The impact of climate change is larger, more complex and more pressing than ever, says the latest UN climate report, which was published today. Billions of people are already “highly vulnerable” to a certain level of warming that is inevitable, regardless of emissions reduction efforts. Yet if the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming is overshot, even temporarily, some consequences will become irreversible, with adaptation impossible for certain species and people.
The report is predictably grim and should prompt greater efforts to urgently decarbonise the global economy. Yet, given the terrible events in Ukraine, a melancholic sense of resolve, rather than outrage and action, has so far been the overriding response.
“We will not surrender in Ukraine, and we hope the world will not surrender in building a climate resilient future,” Svitlana Krakovska, the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told delegates on Sunday morning. Years of preparatory research would now have to “compete for media space with war”, she rued.
Even without a war, however, the report’s publication would still have been a sober affair, with scientists underlining that the world is still some way off from getting to grips with climate change. If short-sighted, quick-fix solutions continue to dominate the response, then future climate risks — from catastrophic wildfires, to melting glaciers and the water insecurity that already affects half of the world’s population — will escalate and compound the suffering.
“I’ve seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this,” the UN secretary-general António Guterres told reporters at a press conference on Monday. Unchecked pollution is “forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frogmarch to destruction”, he said. Guterres described the situation as the result of an “abdication of leadership” by governments around the world, with big polluters “guilty of arson”.
The UN’s last major climate assessment report was published in 2013, and since then there has been “increased evidence of maladaptation”, the report warns. Misguided initiatives – such as planting trees in water-scarce regions, or burning forests for fuel – reduce the chances of successfully adapting to the challenges ahead. Building expensive seawalls may temporarily protect homes for example, but also lull people into a false sense of security that ultimately causes more damage in the longer term.
Such poorly thought-through responses “create lock-ins of vulnerability”. The increasing intensity and frequency of climate disasters means developing countries and small island states are already less able to overcome the poverty cycle, Mrityunjoy Das, from the NGO CARE Bangladesh, told reporters last week. Without scaled-up funding from developed economies, including at least 50 per cent of climate finance going to adaptation measures not just mitigation, existing inequalities will only worsen.
“At Cop26, developed countries failed to mobilise the $100bn each year for climate finance which had been agreed in 2009. They also failed to get anywhere close to the 50/50 split between adaptation funding and mitigation that was called for in the Paris [Agreement],” says Camilla Toulmin of the International Institute for Environment and Development.
Instead of pursuing expensive and potentially highly damaging solutions such as solar geoengineering – where particles are pumped into the stratosphere in order to reflect sunlight back out into space – the focus should be on supporting communities, and protecting ecosystems, the experts suggest. This approach does not simply mean planting more trees. Instead it will require governments to ensure that 30 to 50 per cent of the world’s habitats are restored and conserved, from rehabilitating wetlands to reduce flood risks, to planting mangroves to help safeguard coastlines.
“We need large-scale ecosystem restoration from ocean to mountain top,” said Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN environment programme. “Humanity has spent centuries treating nature as its enemy,” she said. “The truth is nature can be our saviour, but only if we save it first”.
Yet even then, interventions will not be enough for some species. The loss of coral reefs is expected once the world reaches 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming (we are already at 1.1 degrees, and currently heading for closer to 3 degrees). “The risk of extinction in biodiversity hotspots increases tenfold as warming rises from 1.5- 3 degrees Celsius,” said Hans-Otto Portner, co-chair of the report.
Ultimately, the world urgently needs political cooperation, not competition, and a recognition that nature must be protected so it can help humanity survive, the reports’ authors stress.
“Different interests, values and world views can be reconciled if everyone works together, urged Debra Roberts, the co-chair of the report. “Starting today, every action, every choice and every decision matters – because each of them can take us away from, or towards, a climate resilient, sustainable world.”