The findings of the report don’t bode well for any of us. However, it conveys to policymakers worldwide to utilise this urgency to build collaborations and work towards climate resilient development.
TOWARDS the end of February when the entire world was witnessing the unfolding atrocities by Russia in Ukraine and the ensuing conflict situation, another critical development took place, which did not garner the attention that it deserved. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] published the second part of its Sixth Assessment Report, titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Gutierrez inaugurated the report with the statement– “Coal and fossil fuels are choking humanity”.
Not to sound as an alarmist, but quite frankly, the findings of the report don’t bode well for any of us. The report reiterates the critical need for urgent action, but presents this in the form of hard, science-based data which aims at helping policy makers around the world in developing policies in “climate resilient development”.
The IPCC was established in 1988 to conduct collaborative scientific research on climate science and document the physical basis, impacts, risks and vulnerabilities in relation to climate change. It might be interesting to know that the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
Every five to eight years, the Panel publishes a detailed report along with supplemental documents such as the Summary for Policymakers, Technical Summary as well as factsheets and FAQs. From time to time, the IPCC also publishes special reports.
The latest AR6 report focuses on the intersectionality of ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities.
In the recent past, the IPCC has published three important special reports –Global Warming of 1.5° C (2018), Climate Change and Land (2019) and the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (2019). Currently, the IPCC is in the process of its Sixth Assessment Report which consists of three Working Group [WG[ contributions and a Synthesis Report. The WG-I report on the Physical Science basis of climate change was published last year in August and the second report is based on the findings of WG-II. This piece seeks to unpack the Summary for Policymakers report, and explain the process, methodology and concepts in the report.
The latest AR6 report focuses on the intersectionality of ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities. The front cover art of the report titled ‘A borrowed Earth- – Inherited from our ancestors. On loan from our children’ clearly depicts the central theme of the report, that is, climate resilient development, marrying the concept of climate adaptation and mitigation to sustainable development.
It also reviews and assesses the vulnerability, capacities, and limits of both ecological and human systems to climate change. In order to do so, the main report (going into almost 3,700 pages) covers in detail eighteen key themes including terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, ocean and coastal ecosystems, food system, urban infrastructure, health, poverty, water, and sanitation, etc. Some of the chapters also focus on assessment of specific regions of the world. In addition to the eighteen chapters, the report also includes seven cross cutting chapters which cover biodiversity hotspots, desertification, settlements by the seas, mountains, polar regions, and so on. The report finds these interactions to be not just the basis of risks but also to be opportunities for future.
In addition, this report also assesses the impact of non-climate related factors – unsustainable consumption of natural resources, land and ecosystem degradation, rapid urbanisation, social and economic inequalities, and the pandemic. The report also acknowledges that alongside scientific knowledge, there is a critical role to be played by indigenous and local knowledge to understand and evaluate climate adaptation processes and actions to reduce risks from human-induced climate change. While doing so, the report seeks to recommend adaptation measures which are effective and feasible, and moreover, are in conformity with the concept of climate justice.
There is a particular focus on transformation of systems – both human and ecological, whereby transformation has been discussed in the specific context of systems including energy, urban infrastructure, land and ocean ecosystems, industry, and society. The report also considers the interaction and impact of humanitarian crises with climate hazards. It thus finds with high confidence that climate change is contributing to such crises, and that climate and weather extremes have increasingly driven displacement in all regions. The report also highlights the economic impacts and costs of adaptation measures in a very detailed manner.
Thus, across themes, the report finds that human induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts, and resultant losses and damages to nature and people. The report also brings attention to the equity and justice dimensions of climate change in that vulnerable populations and systems are observed to be disproportionately affected.
There is scope for controversy if the recommendations of the report in relation to the cost of climate resilient development are adopted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) as climate finance remains to be a sticky issue, as was clearly reflected from the proceedings and decisions at the last COP in Glasgow.
Before delving into the various projections, findings, and recommendations, here’s a quick overview of the key concepts which form the basis and substance of the report:
Measures to address impacts of climate change
‘Mitigation’ refers to human interventions to reduce emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases [GHG]. ‘Adaptation’ in respect of human systems has been defined as “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects in order to moderate harm or take advantage of beneficial opportunities”. Essentially, the report emphasises on the urgency to shift the focus of climate action onto adaptation measure for reducing exposure and vulnerability to climate change.
An adaptation measure can have several dimensions. It has ‘limits’, which is the point at which the objective of adaptation cannot be secured due to intolerable risks. Such a limit can be both ‘hard’ or ‘soft’- the former being a state where no adaptative actions are possible to avoid the intolerable risk, and the latter being a state where options for adaptive action may exist but are not available in that moment to avoid the intolerable risks.
Another dimension that has been covered under the report is ‘maladaptation’ which has been defined as the “unintended consequence, actions that lead to increased risk of adverse climate related outcomes including via increased GHG emissions, increased, or shifted vulnerability to climate change.” Yet another dimension of adaptation has been presented as ‘ecosystem based adaptation’ referring to “ecosystem management activities to increase the resilience and reduce the vulnerability of people and ecosystems to climate change”.
Alongside adaptation, the real focus of AR6, across all three WGs is on ‘riskassessment’. Risk has been defined as the “potential for adverse consequences for human or ecological systems, recognising the diversity of values and objectives associated with such systems”. In relation to climate change, risk becomes a function of climate hazards, exposure, and vulnerability of human systems and ecosystems. The report connects the climate action discussed above to risk by defining ‘residual risk’ as the risk remaining after undertaking and implementing adaptation and mitigation efforts.
‘Climate Resilient Development’ is the central theme of the report and has been presented as the best way forward by emphasising on stronger and effective adaptation policies which are supported by mitigation measures. According to the report, the phrase has been defined as “implementing GHG emission mitigation and adaptation measures to support sustainable for all.”
The report finds with high confidence that climate change and associated increased frequency of extreme weather events have reduced food and water security, hindering efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. It also attached high confidence to projections of near term warming and increased frequency, severity and duration of extreme events placing terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and ecosystems at high or very high risks of biodiversity loss.
A major component of all IPCC reports is to collect existing data on the status of human systems and ecosystems across the world and develop projections for the future on the basis of the data as well as assumptions.
This is the technical part of the report which might be difficult to understand to most of us! But here’s what you need to understand the various infographics and charts in the IPCC reports. Different ‘time periods’ have been identified in the report which form the basis of the projections. Firstly, the “preindustrial period” is the multi-century period prior to onset of the large-industrial activity around 1750. The reference period 1850-1900 has been used to approximate pre-industrial global mean surface temperature, and the period of 1995-2014 has been identified as ‘modern period’ in the report. For the purpose of future projections, three future periods have been identified in the report – ‘near term’ as 2021- 2040, ‘mid-term’ as 2041-2060 and ‘long-term’ as 2081-2100. In order to make these projections, different ‘scenarios’ have been developed to make projections for the future. These scenarios are based on different inputs, consisting of projections on GHG emissions, aerosols, aerosol precursor emissions, land use change, and concentrations. These have been designed to facilitate evaluation of a large climate space and enable climate modelling experiments. These input projections have been referred to as ‘pathways’.
The fifth Assessment report was based on a model of Representative Concentration Pathways [RCPs]. This pathway initially identified scenarios based on different levels of concentrations, GHGs emissions and other radiative forcings (difference between incoming and outgoing energy in the Earth’s climate measured in watts per square meter. The number mentioned after RCP in each of the pathway is indicative of the radiative forcing resulting from the scenario in the year 2100) in the future — RCP1.9, RCP2.6, RCP3.4, RCP4.5, RCP6.0, RCP7.0 and RCP8.5. This doesn’t include any socio-economic considerations.
Each of these pathways represent a different scenario. RCP1.9 is the scenario wherein global warming is limited to an increase of 1.5°C, that is, the goal of under the Paris Agreement, and = RCP8.5 represents the worst-case scenario of increase of global temperature by around 5°C by 2100, and the others are middle pathways with varying levels of responses in the human systems and ecosystems. The RCPs were subsequently complemented by another pathway model called the ‘Shared Socio-Economic Pathways’ (SSPs). The SSPs takes into consideration socio-economic factors and thereby claims to adopt a much more holistic approach to forecasting impacts. For the purposes of AR6, a set of five SSPs were identified—SSP1–1.9, SSP1–2.6, SSP2–4.5, SSP3–7.0, and SSP5–8.5 (The AR6 Fact Sheet provides insights on understanding the labelling of these SSPs as follows- “The first number in the label is the particular set of socioeconomic assumptions driving the emissions and other climate forcing inputs taken up by climate models and the second number is the radiative forcing level reached in 2100.”).
(For an excellent explainer on SSPs and climate modelling in general, see here.)
The report finds that the knowledge base on climate related impacts and risks has expanded since the fifth assessment report. This has been updated in the full report under each identified theme. Thus, across themes, the report finds that human induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts, and resultant losses and damages to nature and people. The report also brings attention to the equity and justice dimensions of climate change in that vulnerable population and systems are observed to be disproportionately affected.
The report attaches ‘high confidence’ to the data on findings. (Confidence levels reflect confidence in data pointing to attribution of the observed impact to climate change.)
The report extensively covers current and future risks, and also considers complex risks due to multiple climate hazards occurring concurrently and from multiple risks interacting, which further exacerbates and compounds risk and can result in cascading impacts.
Some of the findings on observed impacts attributable to human-induced climate change include – increased heat related human mortality (medium confidence), warm-water coral bleaching and mortality (high confidence), increased drought related tree mortality (high confidence), observed increases in areas burned by wildfires in some regions (medium to high confidence), impacts in natural and human systems from slow onset processes such as ocean acidification, sea level rise or regional decreases in precipitation (high confidence).
The projections for mid to long term also do not look any better for the planet. Biodiversity loss would continue to occur with increasing global temperature with increasing variations of species facing extinction.
The report also finds with high confidence that climate change and associated increased frequency of extreme weather events have reduced food and water security, hindering efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Impacts on physical human health has also been adversely impacted due to climate change (very high confidence). Thus, there has been an increase in the occurrence of food-borne and water-borne diseases, as well as vector-borne diseases (both from range expansion, and reproduction of disease vectors).
The report assigns medium confidence to economic impacts attributable to climate change However, within the larger umbrella, it assigns high confidence to economic damages detected in climate-exposed sectors such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, energy, and tourism.
Vulnerability and exposure of ecosystems and people
Vulnerability and exposure vary substantially among and within regions, on the basis of the existing socio-economic conditions, unsustainable land and ocean use, marginalisation of certain communities and inequities in social structures. The report acknowledges this to be attributable also to the historical circumstances of each State, including colonialism and governance structures.
The report finds increased vulnerability (high confidence) due to increased degradation and destruction of ecosystems – including unsustainable land use and land cover change, unsustainable extraction of natural resources, loss of biodiversity, pollution, etc. Such degradation and destruction of ecosystems have long-lasting and cascading impacts on human systems, especially for indigenous and local communities dependent on forests. In this regard, it finds that global hotspots of high human vulnerability are found particularly in West-Central-and East Africa, South Asia, Central and South America, Small Island developing States, and the Arctic (high confidence). The report also finds that between 2010 and 2020, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability (high confidence).
Risks in the near term (2021-2040)
The report attached high confidence to projections of near term warming and increased frequency, severity and duration of extreme events placing terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and ecosystems at high or very high risks of biodiversity loss. Sea levels’ rise will encroach upon coastal settlements and infrastructure, and commit low-lying coastal ecosystems to submergence and loss. On the other hand, ‘medium confidence’ is attached to exacerbation of impacts from continued urbanisation of exposed areas with more challenges if coupled with constraints in energy, water, and other services.
In assessing the current status of adaptation measures, the report finds that while we have reached soft limits of adaptation, it can be overcome by addressing constraints ranging from financial to governance.
Alarmingly, the report assesses the level of risks for all five of the Reasons for Concern [RFCs] to become high or very high at lower global warming levels than were predicted in the last AR by the IPCC:
“Between 1.2°C and 4.5°C global warming level very high risks emerge in all five RFCs compared to just two RFCs in AR5 (high confidence). Two of these transitions from high to very high risk are associated with near-term warming: risks to unique and threatened systems at a median value of 1.5°C [1.2 to 2.0] °C (high confidence) and risks associated with extreme weather events at a median value of 2°C [1.8 to 2.5] °C (medium confidence).”
(IPCC has identified the following RFCs in relation to climate change – threats to endangered species and unique systems, damages from extreme climate events, effects that fall most heavily on developing countries and the poor within countries, and global aggregate impacts that is, various measurements of total social, economic and ecological impacts)).
Mid to long-term risks (2041–2100)
The projections for mid to long term also do not look any better for the planet. Biodiversity loss would continue to occur with increasing global temperature with increasing variations of species facing extinction. Similar projections have been made in respect of water availability as well as water-related hazards, access to food and food security, ill health and premature deaths due to exposure to increased frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, which will continue to increase by the mid to long-term in all assessed regions.
The findings in relation to the observed and projected risks clearly show that mitigation efforts by stakeholders including governments as well as non-governmental and private entities are not going to save the planet. Thus, the report emphasises on the need to take to adaptation on war footing. In that the report first examines the current status of adaptation efforts. The report finds that there has been an increase in the adoption of adaptation measures globally in various stages of planning and implementation. At least 170 countries and many cities have included adaptation in their climate policies and planning processes, and the concept has been used to inform decision making.
However, the report also finds that such progress is unevenly distributed and with observed gaps. Thus, most of the observed measures were found to be fragmented, small in scale, incremental, sector-specific, designed to respond to current impacts or near-term risks, and focused more on planning rather than implementation Another challenge identified by the report is with respect to lack of institutional and financial support, in addition to lack of access to technology and capacity.
Finding that social safety nets are increasingly being reconfigured to build adaptive capacities of the most vulnerable communities, the report identifies that integrating climate adaptation into social protection programs, including cash transfers and public works programmes, as feasible methodologies to increase resilience to climate change, especially when supported by basic services and infrastructure. These programmes can also have co-benefits by tackling other problems such as poverty, and access to healthcare and education, among other things.
The report stresses on the critical need for having transparent systems for tracking progress and enabling effective adaptation.
In assessing the current status of adaptation measures, the report finds that while we have reached soft limits of adaptation, it can be overcome by addressing constraints ranging from financial to governance (institutional and policy). In tackling the climate finance gap, the report finds that while there has been an increase in global tracked climate finance since AR5, the current investment by both public and private enterprises in the field is highly insufficient and poses constraints in implementing adaptation measures, especially in developing countries which also host the most vulnerable regions. Even within the current numbers, a majority of finance has been in respect of mitigation rather than adaptation.
Future adaptation options and their feasibility
The report emphasises on the need for adoption of measures which are not just feasible but effective in reducing risks to human and ecological systems. For this purpose, it maps the effectiveness across several sectors emphasising on transition of: land, coastal and ocean ecosystems; urban and rural infrastructure; energy systems and finally exploring cross-cutting options. The report concedes that the effectiveness of such measures will only decrease with increasing warming. However, an integrated as well as multi-sectoral response could still be successful in addressing increasing social inequities.
The report warns policymakers and stakeholders to avoid unintended consequences of maladaptation practices which might result in increase in vulnerabilities, risk and exposure and exacerbate inequalities. This can be avoided by adopting flexible, inclusive, and multi-sectoral as well as long term adaptation measures.
The report identifies several conditions which are key factors, and will enable better, strong, and effective implementation of adaptation measures. These have been broadly identified along four axes: political and institutional commitment, enhanced knowledge regarding impacts and solutions, mobilisation and access to adequate financial resources, and – lastly – effective and transparent monitoring and evaluation process (inclusive governance).
Political and institutional commitment and follow through is required across all levels of governance and can accelerate the success of adaptation measures. Follow through would typically involve increasing public awareness and sensitivity to the issues relating to climate change, encouraging business environments revolving around adaptation measures, adopting transparent evaluation, and monitoring mechanisms. Institutional commitment can be garnered by defining specific and clear climate adaptation goals into policy frameworks, spelling out responsibilities and obligations of stakeholders in a clear manner.
The report advises mainstreaming adaptation measures into institutional budget and policy planning and into recovery efforts from disaster events. In relation to adaptation finance, the report has found that the need for the same has only increased since AR5, and the progress in relation to mobilisation and access to just funds has not been satisfactory. Monitoring and Evaluation has been found to be highly lacking in the present report.
Even so, the report stresses on the critical need for having transparent systems for tracking progress and enabling effective adaptation. Inclusive governance would lead to better alignment of climate adaptation measures with equity and distributive justice.
As mentioned at the beginning, this forms the central theme of the AR6 across the eighteen thematic chapters and the seven cross-thematic chapters. The evidence presented in the report finding a worse off situation since AR5 clearly reflects the urgent need to move towards development which is centred around climate resilience. The conventional notions of development as well as sustainable development have to be revisited in light of the exacerbated climatic conditions and the associated impacts and risks for the future of the planet.
The report identifies several opportunities and avenues across sectors and themes which could be the basis for more concrete discussions around climate finance, and strengthening institutions for transparent monitoring and evaluation of climate action.
The report finds that there is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to enable such a Climate Resilient Development [CRD] as the pathways are continuously being constrained in light of the increasing temperatures closing in on the 1.5°C mark. Moreover, this opportunity is not equitably distributed across all regions which complicates the problem further. Enabling CRD requires prioritizing risk reduction, equity, and justice amongst all stakeholders (public, private and civil society), and making inclusive development choices by integrating such key concepts in decision-making, finance and actions across all sectors, governmental levels.
The report concludes with a very ominous but critical message for humanity, “the cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
However, a more important message which the report conveys to policymakers worldwide is with respect to utilise this urgency to build collaborations and work towards climate resilient development. The report identifies several opportunities and avenues across sectors and themes which could be the basis for more concrete discussions around climate finance, and strengthening institutions for transparent monitoring and evaluation of climate action. Thus, the report offers solutions to each stakeholder involved in climate action; it is up to each as to how they want to take it – a warning call or an opportunity for better action.