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Amidst disasters, a new report from UN climate experts

Credit: Unsplash/Markus Spiske

In the wake of recent weather disasters across Europe and the world, nearly 200 countries are meeting from Monday to adopt new forecasts by UN climate experts, 100 days before a crucial climate conference for the future of humanity.

Extreme weather events dominate the list of disasters in terms of both the human and economic toll over the past 50 years, according to a recent analysis by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published on Friday.

Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists’ last assessment report in 2014, the world has changed.

The Paris Agreement (established in December 2015) set the goal of limiting warming to “well below” +2°C above pre-industrial levels, or +1.5°C if possible; young people have taken to the streets in millions to demand that their leaders act quickly; and the signs of climate disruption have never been more obvious.

In recent weeks, humanity suffered an unprecedented killer heatwave in Canada, raging fires in the American West, catastrophic floods in Germany and Belgium, a deluge in China. This caused astonishment among the populations affected.

“The warning signs were there, but I guess people think it’s going to happen to someone else, somewhere else, later on,” said Kaisa Kosonen of Greenpeace.

Even some scientists were caught off guard.

“The climate has changed faster than expected,” said Tim Lenton of Exeter University, noting that the IPCC’s consensus-based approach may also have led it to “moderate” its message in the past.

At this point, the planet has gained about 1.1°C since the industrial revolution.

With each additional tenth of a degree bringing its share of extreme events, scientists wonder whether it will be possible to limit warming to +1.5°C to limit the damage.

The IPCC will unveil its new forecasts on 9 August, after a two-week virtual meeting of its 195 member states, which will sift through the “Summary for Policymakers” line by line, word by word.

But existing research, on which the IPCC is basing its predictions, gives clear clues.

“If we don’t cut our emissions in the next decade, we won’t make it. The 1.5°C will most likely be reached between 2030 and 2040, these are the best estimates we have today,” climatologist Robert Vautard, one of the authors of this first part of the IPCC assessment, told the Associated French Press (AFP).

The other two parts of the climate report are scheduled to be released in 2022. The one on impacts, of which AFP obtained a preliminary version, shows how life on Earth will inevitably be transformed in 30 years’ time, or even sooner.

This part will not arrive until after COP26, the UN climate conference in Glasgow in November.

Many hope that the report unveiled in early August will put pressure on governments to raise their climate ambitions and implement the necessary policies.

“We face destruction and suffering every day (…). It is important to recognise that we are talking about the future of the planet. We can’t play with that,” said UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa this week.

In this context, the British presidency of COP26 is bringing together ministers from some 40 countries on Sunday and Monday in an effort to “give momentum” to the negotiations.

To still limit warming to +1.5°C, emissions would have to be reduced by an average of 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030, according to the UN. And while 2020 saw a drop of this magnitude due to the pandemic, a rebound is expected.

The International Energy Agency, noting the low share of stimulus packages devoted to clean energy, even predicts record emissions by 2023.

To reverse the trend, we must “rapidly and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, get out of coal, oil and gas, and protect carbon sinks,” said Stephen Cornelius of the World Wildlife Fund, who is hoping that the IPCC’s warnings will be “even louder” than previous ones.

The World Meteorological Organisation estimates that there is a 40% probability that the temperature will rise above +1.5°C in one year by 2025.

But scientists say a single year does not mean that the ideal objective of the Paris Agreement will have been exceeded for good.

If we exceed +1.5°C, “that’s no reason to say ‘[oh well], we’re giving up,’” climate scientist Peter Thorne, one of the report’s authors, told AFP.

“1.5°C is not a magic threshold that triggers Armageddon(…) If we get to 1.7°C, it’s much better than exceeding 1.5°C, giving up and going to 2.5°C.”

The Brussels Times