A Fridays for Future climate action protest in Bonn, Germany, March 2021
The IPCC has released its most recent assessment report, its sixth since 1990. Like the annual letter from Larry Fink, each of its reports appears to score greater media coverage year after year. This week, much of the noise surrounding the report can be summed up as “hey, things aren’t quite as bad as they may seem,” which has a degree of truth. Nevertheless, if the world is going to reduce climate change risks to avoid any catastrophe this century, the measures that society will take must be aggressive – doubtful when you consider the state of politics worldwide along with many companies’ vague plans for following through on climate action.
Based on what we gleaned from the voluminous report (over 3,600 pages, while the technical summary is relatively thin at 96 pages), here are the big takeaways we see.
True, the annual rate of growth in greenhouse gas emissions has slowed down over the past several years, from 2.1 percent a year during the early 2000s to 1.3 percent annually between 2010 and 2019. But at absolute rates, we’re spewing a lot of carbon into the atmosphere: almost 9 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2eq) annually between 2000 and 2009 versus 6.5 GtCO2eq annually the following decade. In 2019, the world emitted 59 GtCO2eq alone. Do the math, and we can see we still have a massive problem on our hands.
Yes, to paraphrase a quote from that 1980s Pee Wee Herman movie, when it comes to most of us including scientists, everyone (we) know has a big but. That certainly applies to the statistics the IPCC has slathered throughout its report. According to the IPCC, 24 nations, most of which are in Europe, have slashed their emissions over the years, and some have been doing that as far back as the 1970s. Here’s the bad news: Those emissions reductions have been canceled out by greenhouse gasses from emerging economies, and meanwhile, the per-capita emission rates from Australia, Canada and the U.S. have remained high.
Remember back in March and April of 2020 when many of us gushed on Zoom calls and virtual conferences about how we could see the sky again? It was almost biblical, as some of us humans witnessed the emergence of wildlife such as deer, and even bears, among the other creatures we didn’t recognize. Sure, there was a large drop in emissions during 2020: almost a 6 percent decline compared to the previous year. That decrease was due largely in part to the fact that the global transport sector, which screeched to a halt, saw its total emissions fall by 45 percent during 2020. But by the end of 2020, those reductions were becoming erased, and the IPCC isn’t hopeful about current economic recovery packages, especially the ones that include financial support for the fossil fuel sector.
Net forest cover worldwide has actually increased since 2010, and overall deforestation has declined. But as documented here on TriplePundit and elsewhere, deforestation has surged in the Amazon, and the IPCC has noted other regions in the world where the loss of trees is on the upswing. Depending on how one slices and dices the numbers, about half of the world’s emissions can be linked to deforestation. That’s a sad statistic that obviously needs to change.
We’ve seen the surge in net zero commitments as more nations have set goals, and many multinational companies have followed suit. And, nationwide emissions targets have covered 90 percent of global emissions in 2020 as compared to less than half of all greenhouse gasses back in 2010. But the IPCC isn’t impressed. “Many net zero targets are ambiguously defined, and the policies needed to achieve them are not yet in place. Opposition from status quo interests, as well as insufficient low-carbon financial flows, act as barriers to establishing and implementing stringent climate policies covering all sectors,” conclude the report’s authors.
We’ve heard a lot about activists who have made their voices heard at Climate Week in New York City as well as during the COP meetings in recent years. Along with the work of those activists, the IPCC acknowledges companies’ efforts to curb emissions, take on reforestation and improve the sustainability performance of their value chains. It also helps that the mainstream media is covering climate change with greater frequency in contrast to a decade ago.
But as the IPCC says, “There is no conclusive evidence that an increase in engagement results in overall pro-mitigation outcomes.” Further, any such progress, insists the IPCC, has been undercut but “climate change counter-movements,” as well as misinformation on conventional media and social media platforms.
Image credit: Mika Baumeister via Unsplash