Sounding the climate change alarm – exploring the IPCC report and responses

By Emma Lui

On 8 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its much-anticipated special report on the impacts of global warming above 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways. The report was produced in response to an invitation from the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2015, at the adoption of the Paris Agreement. 

Underpinned by scientific research and analysis, the report generated stark headlines.  It examined the potentially disastrous impacts upon both natural and human systems that a global temperature rise of 2°C would cause in comparison to an increase of 1.5°C. The message was clear: limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would have reduced future climate-related risks for the planet than 2°C.  However, the authors warned that ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ are urgently needed to prevent global temperatures exceeding a 1.5°C increase, particularly in four crucial areas:

  • Energy generation
  • Land use
  • Cities
  • Industry

Time is of the essence. According to the report, we are alarmingly close to breaching this 1.5°C threshold by 2030 if human activities and emissions levels continue to increase at the current rate. This is just over a decade away.

Sadly, reactions and responses have been mixed. A mere 24 hours after publication, the Australian government rejected the IPCC’s call to phase out fossil fuels and instead announced its support for further exploitation and growth of its coal industry in energy generation. President Trump, leader of the world’s largest national economy and the second largest carbon emissions emitter, was unsurprisingly dismissive on the report’s key findings, in line with his reputation as a climate-science sceptic. And in the UK, the Chancellor’s recent Autumn Budget was a notable missed opportunity to set out clear financial or policy commitments to tackle the global warming crisis.

Nevertheless, there have also been positive developments. As the Australian government threw its backing behind coal, the Hague Court of Appeal upheld a historic legal ruling in the Urgenda case to compel the Dutch government to take more effective measures on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In recognition of the extensive costs involved in transitioning to a low carbon economy, the European Union approved an investment package of €243m to support projects including climate change adaptation, mitigation, and governance and information. And prompted by the IPCC’s report, ministers in the UK have formally sought the Committee on Climate Change’s advice on pathways to a net zero carbon economy.

There is still hope. While the IPCC’s report emphasises that difficult decisions and policy changes are needed from governments to stay below a 1.5°C rise, it also urges individuals to act and make a difference. It reminds people that our collective behaviours and lifestyle choices have powerful environmental consequences. We all must be responsible consumers, commuters, and citizens if we are to change the bleak trajectory of climate change projections. The threats for our oceans, ecosystems, and existence are far too great for us not to.