On Monday 20 March, the UN released a report on the climate crisis. The Synthesis Report is the sixth contribution by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It brings together nearly a decade of published science on the impacts and trajectory of global warming, and the tools available to prevent climate catastrophe.
Since the last IPCC synthesis report in 2014, scientists have determined that devastating climate impacts are happening more quickly. Moreover, the worsening crisis is causing these impacts to occur at lower levels of global warming than previously expected.
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said that wealthy nations are not currently doing enough to curtail the crisis. He said that action from industrialised nations in the Global North is critical in order to “defuse the climate time bomb”.
The report confirmed what many campaign groups and less-industrialised countries have said about the crisis for a long time: rich nations are responsible.
‘Survival guide for humanity’
Introducing the report, Guterres delivered a blunt assessment of the challenge to prevent climate catastrophe. He said that:
Humanity is on thin ice – and that ice is melting fast.
Additionally, he likened the IPCC experts’ findings to “a survival guide for humanity”.
Guterres said the world still has time to limit average temperature increases to 1.5C (2.7F) compared to pre-industrial times. He stated that this requires “a quantum leap in climate action” by all countries in all sectors. But in particular, Guterres had strong words for the wealthy nations who bear larger historical and current responsibility for the climate crisis:
It starts with parties immediately hitting the fast-forward button on their net zero deadlines
He also acknowledged that some countries have a greater ability to change course. In short, wealthy nations with the resources to accelerate the green energy transition should commit to achieving carbon neutrality by as close as possible to 2040.
The nations responsible must step up their ambition
Guterres stressed the role of the Group of 20 (G20). These are the world’s largest economies, plus Europe. Together, they are responsible for 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. He stated that:
This is the moment for all G20 members to come together in a joint effort, pooling their resources and scientific capacities as well as their proven and affordable technologies through the public and private sectors to make carbon neutrality a reality by 2050
The IPCC report highlighted that developed nations were responsible for approximately 57% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 1850 and 2019. Conversely, the Least-Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) contributed just 0.4% and 0.5% respectively during this period. The remainder were emitted by developing countries across multiple regions. These figures exclude carbon dioxide emissions from land use, land-use change, and forestry. This is because the authors acknowledge that there are large uncertainties when accounting for these factors.
Guterres also said that leaders in emerging economies must commit to reaching net zero as close as possible to 2050. He avoided naming any specific nation. The major countries in this category include China and India. China has set its target for 2060, and India is currently aiming for carbon neutrality by 2070.
Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA), argued that the IPCC report demonstrated that these historical polluters must act on the climate crisis. He said that these countries have a responsibility to help poorer nations:
Historical polluters, the developed and rich countries must act on science and take drastic and immediate actions by reducing their emissions and delivering on climate finance and technology to developing and poor countries.
Past responsibility, present accountability?
As things stand now, most rich countries – including the UK – have set their net zero goal at 2050. However, some are more ambitious. For example, Finland has set its net zero goal for 2035. Meanwhile, both Germany and Sweden are aiming for 2045. However, the recent actions of industrialised wealthy nations show that so far these pledges are little more than hot air.
In December 2022, the UK government approved a new coal mine in the Lake District. The UK Climate Change Committee, an independent body which advises the government, estimated that it would cause 400,000 tonnes of equivalent CO2 emissions every year.
The government are also due to make a decision on the Rosebank oil field. It would be the largest offshore oil field in the North Sea, and would generate more CO2 emissions than the 28 lowest-income-nations combined. Yet, despite the huge impact of Rosebank alone, it also isn’t the only North Sea oil field the government are considering for licenses. It launched its 33rd round of offshore licenses in October 2022. 76 companies, including the likes of Shell and BP, applied for 248 blocks for new oil and gas exploration and development.
Meanwhile, the US recently greenlit the enormous oil-drilling Willow Project in Alaska. The project will create 260m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over its 30-year lifetime. But new fossil fuel projects are not only harming communities through their potential emissions. The Canary‘s Afroze Fatima Zaidi previously reported that the project will have huge impact on the indigenous Nuiqsut community:
The scales are tipped against the people of Nuiqsut and their neighbours, as well as all the other indigenous communities around the world who will be among the first to face climate-related destruction.
The least responsible hit hardest
Naturally, the countries and communities least responsible for the crisis are already experiencing the worst impacts. Marlene Achoki, global policy co-lead on climate justice for CARE International, said that governments and decision-makers must step up action immediately. She pointed out that billions of marginalised communities are already suffering due to international governments’ climate inaction. She explained that this has already led to a 1.1C rise in temperatures from pre-industrial levels:
At 1.1 degrees of warming today, over 3 billion people are already living with the harshest realities of climate change; high temperatures, drought, flooding, and other events that contribute to acute food and water insecurity, malnutrition, and loss of livelihoods. Often women and girls are among the most affected. The devastating impact of Cyclone Freddy in Southern Africa, the longest cyclone ever recorded, puts human faces to these figures.
Cyclone Freddy killed over 100 people in Malawi and Mozambique throughout February and early March this year. Indeed, climate catastrophes like this are becoming more common. Moreover, as the UN itself reported in 2016, they are disproportionately impacting the communities who bear the least responsibility for the crisis.
An end to fossil fuels and the start of an equitable future?
Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative and international program director at Stand.earth, said in response to the report:
This latest report could not make it clearer: the time is now for bold actions that directly address the climate crisis in an effective way. People from all over the world are already experiencing the increasingly dangerous impacts of a warmer planet. What communities across the world need is health, safety and security. The IPCC report shows that only by transitioning away from being fossil-fuel reliant, we can prevent the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. Yet, governments and companies are recklessly continuing to expand oil, gas and coal projects.
In other words, as the IPCC report itself confirmed, countries need to rapidly move beyond fossil fuels, or else they will overshoot the 1.5C target. During COP27, the most recent climate summit in Dubai, wealthy countries failed to commit to ‘phase-down’ fossil fuels. Instead, they intend to rely on low-emission energy – essentially fossil gas – which still produces CO2 emissions.
However, wealthy nations at COP27 did agree to finance a ‘Loss and Damage’ fund. The countries contributing to the fund will provide low-income nations with financial support for adapting to and mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis. This chimed with the report’s recommendations. It stated that:
A significant push for international climate finance access for vulnerable and poor countries is particularly important given these countries’ high costs of financing, debt stress and the impacts of ongoing climate change
The new IPCC report spelled out in no uncertain terms that the era of fossil fuels must come to an end. Moreover, wealthy countries must take responsibility for their climate-wrecking past. Perhaps most importantly of all, the rich nations responsible for the climate crisis must pay up to the countries who are now experiencing its devastating costs.
Feature image via Garry Knight/Flickr, licensed under CC0 1.0
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse