Today’s blog is written by Fiona Dobson, International Policy Officer, on the latest international climate science report from the IPCC.
Wildfires are raging, sea levels are rising, whole communities and ecosystems are in peril. The recent cycle of climate science reports from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have made it crystal clear: climate change is real, and the window to act is closing. The time for change is now.
Today marked the release of the final report in the latest series of assessment reports from the IPCC – the leading international authority of the science of climate change. Here we’ll share the headlines, in particular those in relation to nature’s role, and what needs to be done to pull us back from the brink.
If the past 6 reports in this assessment cycle haven’t caught your eye, then this one must – to ignore it would be at our peril. It summarises all the latest key findings, from the science of climate change itself, to the impacts it’s wreaking across the globe, to what’s needed to mitigate and adapt to change to prepare ourselves before it’s too late. And these reports don’t stand in isolation – they are signed off by the 195 member countries of the IPCC. That means that governments have publicly stated their agreement with the findings, so provide the perfect opportunity to spark coordinated global action in response.
In fact, the IPCC chair has called today’s report a “much-needed textbook for addressing climate change” for the policy makers of today and tomorrow. But it's not the kind of textbook that should simply be skimmed through and put back on the shelf – it's one that sets out such stark findings that there should be no choice but to use it to drive instant and urgent action.
This report, and the whole of this assessment cycle, leaves no room for doubt that climate change is real, and it’s human driven. Our reliance on fossil fuels, alongside our unsustainable industrial processes and land use change, have led to skyrocketing greenhouse gas levels. We’re flying dangerously close to the sun. Key headlines include:
1. The impacts from climate change are vast – people in every part of the world are suffering the physical and mental health effects, and it’s the most vulnerable people and systems, in most cases those that have contributed least to this crisis, that are being the hardest hit.
2. Emissions are still rising, and this decade we need much stronger climate action than ever before. Yet current policies and promises to make change are falling short – if emissions are not cut faster than the current policies suggest, continued rapid warming from climate change will lead to a vast range of risks to both humans and nature.
But the IPCC notes it’s not too late. There is a brief – and rapidly closing – window where we can take action to avoid the worst of the impacts and risks from climate change. Whether or not we make it through will depend on political leadership, leadership that goes beyond rhetoric and into genuine, transformative action.
Nature is at the heart
One of the fundamental takeaways from this assessment cycle is that climate change and biodiversity loss are deeply intertwined. Not only is climate change pushing many species and ecosystems to the brink, but biodiversity loss is accelerating climate change.
The science has shown that limiting warming to 1.5°C will not be possible without protecting and restoring nature. Emissions from agriculture, forests and other land use represent almost a quarter of total global emissions. To get keep our climate within safe limits and build a resilient future, we must tackle unsustainable land use and deforestation, protect and restore nature, and support our ecosystems to adapt and thrive. In fact, today's report states that “conservation, improved management, and restoration of forests and other ecosystems offer the largest share of economic mitigation potential”.
Nature-based solutions – actions to protect, sustainably manage, or restore natural ecosystems – play a critical role, while also delivering benefits for nature and people. Today’s report lists “ecosystem stewardship” as one of the key conditions that will help to enable climate resilient development. But the IPCC also shows us that there are limits to what nature can naturally adapt to and contribute in terms of both mitigation and societal adaptation. We can no longer take nature for granted as a limitless solution to absorb our rising emissions. Hence nature must be better protected, restored and supported to adapt as climate warms. Nature-based solutions must be part of a wider system of transformation where, as a critical priority, we urgently drive down fossil fuel emissions so that our economies and societies are fully decarbonised.
It’s time for the UK to champion transformative action
In taking the Presidency for the 2021 climate summit – COP26 – in Glasgow, the UK worked hard to position themselves as climate leaders. Through their presidency of the UNFCCC, they put nature at the heart of discussions more than ever before. It’s now time for them to take that leadership further – from warm words into delivery.
Below we share some key areas for action:
The UK should lead the global community to get back on track. In 2015 the countries of the world signed up to the Paris Agreement with the urgent aim to limit warming to 2 above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 (it’s since become clear that 1.5 must be the ceiling). No progress was made on this at the most recent negotiations nor on the critical need to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible – this needs to be a major focus of the next round of talks. To add momentum to this, the first ‘Global Stocktake’ is concluding this year, which will provide an assessment of progress and recommendations for improving action to meet the Paris goals. We already know we’re way off track (the IPCC reports make that clear), and we need a new approach. The UK must be a champion in the global stocktake discussions, and drive action to phase out fossil fuels, fulfil the Paris mandate on natural land and ocean sinks and reservoirs, and tackle the accounting loopholes that have damaged both climate and nature.
The UK should lead at home on adaptation to climate change through its forthcoming National Adaptation Programmes. Each UK country will outline the actions they plan to take over the next five years to tackle the UK climate change risks outlined in the most recent Climate Change Risk Assessment (Climate Change Committee, CCRA3 2021). Analysis has shown that nature-based solutions can help address 33 of the 34 climate change risks identified as requiring more action in the third UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, including the eight risks requiring the most urgent action. The National Adaptation Programmes have the potential to be pivotal in driving action to help the UK to adapt but crucially need to present a clear vision of what good adaptation looks like. Nature-based solutions should play a central role in this to help not just adaptation but also climate change mitigation, biodiversity and social benefits.
The UK should champion high-quality nature-based solutions, and harness the power of nature to tackle climate change. Check out this RSPB report where we share lessons we have learned from working with nature on the ground, with actions that store carbon, help to prevent flooding and safeguard communities’ way of life, all while creating amazing havens for wildlife that people can enjoy.
The UK should lead on driving forward renewable energy and energy efficiency. We urgently need to invest in energy efficiency which supports climate, cost of living and energy security benefits and has the least direct impact on nature. The expansion of renewables in harmony with nature to provide our homes and businesses with low carbon electricity is also a vital part of our decarbonisation. The urgency to expand renewables, like energy efficiency, is increased by the need to secure clean and affordable energy in response to the current energy crisis. But solar and onshore wind still lack a prominent enough place in our energy transition. Although the UK is recognised as a leader in offshore wind, we still lack a strategic roadmap for reaching a Net Zero power supply by 2035, and the mix of technologies and infrastructure upgrades required to support it. A strategic approach is needed to reconcile the difficult challenge of the impacts on nature of increased roll out of offshore windfarms.
From science to transformative action
There is no time to lose. This ‘textbook’ from the IPCC should serve to rally urgent, coordinated, equitable action to limit warming to 1.5C while halting and reversing the loss of nature. The IPCC is clear that inaction and delays can no longer be tolerated!
The RSPB is working hard to protect and restore nature, not only for climate but for nature and people. But for the scale of change needed, we need our leaders to listen to the science, and put in place the policies and investments needed to decarbonise our economy and support nature-based solutions to the climate crisis.
You can find all the information about today’s IPCC report at the official page here. The headlines are here, and the summary for policy makers is here.
And to find out more about what past IPCC reports in this cycle have said about nature, see our previous blogs here and here
To find out more about how the governments of the UK need to take action, check out our report: A World Richer in Nature. You can jump to the section on climate change to discover our vision, the steps that need to be taken to get there, and some inspiring examples of what works best!