Tuesday, September 28, 2021

IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (2021)

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released its latest report, ‘Sixth Assessment Report: Working Group 1 – The Physical Science Basis’, in August.  The report states that it is now “unequivocal” that human activity is warming the planet.  Eight years of research went into the creation of the report which also says that global average temperature will likely “reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming” by 2040.

Governments in all 195 countries who are members of the IPCC have signed off on the findings which come just before world leaders gather for the COP26 summit in Glasgow at the end of October.   It will ramp up the pressure on governments to provide clear action plans for how they will cut emissions, as the world is currently well off track to meet the 1.5°C goal.

Some of the findings of the report include:

  • Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy rainfall, droughts, tropical cyclones, acidification of the open ocean and increases in sea levels and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the Fifth Assessment Report (2014).
  • Human-caused climate change has pushed up global temperatures by 1.1°C from the pre-industrial average, and is driving weather and climate extremes in every region across the world.
  • Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.
  • Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.

In addition to the report, the IPCC has released an interactive atlas showing how climate change will affect every world region under different emissions scenarios.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the report ‘a code red for humanity’.  “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk”, he said.

The effects of worldwide temperature increase have been felt across the world in recent weeks. Wildfires have caused widespread devastation in Greece, Turkey, Siberia, and the U.S. West Coast, while flooding has killed hundreds of people in Germany and China.

What needs to be done:

The report says that the following steps need to be taken urgently:

  • Strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide.
  • Fossil fuels and deforestation must be limited as a matter of urgency.
  • Global greenhouse gas emissions must peak in the next four years.
  • Coal and gas-fired power plants must close in the next decade.
  • Global emissions need to decrease by 25% by 2030 and about 50% by 2035.
  • Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits both for health and the climate.
  • Governments have a major role in setting the conditions under which lifestyle changes can occur, through shaping policy, regulations and infrastructure investments.
  • Citizens need to be active participants in changing their lifestyles through taking steps to reduce personal emissions.
  • Rich people in every country are overwhelmingly more responsible for global heating than the poor, with SUVs and meat-eating singled out for blame.

Animal agriculture and the role of methane

The report highlights the livestock industry as the single largest source of methane.  Scientists say that methane reductions are probably the only way of staving off a 1.5°C rise. Cutting carbon dioxide is not enough.  They say the world must act quickly on methane and switch to a plant-based diet.

Going vegan is the single most powerful action you can take to reduce your carbon footprint.  Methane (CH4) is produced by all farmed animals – not just ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats, but also pigs and poultry.  It is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (about 84 times more powerful using a twenty year time horizon) and is responsible for about a quarter of all global warming.  But here’s the good news.  Methane is a very short-lived gas – it has a lifetime of only about 1O years compared to carbon dioxide which has a lifetime of 300 – 1,000 years.  This means that if animal agriculture was ended we could achieve benefits from our cuts in emissions very quickly, as compared with CO2 cuts from transport and energy.

Cutting fossil fuels like coal has a perverse climate effect: the particles of sulphur it produces shield the Earth from some warming by deflecting some sunlight.  That means the immediate effect of cutting fossil fuel use could be to increase warming, although protecting the Earth in the medium and long term. Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a lead reviewer for the IPCC, said cutting methane could offset that. “Defossilisation will not lead to cooling until about 2050. Sulphur falling out of the atmosphere will unmask warming that is already in the system….Cutting methane is the biggest opportunity to slow warming between now and 2040” he said.

A third of global anthropogenic (ie. produced by humans) methane emissions comes from animal agriculture. In Europe it is 49%.  The UN is calling for a 45% reduction in methane emissions, which would have many additional health and economic benefits.  A transition to a plant based food system would dramatically accelerate methane reductions.

The IPCC suggests we have, at best, five years to slow the worst effects of climate chaos.

What can we do as individuals:

In its Emissions Gap Report released in December 2020, the U.N. noted that about two-thirds of emissions are linked to households.  As well as adopting a vegan diet, here are a few more actions we can take as individuals in order to reduce our climate footprint:

  • Have fewer children
  • Cut down on air travel
  • Cut down on car travel (or buy an electric car if you need to travel by car)
  • Insulate your home
  • Cut down on energy use in the home
  • Install solar panels if possible
  • Buy second hand items instead of new, keep items repaired, join a Freecycle group
  • Eliminate food waste at home
  • Use your vote to elect politicians you know will legislate to address the problem of climate change

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