9 Aug 2021

The chance to meet climate targets almost gone, warns UN report

As terrible images of wildfires cover our screens daily comes a grim assessment from the UN. Unless radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions arrive now, this isn’t even the new normal – things are set to get much worse.

More intense heat, more wildfires, more deluges. Some sea level rise is already irreversible. These are the bleak warnings from a landmark report published today by the IPCC, the UN’s climate science body.

Agreed by leading experts and 195 governments, the report finds that the planet is the hottest it’s been in 125,000 years, and that change is rapid and increasing. Brutal weather shifts and other impacts can now be seen in every region of the world. The report also says, for the first time, that the evidence of human activity driving this change is “unequivocal”.

It is the most detailed account of climatic changes yet. It says, for example, that sea levels will continue to increase this century and, if emissions remain high, could rise by two metres by the end of it.

It drills down into new levels of regional variation. For example, floods in Europe are expected to increase in frequency and severity even if we meet our climate targets, and even more certainly for parts of Africa and Asia.

But many of the warnings have come before. So why does this one matter? As one report author put it, this may be the last such study released while there is still time to meet our climate targets. By the next one, it’ll be too late.

We’re already close to the edge. Today’s report says that the planet is already 1.1°C warmer than the 1850-1900 average. And crucially, it says that the Paris climate agreement target of limiting global heating to 1.5°C  will be breached in the next 20 years. The only hope is that policies are introduced which bring it back down afterwards.

We’re currently on a 3°C heating trajectory, however. The IPCC has said previously that to meet our climate targets, emissions need to come down by annual levels similar to the fall of around 6% brought last year by the coronavirus pandemic. The difference, of course, is that last year’s drop was temporary and unprecedented. Today’s report says we need a permanent, structural shift.

The report is part one of three, with the other two sections to be released next year. As governments count down the days until the crucial COP26 meeting in Glasgow this November, this is the new scientific standard against which any progress there will be measured.