6th Dec 2023

'Final warning' to act on climate change, warns IPCC

  • Deforestation is an important driver of habitat and species loss (Photo: CIFOR)
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The United Nations published a report on Monday (20 March) synthesising years of climate, biodiversity, and nature research to paint a picture of the effects of global warming on the natural world, concluding there is "no time for inaction and delays."

The UN body that publishes the reports — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — combined thousands of pages of research written by hundreds of researchers from across the scientific spectrum.

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The report will form the basis of climate policies around the globe for the coming years. The report shows that climate catastrophe is already happening in plainer language than the research it is based on.

It defines where damage is worst, what species will be hit hardest, and where action is needed.

Opening the conference in the lakeside Swiss city of Interlaken, IPCC chair Hoesung Lee said that "once approved, the synthesis report will become a fundamental policy document for shaping climate action in the remainder of this pivotal decade".

"For policymakers of today and tomorrow, [it is] a much-needed textbook for addressing climate change. But make no mistake, inaction and delays are not listed as options," he said.

Not just climate

The report makes clear that the changing temperature is one of many problems. Its focus on interconnections between systems is essential, showing that action is needed everywhere at once.

The use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers, faulty irrigation, monocultures covering large swathes of the planet, deforestation for meat production, and erosion has led to the degradation of a third of the earth's land surface. It is estimated humans destroy the equivalent of a soccer field every five seconds: ten million hectares a year.

As a consequence, it is estimated that 150 species disappear daily due to economic activity. And the destruction of marine ecosystems and soils and species' extinction all influence our ability to thrive or even survive.

One of the major achievements of the UN climate conference in Paris in 2015 was an agreement by 197 countries to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Everything above this figure could trigger one of the many climate tipping points. Tipping points in the climate system, such as the melting of Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the shifting of the Gulf Stream system, the thawing of permafrost regions and the dieback of the Amazon rainforest, could reinforce each other making global warming unstoppable.

The IPCC now projects this limit will be reached in the 2030s. Average global temperatures have already increased by 1.1C since the 19th century, but UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres insisted on Monday that the 1.5C target remains feasible.

Protecting habitats

UN officials on Monday stressed the report is solutions-based. But many experts feel the focus is too much on carbon-pricing measures and emissions-reduction, while habitat loss and biodiversity loss take a back seat.

In a recent interview with German press, Professor of biodiversity at the University of Hamburg Matthias Glaubrecht said, "humanity is sawing off the branch it is sitting on."

The exact loss rate of the world's estimated eight million species (many of them beetles and insects) is "unknowable", according to Glaubrecht, and he stresses that the figure of 150 disappearing daily is an effort to simplify biodiversity loss for policymakers who need to implement measures to prevent it.

A different, simplified, but potentially more effective way of looking at the problem of biodiversity loss is by focusing on habitat protection, he suggested.

Since the primary driver of extinction is habitat loss, Glaubrecht called for 50 percent of the earth to be placed under nature protection— an initiative known as the Half-Earth Project. It is significantly higher than 30 percent by 2030, negotiated at the UN biodiversity conference last year, but it may be closer to what is needed to prevent biodiversity loss and help prevent global warming.

So far, almost 16 percent of all land and inland waters have been protected, as have 8 percent of marine areas. But countries report their own progress with limited oversight.

Global stocktake

The report was presented before a crucial 'stocktake' of climate progress since 2015 that will take place later this year and will conclude at the UN climate summit in Dubai in November.

There climate negotiators will be looking at emission-reduction measures, adaptability (safeguarding against climate impact) and means, such as finance, technology and state capacity.


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