The impact of climate change is currently visible across many parts of the world – flooding in Europe, widespread fires in the Americas and unseasonal rain in many regions.
Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.
Scientists are observing changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, released yesterday. Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.
But there is still time to limit climate change, IPCC experts say. Strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases could quickly make air quality better, and in 20 to 30 years global temperatures could stabilise.
‘Code red for humanity’
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the Working Group's report was nothing less than "a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable".
He noted that the internationally-agreed threshold of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels of global heating was "perilously close. We are at imminent risk of hitting 1.5 degrees in the near term. The only way to prevent exceeding this threshold, is by urgently stepping up our efforts, and persuing the most ambitious path.
The UN chief in a detailed reaction to the report, said that solutions were clear. "Inclusive and green economies, prosperity, cleaner air and better health are possible for all, if we respond to this crisis with solidarity and courage", he said.
He added that ahead of the crucial COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, all nations – especially the advanced G20 economies – needed to join the net zero emissions coaltion, and reinforce their promises on slowing down and reversing global heating, "with credible, concrete, and enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)" that lay out detailed steps.
The report, prepared by 234 scientists from 66 countries, highlights that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years.
In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years, and concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide were higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.
Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over a least the last 2,000 years. For example, temperatures during the most recent decade (2011–2020) exceed those of the most recent multi-century warm period, around 6,500 years ago, the report indicates.
Meanwhile, global mean sea level has risen faster since 1900, than over any preceding century in at least the last 3,000 years.
The document shows that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1 deg C of warming between 1850-1900, and finds that averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5deg C of heating.
Time is running out
The IPCC scientists warn global warming of 2deg C will be exceeded during the 21st century. Unless rapid and deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades, achieving the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement “will be beyond reach”.
The assessment is based on improved data on historical warming, as well as progress in scientific understanding of the response of the climate system to human-caused emissions.
“It has been clear for decades that the Earth’s climate is changing, and the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair, Valérie Masson-Delmotte. “Yet the new report also reflects major advances in the science of attribution – understanding the role of climate change in intensifying specific weather and climate events”.
The experts reveal that human activities affect all major climate system components, with some responding over decades and others over centuries.
Scientists also point out that evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and their attribution to human influence, has strengthened.
They add that many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming.
This includes increases in the frequency and intensity of heat extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation; agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions; the proportion of intense tropical cyclones; as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.
Where does India stand?
According to CSE director general Sunita Narain, “Technically, India is the third highest annual polluter of CO2 in the world (fourth if you take EU-27 as a group). But the scale of our contribution is so insignificant that it cannot be compared. Between 1870 and 2019, India’s share of the global CO2 budget was just 3 per cent. While China emits some 10 Gt/CO2 and the US 5 Gt/CO2, India emits some 2.6 Gt/CO2 annually. And even if you take India’s business-as-usual scenario, we will still emit less than what the US emits today, or one-third of China at 2030.
But this is not to say that India must not act. In fact, it is in our best interest to take steps to combat climate change – at speed and at scale. Firstly, we are already seeing the worst impacts of climate change hit our people – from extreme rain, cloud bursts, floods and temperature rise. Secondly, we can act because we have tremendous opportunity to reinvent the way we do things – from the way we practice mobility in our cities and the way we build houses with thermal comfort to the way we provide access to affordable energy to the poor in the country. For us, action on climate change comes out of self-interest and co-benefits – reducing local air pollution and in this way also cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions.
And, I have to say this clearly, we are not walking the talk on this. The Indian government is sanguine about doing more than other countries in terms of comparable action to reduce CO2 emissions. But the fact is we have no measurable targets to reduce emissions, and this is why we are doing well – our NDC is to reduce not absolute emissions but the emission intensity of our economy. In this way, we cannot and must not boast of our climate change action. We can only say we are doing as little as we need in terms of our responsibility or contribution to CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, which demands very little from us. In these climate-risked times, when science has a tough and uncompromised message, this is just not good enough.
The fact is that climate change demands effective global leadership. And one thing that we also know from our pathetic track-record in delivering vaccines to all in the world is that global leadership is at its lowest point in human history—at least in our lifetime. Climate change is yet one more global crisis that needs a global response – we cannot win this without cooperation of all and this needs climate justice for all. But as with the war we are losing to the virus and the variants, climate change is also a great leveler – today not only the poor are hit by extreme weather events but also the rich. So, we need to act. And act fast and together. Science has spoken. Now action must follow.”