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We're Not On Track to Meet the Global Climate Goal – But It's Still Possible

Today's IPCC report is not an easy read. Here's what you need to know.
August 9, 2021, 11:05am

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

The last few weeks have made one thing abundantly clear: no one is safe from the climate crisis. Today, a report released by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that some of the environmental changes caused by human activity are “irreversible”, putting “billions of people at immediate risk”.

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In July, in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria, heavy rains caused devastating damage and killed over 200 people, with many still missing. A second spell of heavy rain flooded both a different part of Belgium and London, where tube stations and hospitals ended up underwater. Over the same period, torrential rains killed 115 people on the Indian west coast and flooded the city of Zhengzhou in China.

Throughout August, wildfires have raged across both sides of the Atlantic. The Dixie Fire, which has been burning since mid-July, is now California’s second largest on record, having grown to over 724 square miles and forced the evacuation of thousands. In southern Europe, fires have blazed across Turkey, Greece and Italy. In Russia, millions of acres of Siberia have been decimated by wildfire, after months of abnormally hot and dry weather.

Some of these events were predictable – for instance, India was expecting heavy rainfall due to its monsoon season – but the intensity of these weather events was exacerbated by climate change, a problem that is only set to worsen. As UN secretary-general António Guterres warned: “[The new IPCC report] is a code red for humanity.”

After decades of denial, anger, bargaining and depression, here are just a few of the hard truths we must accept in order to come to terms with our climate grief. It’s not too late to save ourselves from impending doom, but soon it will be.

Keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius won’t keep us safe

In the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world's governments agreed to limit global warming to “well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celcius, compared to pre-industrial levels”. The pact was signed by 197 countries and ratified by 191, and included commitments from all major polluters to cut back on emissions, creating a timeline for each step and establishing monitoring mechanisms. 

Today’s IPCC report notes that temperatures have now risen by about 1.1C since the period 1850 to 1900, but that capping that increase at 1.5C is still possible. Of course, as the past few weeks have shown, the situation is not good even at current levels – so even if we do meet the very ambitious 1.5C goal, we won’t be living in a world safer than the one we’re currently in.

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The increase in global temperatures will be felt differently in different parts of the globe. According to the IPCC, the most affected areas will be the Arctic in winter, and mid-latitude regions in summer. Scientists estimate the planet is getting 0.2 degrees warmer every decade, and that we’ll reach the 1.5 degree threshold between 2026 and 2052.

According to IPCC data, in a climate that’s 1.5 degrees warmer, extreme heatwaves will become widespread, with consequences we still can’t fully predict. For instance, in 2018, nuclear power plants in five European countries – Finland, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland – had to be shut down because their cooling water was too hot. 

Conversely, some regions of the world will experience much heavier rainfall and the ensuing risk of serious flooding. Others will have more frequent and more severe droughts. The IPCC also note that a 1.5C increase could kill off as much as 8 percent of plant species, 6 percent of insect species and 4 percent of plant species – but that impact will vary greatly across different ecosystems. Coral reefs, for instance, which are particularly vulnerable, may disappear at a rate of 70 to 90 percent. The report also indicates that these numbers will (unsurprisingly) become even more alarming at a temperature increase of 2C.

We are definitely not on track to meet the 1.5 degree goal

Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is a compromise. The increase from where we are now will still increase the risks of catastrophic weather events,, but aiming to stop global warming at, say, 2 degrees would have significantly more dramatic consequences for the planet, even though the difference is only 0.5 degrees.

According to Climate Action Tracker, an independent organisation analysing countries’ performance against the Paris Agreement goals, only two countries in the world are on track to meet the 1.5 degree upper limit, Morocco and The Gambia. Most countries, including all EU members, are currently on track for a 3 degree increase or more. 

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Most of the effects of a warming climate happen gradually. But scientists also know there are so-called “tipping points”, meaning “thresholds where a tiny change could push a system into a completely new state”, as defined by Carbon Brief, a UK-based climate change news site. For instance, there is a maximum temperature beyond which point the Gulf stream will no longer flow and the Amazon rainforest will turn into a savannah. 

These changes might be irreversible, and no one can pinpoint exactly at what temperature they’ll occur. It’s also possible that they might interact with each other and trigger a domino effect. The 1.5C limit was agreed upon precisely because scientists are fairly confident that temperature would not cause any of these tipping points.

To maintain a 1.5C rise in temperature, the years between now and 2030 are crucial. In 2019, the UN Environment Programme estimated emissions would have to fall 7.6 percent every year to meet that deadline. In 2020, the year the world experienced the largest-ever decline in global CO2 emissions due to the pandemic, the reduction was only 5.8 percent

At the current rate, our climate will be between 2.1 and 3.9 degrees warmer by 2100. That would leave our world as one in which current civilisations would hardly be able to function.

The responsibility for addressing climate change is not equally distributed

Countries where the industrialisation process is still ongoing – and where people don’t have access to clean energy – are currently emitting a lot of CO2. Although it’d be easy to point the finger at China, India or Russia, it’s important to note that the responsibilities for climate change are not equally shared among different actors. 

According to a 2017 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project, just 100 companies are linked to 71 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. An update from last year revealed that 20 of them are responsible for a third of all emissions produced since 1965. Obviously, they’re mostly fossil fuel companies, many of which receive a huge amount in subsidies from governments around the world, including within Europe, undercutting the bloc’s climate goals.

High-income countries have also historically emitted a disproportionate amount of pollution. As a 2020 paper showed, their development caused the majority of emissions throughout the last couple of centuries, as well as relying on “the appropriation of labour and resources from the Global South”. Even today, after years of climate action, the EU and the US alone are responsible for 23 percent of emissions, despite representing about 10 percent of the world population.

Back in 2015, rich countries agreed on one key aspect of the Paris Agreement: they committed to giving €90 billion in financial support to poor countries to aid their green transition and help them mitigate the effects of climate change. Currently, these financial policies are lagging behind. This is likely going to be a hot topic for discussion in the upcoming COP26 meeting in November of 2021.

Our most ambitious plans aren’t radical enough

To prevent a climate catastrophe, we must significantly cut down on emissions in the near future and become totally carbon neutral as soon as possible. And “we” means every sector in every country. 

For years, climate action has been framed in terms of personal responsibility: if you want to make a difference, you can try more eco-friendly diets, commutes or consumption habits. But these personal changes deflect from the difficult and far-reaching decisions that need to be made to restructure huge sectors of our societies, like energy, transportation, agriculture, construction and food supply. 

The problem is, even our most radical plans simply don’t go far enough. For instance, in April of 2021, the EU unveiled a European Green Deal, committing to cutting down emissions by 55 percent by 2030 and becoming carbon neutral by 2050. The deal – which still needs to be approved by all 27 member states and by the EU parliament – will involve measures like shutting down coal power plants, banning petrol and diesel cars and a tax on jet fuel for flights. 

It is an extremely ambitious plan, especially because it might even become law, but it’s still not compatible with the Paris Agreement goals. According to analysis by the Climate Action Tracker, to meet the 1.5C goal the EU would need to cut its emissions by 65 percent – not 55 – by 2030, and fund climate action in other countries. 

In response to the IPCC report, UN secretary-general António Guterres called on governments, investors and businesses around the world to concentrate on establishing a low-carbon future, saying, “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”