No time to lose as climate clock approaches midnight

This article was published in the Irish Times in late October, just days before the start of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

AHEAD OF the upcoming UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, many countries are now revising their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) as originally agreed following the 2015 Paris climate conference.

At that time, the stated aim of international climate policy to keep global temperature increases to ‘well below’ 2 degrees and to ‘pursue efforts’ to keep it to no more than 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial.

Much has changed in the six years since Paris. Perhaps the most significant new factor was the landmark IPCC Special Report published in 2018 and known as SR15. This report made it clear for the first time that devastating and potentially irreversible climate breakdown could be locked in at the lower threshold of 1.5 degrees.

This means that the wiggle room on strong climate action that many governments thought they still enjoyed has all-but-disappeared. As if to drive home the point, scores of extreme weather events have racked the planet in the last three years, culminating in the ferocious summer of 2021 across the northern hemisphere.

In advance of COP26, a recently published climate risk assessment research paper from Chatham House, a UK-based think tank has investigated global efforts to rein in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, concluding that we are currently “dangerously off track”.

Overall, the report observed that climate risks “are compounding, and without immediate action the impacts will be devastating”. Tallying all the currently committed NDCs, it calculated that there is now less than a one per cent change of remaining at or below 1.5 degrees, and less than a five per cent chance of staying below 2 degrees. Given that global temperatures are already 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial, the remaining carbon budget is rapidly being exhausted.

“A massive step-change in ambition is needed if we are going to have a chance of keeping to the 1.5 target”, according to Prof Peter Thorne of NUI Maynooth and IPCC lead author. Crucially, he adds, “we need to close the gap between current policy and stated ambition, and that’s pretty much across the board globally”.

Ireland’s declared national ambition is for a 51 per cent emissions cut by 2030, which is broadly in line with our EU obligations. While there are already major question marks as to how and whether these can be achieved, Thorne believes that morally, there is a clear case for Ireland doing even more.

“Should Ireland, which has more historical responsibility, be pulling stronger? Is it sufficient for countries to say we’ll just start (emissions cuts) from where we are, which means we effectively grandfather everything we’ve done before and conveniently park it and forget about it. Is this ethically justifiable? That’s an open question”, according to Thorne.

Much of the focus of international climate diplomacy has been around the concept of ‘net zero’ by a given date, usually 2050. However, the Chatham House report warned that these pledges “lack policy detail and delivery mechanisms, and the gap between targets and the global carbon budget is widening every year”.

It noted that unless NDCs are “dramatically increased”, with mechanisms put in place to ensure they are delivered, many of the most severe climate impacts “will be locked in by 2040, and (will) become so severe they go beyond the limits of what nations can adapt to”.

The report identified five key areas of concern. These are: extreme heat; food security; water security; flooding and finally, climate tipping points and associated cascading risks.

A recent study in the medical journal The Lancet found the number of deaths caused by high temperatures increased by 74 per cent globally between 1980 and 2016. Given that the five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015, this number will undoubtedly already be a significant underestimate.

Apart from mortality, extreme heat also imposes huge economic losses on societies, disrupting outdoor work such as agriculture and construction. The Chatham House report projects that unless drastic emissions cuts occur before 2030, some 3.9 billion people, or half the global population “are likely to experience major heatwaves each year” by the 2040s.

By the 2030s, over 400 million people globally face being exposed to temperatures beyond which outdoor work will be impossible, with some 10 million annual heat-related deaths predicted.

The outlook for future food security is alarming. The report notes that to meet mid-century demand, global agriculture will have to produce 50 per cent more food than today, yet yields are expected to decline by around 30 per cent in the same period.

The researchers project that during the 2040s, there is an evens chance of a synchronous global crop failure striking all the major breadbasket regions. This will have “devastating impacts on (food) availability and prices. Among the expected consequences are state failures, mass migration and conflict.

The global water crisis is also deepening and near-term projections are stark. By 2040, around 700 million people will likely be exposed to “prolonged severe droughts of at least six months’ duration”.

Cascading risks from severe water insecurity include economic collapse, breakdown of governance, widespread social disorder and armed conflict, possibly including nuclear weapons, according to the report.

In a climate-stressed world, the evil twin of drought is flooding. Last year there were 23 per cent more floods globally than in the period 2000-2019. Sea level rise is quickly ratcheting up the impacts of flooding events. By 2100, some 200 million people in coastal areas will be living below the 100-year flood level, putting them at significant risk, while river flooding will impact another 60 million people this century. Flooding risk has long been recognised as Ireland’s most acute climate vulnerability.

Longer term, even a 2 degree temperature rise, if sustained, locks in “committed sea level rises of around 12 metres”, though how long this would take to play out remains uncertain.

The report also argues that climate models may underrepresent the significance of climatic tipping points.

These include the disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, abrupt permafrost loss, breakdown of the AMOC or Gulf Stream, boreal forest die-back and the disappearance of the Amazon rainforest. The report looks at the complex interconnections between shifting weather patterns and the resultant changes to ecosystems, leading to increases in pest and diseases.

These combine with heatwaves and droughts to accelerate crop failure, food insecurity and forced migration. This in turn leads to a rise in infectious diseases among stressed populations, creating a negative feedback loop. Global supply chains, currently stressed by Covid 19, are also highly vulnerable to cascading impacts resulting from extreme weather events.

As the Chatham House report confirms, nothing short of radical action on emissions reduction, both nationally and globally will be sufficient if we are to have any realistic chance of avoiding near-term calamity.

Outside of wartime, change on the scale now being contemplated has probably never been undertaken. The first vital step, according to Thorne is: “we need to educate people about climate change, about what’s happening – and what’s going to happen”.

This he feels will require broadcasters to be on-board. “We need to be imaginative about how we’re reaching people, and communicate the urgency of the problem on a sustained basis”, he adds. “People need to understand there is no doubt about the science, and no doubt about the need for action”.

While there are significant costs involved in strong climate action, Thorne, who travels to Glasgow next month for the COP conference, points out that these are dwarfed by the costs of failing to act. “Let’s not forget there are also non-climate benefits to climate action – health, wellbeing and biodiversity benefits, to name but a few”.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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