The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report on climate science is humanity’s clearest warning yet of its impact on the climate, but also its most direct cause for hope that immediate action and technological and nature-based solutions can avoid the worst of the crisis.
The IPCC, the United Nations institute responsible for climate change, has just published its sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the latest climate science unanimously agreed upon by all 194 UN members. This update on scientists’ current understanding of the physical science underpinning climate change is 8 years in the making and spans nearly 1,300 pages. Much of this text is detailed scientific analysis, but some key themes emerge:
While it has been clear for some time that human activity has been responsible for at least the majority of the warming trend observed over the last few decades, IPCC scientists had previously stopped short of assigning all blame to humans. This has now changed, with the authors concluding that it is “unequivocal” that human activity has warmed the planet – the certainty of language used in such a carefully worded document is clear: the choices that our society is making will affect the climate.
Extreme weather is being more directly linked to climate change
Extreme weather events have been in the news every day recently, with unprecedented floods in western Germany, intense “heat-domes” in the Pacific north-west, and the large wildfires that are currently scorching parts of the western Mediterranean.
A whole chapter on the attribution of these weather events to anthropogenic climate change signals an increased confidence in the ability of scientists to attribute these unusual climatic events to human activity. For example, recent heat extremes are “virtually certain” (99-100% probable) to be due to our increase in greenhouse gases.
The 1.5°C target that came to prominence in the wake of the Paris agreement is regarded as the first of the lines in the sand of the climate system: increase temperatures beyond this level and both the likelihood of severe impacts and the chances of running into irreversible tipping points in the climate system become an ever more real threat.
The IPCC’s latest assessment estimates that the climate will warm by this amount , even in the lowest emissions scenarios, with the year at which we exceed 1.5°C as early as 2027 in the worst-case scenarios. It is important to note that there is considerable uncertainty around this, and that in the lowest emissions scenario, the temperature rise could fall back below 1.5°C degree threshold as we approach net-zero.
Important nuances and a critical conclusion emerge from the IPCC’s low emissions scenarios. Despite the high likelihood of temperatures exceeding 1.5°C, carbon removal technology, when deployed at scale, could reduce emissions back below the 1.5°C threshold, where small overshoots occur. Carbon dioxide removal technology looks promising, but needs to be designed carefully. Scientists are now more confident that capturing and storing carbon, either through nature-based solutions such as reforestation or industrial processes such as direct air capture, can work. However, there is more to be done to ensure that these do not have negative effects on other sustainable development goals such as food production, water availability, and biodiversity.
It had previously been thought that, even were emissions to cease, future warming would be committed over the coming decades due to the ocean taking time to equilibrate with the atmosphere. The latest science suggests that if net-zero is reached and greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations decline, it is likely that future warming arising from previous emissions will be close to zero.
This is a rare note of optimism. It means that net-zero can work for keeping temperatures below 1.5°C, it can be supported by robust carbon removal, and it will also halt temperature rise.
COP26 is less than three months away. While the anticipation for governments and businesses to make ambitious pledges to net-zero was always strong, the expectation is now sky-high as the IPCC report underlines how essential these are. As hosts the UK wants to drive an ambitious policy agenda as it aims to establish itself as a leader in climate change and sustainability. Based upon the COP26 goals, policy areas will include climate mitigation and adaptation, nature-based solutions, green finance, energy systems, infrastructure, and the built environment, meaning the policy outcomes will impact the entire economy and all businesses, irrespective of sector.
The path to net-zero is an opportunity for businesses to improve the lives of all its stakeholders. Companies already committing to net-zero will receive an initial reputational reward for “doing the right thing”. More tangible benefits will accrue to strong leadership being shown, for example by committing to reduce emissions in line with science-based targets and a 1.5°C pathway, and placing sustainability at the heart of senior management’s decision making and accountability. They will be rewarded with numerous advantages including greater operational efficiencies, more resilient business models and supply chains, as well as the profits that derive from meeting new customer needs that enable them to be more sustainable.
Those who have transitioned to being a business that can thrive in a low carbon world are the ones least likely to feel the impacts of new regulation. A policy where this is already evident is the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) for which the UK has made mandatory for listed companies. Those who have already disclosed against its recommendations are being rewarded for a proactive approach and reaping the benefits of higher quality risk assessments, capital allocation, and strategic planning for its stakeholders, which results in a more resilient business model to the future impacts of climate change.
We are now seeing more businesses we work with prioritising their sustainability aims and becoming more ambitious, moving beyond committing to being more responsible in the management of their social and environmental impact, to embarking upon a transformation journey to becoming a truly sustainable business in everything they do, and embracing the leadership and innovation it requires to achieve it. This is the response the IPCC report demands.
more than a word.