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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have finished their sixth cycle of reporting. They published the conclusions of this research in a report released in March 2023.

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In late March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final synthesis report of around a decade of research and investigation into climate change and its impacts and effects. This report is incredibly important, as it shows us an overview of what we currently know at a global level, as well as a regional level, about the impacts climate change might have on our environment. The report contains the best guesses about what could happen, and presents future scenarios with different levels of global warming to show us what these futures might be like. What’s clear is that each tenth of a degree makes a difference to the damage that will be caused by human-induced climate change.

Unfortunately, there was not much fanfare or media reporting in New Zealand when the report was released. A look on the Climate page of Stuff’s website 3 weeks after its release shows nothing regarding the report, and to find the articles they did publish requires searching through their archives. Looking at the articles, no news media site seemed to take the time to explain the whole report, its importance, and what NZ could do off the back of this evidence. 

What is the IPCC and why is this report important?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC for short, is the organisation set up by the United Nations (UN) to coordinate and report on climate change science across the globe. It comprises scientists from member nations of the UN, each a specialist in their field of climate research in their country.

The IPCC is divided into three Working Groups, who focus on different areas of climate change research. The first group works on the physical science of climate change; the second on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and the third on mitigation of climate change. There are also Task Groups which focus on research in specific areas such as gender-related impacts as a result of climate change.

The IPCC have reporting cycles, meaning that approximately every seven years they release three large reports, one from each Working Group, and a synthesis report, which summarises the findings over this period. In 2022-23, they released their sixth cycle of reports (AR6), which discuss the changes in climate science since 2014, when the fifth cycle was published. The report published in March 2023 was the final report in the cycle, synthesising the findings and delivering important conclusions and possibilities for action for governments worldwide (link to the report).

It’s important to note that the IPCC do not recommend anything, nor are they in the business of making promises of what will happen. They discuss the information that they have gathered through the scientific method, which comes with varying levels of certainty, depending upon many other factors, such as the availability of data, the extent to which this data has been verified, and the likelihood of certain scenarios. The IPCC reports can tell us the overall impact of certain policies, but they will not tell us what to do or how to do it.

We must therefore be careful when reading articles which quote a conclusion from the IPCC report, attempting to defend the arguments of a particular person. The report does not justify actions, but provides evidence for the possible outcomes of global warming. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is of interest to the scientists; just how we go about that is of interest to politicians.

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The main conclusions of the Synthesis Report of the Sixth Cycle

There are several important conclusions drawn by the report that all citizens should be aware of, if they are to understand climate change and its current and potential future impacts. These are the following:

  • Global warming has already resulted in a temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius in the period 2011-2020, compared with 1850-1900.
  • Time is running out. There is a rapidly closing window of action to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all, and if we do not see a rapid and severe decline in greenhouse gas emissions, we will not keep global warming to 1.5 degrees, and therefore the challenges will become more complex and the impacts and risks more severe. The next 10 years are crucial.
  • Each tenth of a degree counts. Each tenth of a degree of warming results in greater losses and damages, and risks that become much harder to predict and to manage. Current measurements are showing the state of the planet is worse than was predicted in the previous report.
  • Vulnerable populations are the first and hardest hit by climate change. These populations are less developed countries, indigenous peoples, low-income families, and those living in low-lying and coastal regions and small islands. 3.3-3.6 billion people live in highly vulnerable places to the effects of climate change.
  • There is a gap between what we are currently doing, and what we should be doing to both meet our targets and keep global warming within the 1.5-degree threshold. Continuing our current trajectory will result in 3.2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.
  • All models desiring to limit the impacts of climate change at least somewhat involve a necessary “rapid, deep, and in most cases immediate reduction in CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors.”
  • Cross-sector, multidisciplinary and democratic approaches are the best ways to implement and adapt to climate change, as well as mitigate losses. Working with indigenous knowledge, working with diverse approaches, working with vulnerable populations, and involving all stakeholders in decision making leads to better outcomes.
  • It is more likely than not that we will hit at least 1.5 degrees of warming in the early 2030’s, however we do have hope. We can still limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The only way to do this would be through large, severe cuts in emissions across all sectors and all developed nations on the planet.

The estimates: What will happen at different levels of warming?

The image below contains the IPCC’s estimates for all geographic regions at different levels of warming. The first scenario is for 1.5 degrees of warming, the last for 4 degrees of warming. As you can see, the impact gets more and more severe, as the average temperature increases. 

Future scenarios at different levels of warming
Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 2

The report notes that every region is projected to increasingly experience extreme weather events, which happen concurrently. This means that both hottest temperatures will increase, and lowest temperatures will decrease, as well as there being increased precipitation and risk of rain-caused flooding in most regions, increased fire risk, tropical cyclone risk, and drought risk.

For other terrestrial species like insects, mammals, birds, etc., of the tens of thousands of species surveyed, between 3-14% of them face a very high risk of extinction at 1.5 degrees of warming. Coral reefs are projected to decline a further 70-90% at 1.5 degrees – these may very well become something that exist only in our memories.

Alongside these ecosystem changes, we can expect changes to the availability of food, and therefore increases in nutritional deficiencies among those in highly vulnerable regions; increases in pathogens and diseases, heat-related deaths, and more. As the temperature increase rises, so does the complexity of managing the effects of this increase.

Severity of impacts of climate change on populations
Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 3

Current policy action vs necessary policy action: the enormous gap

If the policies and agreements in place in 2020 such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, were continued along their current trajectory, we would in no case reach net-zero emissions, nor keep warming to 1.5 degrees. There is a large gap between the current policies in place, and what needs to be done in order to respond to the dangers that we just saw above.

Gap between current climate policies and necessary reductions
Grey at the top of the image shows projected outcome from current policies in place. We should be aiming for the blue, purple, and orange lines: dramatic immediate reductions. Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 3.6

In the case of finance, globally we need 3-6 times more investment in climate-related programmes, initiatives, innovations, strategies, and knowledge production, averaged between now and 2030, if we are to limit the effects of global warming. In the Australia, Japan and New Zealand region, this figure is 3 times more at the lower estimate, and 7 times more at the higher estimate. For places like the Middle East, a much, much larger investment is required, with 14-28 times the current investment required to mitigate the effects of climate change. The report notes that “There is sufficient global capital and liquidity to close global investment gaps, given the size of the global financial system.” Factors within and outside the global financial system act as barriers to stop this from happening.

tree showing possible outcomes of acting now
What we do between now and 2030 impacts which path we follow long into the future. Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 4.2

The most important conclusion of the report is that what we do between now and the early 2030s, is what will make the most difference to the impacts of climate change for all future generations. Sea levels will keep rising for millennia, but just how much they rise is determined by how we choose to respond today. As you see in the above image, when we choose early action, we can set a trajectory towards a brighter, more stable, and more liveable future. If we make bad choices now, we put ourselves on the pathway towards greater destruction, pain and suffering in the future.

The good thing is that the report highlights the interrelatedness of the Sustainable Development Goals and the work being done to mitigate the effects of climate change and adapt to new realities. In places where we eradicate poverty, ensure clean air and water supplies, and educate all young people, we not only look after the ecosystems and allow communities to reduce their emissions, but also improve the wellbeing and living standards of these people. There may be some trade-offs between climate mitigation and sustainable development, but there are significant mutual benefits, too.

What can we do about climate change?

The Synthesis Report considers many different possibilities for climate action. These possibilities are both at the individual and collective level. Have a look at the image below, and you will see the various estimated impacts of particular solutions, as well as their relative costs to implement. The largest light blue bars represent low-cost high impact solutions, such as solar and wind energy, electricity efficiency, and public and goods transportation including cycling.

Impacts and costs of different climate actions
There are low-cost high impact actions we can take immediately to reduce warming potential. Image: IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report, figure 4.4

Things that we can choose to act on ourselves include our diet and lifestyle choices. As we can see, shifting to sustainable healthy diets with more plant-based foods and less animal products such as meat and dairy has a reasonably large potential impact. Likewise with reducing food loss and food waste – only buying what we need and making use of all of it can go a long way to reducing emissions.

Similarly, transportation choices make a big difference. Walking or cycling are the lowest-emission options, closely followed by public transportation. A fuel-efficient vehicle or electric vehicle if you do need to use a car also makes a big difference. Our shopping choices also make a difference, opting for efficient lighting, efficient household appliances, and other electronics which require lower energy supplies helps to reduce emissions.

This individual impact is summarised in the Demand-side impacts section at the bottom of the image. Sobriety, that is, making the choice to live a low-emissions, low-energy, low-consumption lifestyle, has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70%. Given that each tenth of a degree counts, these lifestyle and shopping choices makes a real difference. 

Most of the impact does however come from the institutions which make up a society, including government, businesses, and energy production. We can’t make the choice to use solar or wind power unless we have a large investment ready to purchase an autonomous power supply for our own roof, but our energy companies can make the decisions to stop fossil fuel energy production. Solar and wind energy are low cost and high impact solutions. Stopping deforestation and the destruction of natural ecosystems is a reasonably low-cost solution which likewise has a large impact. These kinds of decisions are the policies we need to see our politicians enacting, if they are to demonstrate that they have understood the problems we will face due to climate change.

The report puts specific emphasis on the fact that justice and inclusion are particularly important in the response to climate change.

“4.4 Actions that prioritise equity, climate justice, social justice and inclusion lead to more sustainable outcomes, co-benefits, reduce trade-offs, support transformative change and advance climate resilient development. Adaptation responses are immediately needed to reduce rising climate risks, especially for the most vulnerable. Equity, inclusion and just transitions are key to progress on adaptation and deeper societal ambitions for accelerated mitigation. (high confidence)”

Likewise, solutions that involve multiple stakeholders, and which are arrived at through collaborative means, have far-reaching impacts beyond just the state of the planet:

“4.9 The feasibility, effectiveness and benefits of mitigation and adaptation actions are increased when multi-sectoral solutions are undertaken that cut across systems. When such options are combined with broader sustainable development objectives, they can yield greater benefits for human well- being, social equity and justice, and ecosystem and planetary health.”

Some policy ideas

We need to demand more from our politicians, because as the report clearly states, current trajectories are not sufficient to mitigate the effects of climate change. As a reminder, current efforts put us on track to reach 3.2 degrees of warming by 2100. That means, if you are now 30-40 years old, and we continue as we are, your children or grandchildren will be living in a highly uninhabitable world with large-scale economic and ecological damage.

Here are some things New Zealand and other developed countries could do on the back of the IPCC’s Synthesis Report. These are not part of the report, as the IPCC is not involved in making recommendations or telling us what to do; rather they are my own ideas based on the evidence we find in the report. 

  • Stop all fossil fuel subsidies, spend the money saved on vulnerable populations.
  • Convert 100% of electricity grid to renewable (solar, wind as first choices)
  • Small scale grant programme for community ecology and environment initiatives (max $20,000 per year, per initiative for example)
  • Banning greenwashing with severe punishments, increasing requirements on green advertising, carbon reporting, and introduce mandatory emissions labelling
  • 1 day per week environmental work scheme, paid for by the Government (instead of working at your workplace, you opt to work in local government, or other associations on environmental issues, and your daily salary paid for by Government).
  • New Zealand international cooperation with low-lying Pacific nations on a much larger scale.
  • Free ecological and environmental studies programmes, climate change information sessions for all NZ citizens.
  • Investment priority in public transportation, cycling and pedestrians. Development of road and car projects scaled back significantly. Bike and electric bike rebates (50% off up to $500 per citizen for example).

Moving from science to action

The report is serious and sobering reading. It’s quite tough to think about what the world might look like in 20 years’ time. One of the best ways to confront this is through taking practical action steps in your own life to reduce your ecological impact and your emissions. Here are three ways you can transform your new knowledge into action immediately:

You can calculate your approximate carbon footprint using the NZ-based calculator FutureFit here.

You could think about diet and lifestyle changes that you could implement, focusing on food, transportation and energy use. How can you live better, with less?

You can have a conversation at your workplace about your company’s emissions and ecological impact. Push for more measurements of emissions, and more ambitious emissions reductions targets. Use the information in this article to help you talk about what the dangers of climate change might be, and why we should act now.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

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