Climate Column: Let’s not get too cosy

Reflections on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 Report.

Written by: Rebecca Shutt

Are you sitting comfortably? In 2018 we had a glorious British summer, but also a record-breaking one. It was one of the warmest, driest, and sunniest that Britain has ever seen, but do you think you could get used to this sort of weather?

For other parts of the world, it hasn’t been so great. Heat waves, flooding in Japan, and record-breaking temperatures across the world in July made for a rough ride. This is surprising during ‘La Niña’, when the Earth should be in a cooler phase of its periodic climate oscillation, caused by interactions between atmosphere and ocean in the tropical Pacific.

Even temperate Britain hasn’t avoided its share of extreme weather events; the wildfire at Saddleworth moor was declared a major incident. Scientists predict that global warming will result in hotter summers, colder winters, and a higher frequency of extreme weather events. The events reported last summer are more worrying when we consider that the current level of anthropogenic global warming is only 1 °C (± 0.2 °C) above pre-industrial levels, and is estimated to be increasing by 0.2 °C per decade.

In 2018, Korea hosted the 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during their hottest summer on record. Starting to see a pattern here? As Mr Kin Jong-Seok (Administrator, KMA) stated, the highest temperature recorded during the day exceeded 40°C for the first time, and the night-time temperature stayed above 25°C for the longest recorded period (17 days).

The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR15), released in October 2018, couldn’t have come at a more poignant moment, and here’s hoping it lands on receptive ears. This report is unprecedented in its evaluation of the different impacts of restricting global warming to 1.5°C rather than 2.0°C (the previous aim). It’s a document with clout, involving 91 authors from 40 countries, 133 contributing authors, over 6,000 cited references, and 42,001 expert and government review comments. It covers all bases.

Key statements and estimated figures from SR15 document for policy makers include:

  • “Coral reefs… are projected to decline by a further 70–90% at 1.5°C with larger losses (>99%) at 2°C”
  • “by 2100, global mean sea level rise is projected to be around 0.1 metre lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared to 2°C”
  • “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C is projected to prevent the thawing… of a permafrost area in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 million km2

Anthropogenic CO2 emissions contribute to the greenhouse gas effect, trapping more of the Sun’s heat in the Earth’s atmosphere than without anthropogenic CO2 present. The SR15 concludes that global CO2 emissions need to reach net zero by 2050 to limit climate change to 1.5°C. However, current legislation does not commit any country to net zero emissions, for example, the UK Climate Change Act (2008) targets to reduce the UK’s CO2 emissions by 80% compared to the 1990 level by 2050. This would not be enough to prevent global warming reaching +2°C and the additional damage to the environment predicted in the SR15. It would be heartening to see governments close the gap between the current targets and the findings of SR15.

SR15 also relates climate change to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), showing the interconnected nature of climate change to other global issues such as food scarcity, energy security, and public health. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “A half of a degree of warming makes a world of difference”. SR15 confirms that this will lead to “…more heat waves for tens of millions of people. Far greater species loss. Increased water scarcity in some of the world’s most unstable regions. A ten-fold increase in Arctic ice-free summers. And a total wipe-out of the world’s coral reefs.”

The SR15 therfore indisputably shows that the 1.5°C limit to global warming should be considered as imperative, not only for the environment but from a humanitarian perspective as well. Let’s not get too cosy. Let’s act.

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