Humans are ‘unequivocally’ driving climate change – but is it irreversible?

By Sabine Tyldesley

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth Assessment Report this week with a stark warning that there is “unequivocal” evidence that humans are causing increasing temperatures. UN Secretary-General António Guterres further described it as “a code red for humanity”. The report found that every additional 0.5C of global warming causes clearly discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of heatwaves, heavy rainfall, droughts, and extreme weather events.

This made easy headlines given the continuing raging wildfires across the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa at the moment.

But headlines won’t solve the problem, and scientists, pundits and commentators have pushed back against succumbing to “climate doom”. Despite the assertion in the report that some changes resulting from the increase in temperatures were “irreversible” – citing ocean temperature and acidification, as well as global ice sheet coverage among others – many rushed to point out there was still much that could be done.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg said: “we can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis like a crisis.”

As the report stresses that the 1.5C target set at the Paris UN Climate Conference will likely be overshot, all eyes are on the UN conference (COP26) hosted by the UK in November later this year. COP26 President Alok Sharma said: “The IPCC report shows that the lights are flashing red on the climate dashboard,” adding that “the future is not yet written…I am encouraging every nation to step up action on coal, on cars, on forests and methane, and ultimately to follow the facts, to work together and to keep 1.5 degrees alive by ultimately listening to the science.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, said “every Government needs to develop an evidence-based road map setting out the technologies that they require and by when to achieve net zero”; with chief scientist at the Met Office Professor Stephen Belcher stressing the need for consumers to change their “energy hungry habits” and reduce consumption.

How the UK is going to do this is heavily anticipated, as press releases were at pains to stress that the Government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy (which will set out options for phasing out the sale of new gas boilers, with a ban on new installations from 2035) and Net Zero Review are yet to be published, and there is still no agreement on carbon taxing.

Specific challenges arise from some of the traditional tensions between the Treasury and No. 10 around if, when, and where to spend money, exemplified by recent reports that the Prime Minister “jokingly” threatening to demote the Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Many pundits lamented what they saw as the lack of measures to address the scale of the challenge of climate change in Sunak’s March Budget. Given the UK’s presidency of COP26, holding a second Budget that sought to redress this would seem like a politically sensible thing to do, and not just domestically. With foreign dignitaries due in Glasgow in November with the ambition of thrashing out a global agreement to tackle climate change, a UK Government putting its money (literally as well as figuratively) where its mouth is would go far in showing a willingness to achieve this while the UK is on the international stage.

It would also help cement Johnson’s legacy on environmental issues and tackling the climate crisis. However, the Chancellor – while supportive of net zero – is seen as instinctively fiscally more conservative and therefore less keen to splash taxpayers’ cash on the green agenda as the country faces huge COVID induced public sector debt. The Chancellor has, however, been strongly pushing the UK as a leader in green finance, with the UK’s first Green Gilt set to be issued next month.

UK industry leaders, including Oxfam and Carbon Tracker, were quick to call on Government to rapidly introduce policies which underpin its climate ambitions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson seemed to agree, stressing that “we know what must be done to limit global warming – consign coal to history and shift to clean energy sources, protect nature and provide climate finance for countries on the frontline.”

This report is just one of three Working Group reports with the next one due in February to report on implications for ecosystems, economies and human health alongside impacts, vulnerabilities and ways to adapt. The third report will focus on how to mitigate climate change.

A final report, which comprises the analysis of all three IPCC working groups and conclusions from their three special reports, will be published in September 2022.

Business, UK politicians, and global leaders are ramping up calls for action – rather than rhetoric and targets – raising expectation for COP26 even higher. As this report suggests, the window for action is closing fast however, so all eyes will be on the summit, and on whether Governments will step up to the challenge.