World has only 12 years to stem catastrophic climate change

The world’s leading climate scientists have warned that we have only twelve years to stem the rise in global warming to a maximum of 1.5C. Any rise above that will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

The authors of the landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was published on 8th October, say urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target. We wonder how the government can continue to support Heathrow’s proposals for a third runway when scientists are warning that even a 1.5C rise will have severe consequences for the planet.

 A wake-up call for governments - including the British MPs who voted for a third runway

A wake-up call for governments - including the British MPs who voted for a third runway

The world is currently one degree centigrade (1C) warmer than pre-industrial levels. Extreme weather conditions, like those experienced over the last year, have led to fears for the future. The IPCC report makes it clear that climate change is already happening.

Policymakers commissioned the report at the Paris climate talks in 2016. Scientists who reviewed the 6,000 works referenced in the report, said the substantial change caused by just half a degree came as a revelation.

At 2C the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress could be 50% higher than if temperature rose by 1.5C. Climate-related poverty could also be significantly reduced.

At 2C extremely hot days, such as those experienced in the northern hemisphere this summer, would become more severe and common, increasing heat-related deaths and causing more forest fires.

However, the greatest difference would be to nature. Insects, which are vital for pollination of crops, and plants are almost twice as likely to lose half their habitat at 2C compared with 1.5C. Corals would be 99% lost at the higher of the two temperatures. By contrast, more than 10% have a chance of surviving if the lower target is reached.

Climate change is occurring earlier and more rapidly than expected. Even at the current level of 1C warming, it is painful. This report is really important. It has a scientific robustness that shows 1.5C is not just a political concession. There is a growing recognition that 2C is dangerous.
— Johan Rockstrom, expert in global sustainability and water resources

Sea-level rise would affect 10 million more people by 2100 if the half-degree extra warming brought a forecast 10cm additional pressure on coastlines. The number affected would increase substantially in the following centuries due to locked-in ice melt.

Oceans are already suffering from elevated acidity and lower levels of oxygen as a result of climate change. One model shows marine fisheries would lose 3m tonnes at 2C, twice the decline at 1.5C.

Sea ice-free summers in the Arctic, which is warming two to three times faster than the world average, would come once every 100 years at 1.5C, but every 10 years with half a degree more of global warming.

Time is running out.

It is worth remembering that when Sir Howard Davies launched the final Airports Commission Report on 1st July 2015 he released a video in which he said that for the foreseeable future it was “DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE THAT AIRCRAFT CAN BE RUN WITH ANYTHING OTHER THAN FOSSIL FUELS AS THEIR SOURCE OF MAJOR POWER.”

 Sir Howard Davies put aviation greed before the environment or other areas of the economy

Sir Howard Davies put aviation greed before the environment or other areas of the economy

So his panel looked at what degree of growth of aviation was “plausible” at that time to keep within UK climate change targets. According to Davies, they concluded that: “the equivalent of one new runway’s worth of capacity, if you like, in London and the South East is manageable within our climate change committments IF THE REST OF THE ECONOMY DE-CARBONISES as people expect AND (IF) AIRCRAFT BECOME MORE FUEL EFFICIENT we THINK that that is manageable. Beyond that, we are going to have to need to look very carefully at how that works as to whether capacity beyond that is affordable. BUT AS FAR AS WE CAN SEE, one new runway can be accommodated within our climate change commitments.”

Notice how Davies tried to choose his words carefully as it was evident even in 2015 that aviation growth could be disastrous for climate change. Some people will remember a Climate Camp set up close to Heathrow by activists in 2007. He is talking about “accommodating” Heathrow’s runway at the expense of other industries, which would be forced to cut their carbon so that the airport can expand. Even Davies talks about “one new runway’s worth of capacity”. Was he really convinced that actually building a runway was the best option for the environment? Despite pledges that a third runway wouldn’t be used if pollution targets weren’t met, no one believes that a runway costing billions would be left idle in any circumstances - even if it were shown to be speeding us towards a 2C rise in global temperatures.

 Food shortages and price increases for essentials will affect everyone - starting with the poorest

Food shortages and price increases for essentials will affect everyone - starting with the poorest

Jim Skea, a co-chair of the IPCC working group on mitigation, said the main finding of his group was the need for urgency.

There were fears the text of the report would be watered down by the US, Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries that are reluctant to consider more ambitious cuts. The authors said nothing of substance was cut from a text.

Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, said the final document was “incredibly conservative” because it did not mention the likely rise in climate-driven refugees or the danger of tipping points that could push the world on to an irreversible path of extreme warming.

The IPCC global warming report spares politicians the worst details
— Bob Ward, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change

The report will be presented to governments at the UN climate conference in Poland at the end of this year. But analysts say there is much work to be done, with even pro-Paris deal nations involved in fossil fuel extraction that runs against the spirit of their commitments. Britain is pushing ahead with gas fracking, Norway with oil exploration in the Arctic, and the German government wants to tear down Hambach forest to dig for coal.

At the current level of commitments, the world is on course for a disastrous 3C of warming. The report authors are refusing to accept defeat, believing the increasingly visible damage caused by climate change will shift opinion their way.

 Johan Rockström

Johan Rockström

Johan Rockström, a co-author of the recent Hothouse Earth report, said scientists never previously discussed 1.5C, which was initially seen as a political concession to small island states. But he said opinion had shifted in the past few years along with growing evidence of climate instability and the approach of tipping points that might push the world off a course that could be controlled by emissions reductions.

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