25 years,” said Rogelj. This takes us, at the latest, to 2046. The UK, EU member states, the US, Japan and others have so far committed to reach net zero by 2050, and China by 2060.

Carbon emissions have doubled in 50 years
CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, in million tonnes of CO2
Source: IEA

World leaders agreed in Paris to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and, under pressure from small island nations and the least developed countries, also pledged to “pursue efforts” to limit the rise to 1.5°C. This temperature difference could be crucial.

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“I don’t see 1.5°C as a cliff edge and science doesn’t show that it is, but the risks increase markedly between 1.5°C and 2°C,” said Rogelj. “I don’t want to live in the world we see today and definitely don’t want to live in a 2°C world. But I know 1.7°C would be much better than 2°C, which in turn is much better than 2.5°C.”

The recent extreme floods in Germany and Belgium, the raging fires in Greece and Turkey, and the record temperatures in Canada earlier this summer are all the result of a 1.1°C warmer world. Adding to this another 0.4°C is not desirable. “We don’t want a world where 70 per cent of global coral reefs are at risk of dying,” Rogelj added. “The priority is to bend the curve down and get to net zero as soon as possible.”

The urgency of the situation seems slowly to be cutting through. “In the last 18 months, we have seen an unprecedented acceleration in action from governments, states, regions and companies,” said Richard Black from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a UK non-profit organisation.

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However, as Watson says, commitments made under the Paris Agreement fall very short” of what is needed to contain global heating. “We are on a pathway to 3°C of warming and even with new pledges we are not on a pathway to 1.5°C.” The biggest polluters will need to do more and speed is essential.

Post-Covid emissions trends are way off 1.5°C and 2°C targets
Climate Action Tracker May 2021 assessment of national emissions policies versus emissions reduction requirements

Source: Climate Action Tracker

“The less we do now, the more we will need unproven negative emissions technology and a dependence on large-scale bioenergy and carbon capture and storage, requiring land used today by pristine nature, forests or arable land,” said Watson. “We can no longer look at climate and nature losses as two separate issues. We need goals and actions that create win-win impacts.”

To achieve net zero as soon as possible, “governments and the private sector need to be honest and work together”, Watson added. “Governments need to understand what are the right policies to stimulate the private sector to change. The private sector doesn’t care what the policies are as long as they are consistent and they offer a level playing field. Policies keep changing, in countries like the US, Canada and Australia, they go up and down like a yoyo.”

Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at Exeter University, agrees. “Politics is the problem,” she said. “The economic opportunities and the technologies are there.”

Michael Mann from Penn State University in the US and the author of The New Climate War points the finger at “fossil fuel interests and right-wing politicians [who], for decades, have been waging a war on all efforts to act on climate”. Politics and energy are intertwined, with many governments tied into fossil fuels.

Mitchell sees political systems as blocking climate action. “In the UK, part of the problem is the first-past-the-post political system,” she said. “It is terribly old-fashioned and means we get into a system of flip-flopping politics. Proportional representation would get more stability in policies and would be likely to mean a bigger coalition for green goals.” She believes “countries with federal and highly devolved administrations are often better at moving forward with the energy transition” and cites the US as a case in point, where “despite Trump, states managed to move forward with climate action”.

As the host of COP26, the UK government’s leadership on climate change is crucial and will come under much scrutiny. “What needs to happen has not yet percolated to the top of the UK government; leadership from the higher echelons is still lacking,” said Black. “The UK government can’t talk about climate leadership and then be talking about rolling back on legislation to phase out gas boilers and ending green homes grants.” He added: “You can’t run a COP with David Frost-style diplomacy,” referring to Boris Johnson’s Brexit adviser who is known for burning, rather than building, bridges with his opposite numbers.

The IPCC report should give the UK government, and leaders everywhere, “clarity and focus”, said Black.

Governments need to be “realistic about what can be achieved”, Watson added. “If not, they are fooling themselves and the public. Without some honesty about what is achievable, we won’t know what we’ve got to adapt to and won’t be prepared.”

“Dangerous climate change has arrived,” said Mann, as the report confirms. “It’s now a matter of us deciding how bad we’re willing to let it get.”

[see also: Leader: A message for the planet]