IPCC’s ‘code red’: Key findings and what it means for Australia
Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) handed down its sixth assessment report. Dubbed “code red for humanity” by United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, it provides a searing report card on the devastating role humans have played in the climate crisis.
The report was released the same week that California experienced it’s largest single wildfire, the hottest ever temperature in Europe was recorded in Sicily at 48.8 degrees, fires ripped through Greece, and the Chinese province of Sichuan saw flash flooding. These coinciding events couldn’t be ignored, and the report’s key findings echoed eerily among the international community.
The report reiterates with increased certainty and urgency that we’re not doing enough to mitigate climate change. It’s unprecedented impacts are already here and the IPCC warns these impacts will dramatically worsen, unless drastic action is taken by Governments and Corporations immediately.
What is the IPCC and why is this report so important?
The IPCC is a UN body formed in 1988 with the purpose of providing policy makers with scientific assessments of climate change. The IPCC reports condense and distribute the advanced knowledge of the state of global climate science. This latest report was created by 234 authors from 66 countries and cites over 14,000 peer-reviewed sources, coming in at 4,000 pages long. In short, it is the most comprehensive assessment of climate change ever produced.
But perhaps more importantly, the IPPC is also the most authoritative voice on this issue in the international community. The final summary for policy makers, which condenses the 4,000 page report to key findings, has to be approved in its entirety by all 195 member governments of the IPCC. The implication being that it’s very hard for policy makers to ignore the IPCC’s findings when designing policy, as the unanimous consensus of 195 countries on the science of climate change is weighing on them.
What were the IPCC’s key findings?
1. Human influence is ‘unequivocal’ and warming is ‘unprecedented’
The report states that it is “unequivocal” that human influence has warmed the planet and that it is happening on an unprecedented scale. It found that the earth has warmed 1.1°C since temperature levels between 1850 and 1990 due to human greenhouse gas emissions, and if we are to continue at current rates, global temperatures will easily reach or surpass 1.5°C in the next 20 years despite the Paris Agreement target. From 1970 to today, global surface temperatures have increased at the fastest pace in any other 50 year period in the last 2,000 years and sea levels have risen faster since 1900 than any other century in the last 3,000 years. If left unchecked, the report revealed that we are on an unbridled path to destruction
2. No region is safe
This IPCC report provides a detailed assessment of climate change in each region. On the whole, this report finds that if our carbon-intensive economies continue on their current trajectory, no region is safe from the worst of its effects. At 1.5°C, we will see increases in both the frequency and intensity of heat waves, longer summers and shorter winters all across the globe. At 2°C the impacts will occur in even greater severity and pose critical security threats to health and food production globally. Not only is no region immune from temperature increases, if climate change remains substantively unaddressed, the occurrence and severity of natural disasters will increase and we will see extreme sea level events.
3. There is hope but only if we act now
You only have to read the first three paragraphs of the report to feel its weight. Although the science is dire, the IPCC report shows that just as human actions can harm the planet, they can also help it. Both governments and the private sector still have the potential to curb the trend and stabilise the climate. However, this requires immediate and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. As soon as emissions stop, heating will slow and temperatures will stabilise in the following decades. But to get there, IPCC scientists are calling for “strong, rapid and sustained reductions” in methane and CO2 emissions globally. Critically, this report and the scientific breakthroughs that have come with it have given the IPCC’s scientists greater certainty that net zero targets can work, therefore giving them greater authority to influence policy.
What does this report mean for Australia and its policy on climate change?
The IPCC report clearly states that unless there is an immediate, radical reduction of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, we will not be able to limit warming to the critical 2°C mark. This means governments and corporations have to decarbonise our economies, which has serious implications for the future of climate policy across the world and particularly in Australia.
Australia is considered the biggest C02 emitter per capita among developed countries. It is the eighth worst performing country in this year’s Climate Change Performance Index and its rate of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal of ‘climate action’ is “stagnating or increasing at less than 50% of [the] required rate”. Climate change in Australia has become a highly politicised issue on which the country has a history of policy inertia. Australia ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016, with the Turnbull Government setting an official target to reduce emissions by 26 - 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The current Morrison Government has not revised this target since, and has refused to commit to a net zero emissions target like many of its peers.
This policy position is maintained despite recent research suggesting that a much more ambitious target of reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, as well as aiming to reach net zero by 2045 is required to limit warming to 2°C. Further, an even more radical emissions reduction target of 74 per cent by 2030 would be required to keep warming at 1.5°C.
The science shows Australia's policy commitments to climate change are inadequate. Australia is developing an international reputation as a laggard and risks being left behind by foreign partners. Even before the sixth IPCC report, more than 100 countries had committed to a net zero emissions target by 2050. The US, Canada, UK, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand are some examples of countries setting progressive goals. Our oldest ally, the UK, is the world leader, legislating a 78 per cent cut to emissions by 2035 in comparison to 1990 levels. Notably, even China committed to net zero by 2060 at the Summit on Climate this year.
Although Australia has significantly increased its percentage of wind and solar energy production, compared to its OECD peers, it's not doing anywhere near enough. If anything, it seems to be heading backwards. Antonio Guterres said the IPCC report is the evidence we need to show countries that they should “end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy”. Australia’s promise of a ‘gas-led’ recovery, out of the COVID pandemic, positioned as a better alternative to coal, seems widely fruitless, dangerous and completely at odds with the international agenda.
The IPCC’s sixth assessment report could not have come at a better time to keep policy makers accountable. In a few months, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) will be held in Glasgow and this report will set the backdrop to the diplomatic commitments and negotiations. This new avalanche of climate science irrefutably shows the role of human activity in climate change, and the immediacy of action required to avoid the worst of what's to come. Will Australia, and indeed the rest of the international community, step up? Or will we leave our heads stuck in the sand?
Claudia Strachan is a journalist and producer at ausbiz. She recently completed a Bachelors of International Studies and Media at the University of New South Wales. Her areas of interest include political economy, climate security and gender.