The UN’s climate science panel unveiled (part 1of) its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on Climate Change on Aug 9, 2021, the first since AR5 in 2014. This 3949 page report is called “The Physical Basis”. A 150 page Technical Summary and a 39 page Summary for Policy Makers has also been published, among other volumes. The World and Science has changed a lot in the intervening seven years. It provides projections for temperature and sea-level rises less than three months before the climate summit -Conference of Parties COP26- in Glasgow-Scotland. After two weeks of virtual negotiations, 195 nations (including India) approved the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) comprehensive assessment of past and future warming on Aug 6, 2021 in the form of a “Summary for Policy Makers” (SPM). The text, vetted and approved line by line, word by word, paints a grim picture of accelerating climate change and dire threats.[i]
Stark findings António Guterres, secretary-general of the U.N., said in a statement that the IPCC’s latest findings are “a code red for humanity… There is a clear moral and economic imperative to protect the lives and livelihoods of those on the front lines of the climate crisis.” Unfortunately the identification of “those on the front lines of climate crisis” is missing in India as in most other countries.
IPCC assessments are known to be understatements, the reality has almost always proved to be much worse than what IPCC predicted, possibly because of their need for full proof of what they can say and their consensus building tradition. They also need to get approval of all the governments, which also tends to end up an understated negotiated outcome. Even keeping in mind (and AR6 is no different as we see in the background below) this track record, the categorical statements of AR6 are worth nothing.
- Nations have delayed curbing fossil fuels for so long that they can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years.[ii]
- The mitigation strategies submitted by nations through the Paris Agreement are insufficient to keep the global temperature increase within the 1.5°C or even 2°C limits. Globally, we have failed to even reach near the committed curbs on emissions.
- Every region in the world is witnessing irreversible changes in climate due to human influence. In the coming decades climate change will increase in all regions.[iii]
- The world is already facing extreme climate events with increasing frequency, intensity and spread. That is going to get worse. “We can expect a significant jump in extreme weather over the next 20 or 30 years,” said Piers Forster, a climate scientist who helped write the report. “Things are unfortunately likely to get worse than they are today.”
- Nearly 1 billion people worldwide could swelter in more frequent life-threatening heat waves. Hundreds of millions more would struggle for water because of severe droughts. Many of the animal and plant species alive today will be gone.
- The Paris accord’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is in serious danger.[iv]
- “Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered.”
- “Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years”.
- AR6 for the first time, included a chapter on short-lived climate forcers such as methane and aerosols.[v]
- Tipping points Tipping points, like catastrophic ice sheet collapses and the abrupt slowdown of ocean currents, are “low likelihood,” though they cannot be ruled out.
- Coastal areas Coastal areas will see continued sea-level rise throughout the 21st century, contributing to more frequent and severe coastal flooding in low-lying areas and coastal erosion. Extreme sea-level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century.
- Oceans could rise by 1-2 feet even in one of the better scenarios (AR6 considered five) by turn of this century, and heat waves occur 14 times as often if warming touches 2 degrees C.
- Urban Areas “There is high confidence in an increase in pluvial flood potential in urban areas where extreme precipitation is projected to increase, especially at high global warming levels.”
- There is a growing set of literature linking increases in heavy precipitation in urban centres to urbanisation. Urbanisation intensifies extreme precipitation, especially in the afternoon and early evening, over the urban area and its downwind region.
India specific aspects The findings are crucial for India because IPCC for the first time, provide a localised outlook with maps.[vi] The report has greater focus on regional information, also features findings of India’s indigenous climate model – the first from south Asia – explaining the impact of warming on monsoon precipitation in south Asia.[vii]
The Union Government on July 27, 2021 informed the Parliament[viii] that a state-of-the-art Earth System Model (ESM) has been developed at the Centre for Climate Change Research (CCCR), Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) and has been used in the AR6. The model was developed by the scientists at IITM-Pune in collaboration with international research community. This model has components of atmosphere, ocean including deep ocean circulation, Arctic and Antarctic sea-ice and ocean biogeochemistry.
Some India specific AR6 findings include:
- Why is India particularly vulnerable to climate change? The geography of India is such that it is surrounded by the warm tropical waters of the Indian Ocean on all three sides and the Himalayas on the north. This used to be the country’s forte but the ocean and the mountains have changed. Frequency of cyclones has increased by more than 50%, and monsoon extreme rains have increased threefold. This is because these events derive their energy and moisture from the oceans – and the oceans have warmed up. In fact, more than 93% of the heat from global warming has gone into the oceans, and Indian Ocean is warming at the fastest rate. (Roxy Mathew Koll)
- Both annual and summer monsoon precipitation will increase by the end of the 21st Century, not in next 20-30 years except internal variability change.[ix]
- El Nino associated rainfall variability will increase. Extreme Indian Ocean Dipole events are projected to increase.
- “A general wetting across the whole Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya is projected, with increases in heavy precipitation in the 21st Century.”[x]
- Models indicate a “lengthening of the monsoon” over India by the end of the 21st century.
- Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region will keep shrinking and the snow cover will retreat to higher altitudes. Glaciers are one of the slow responding parts of the climate system, so what we see now is not the retreat to expect from the warming we currently have. So even if we stop emitting right now or admit to stopping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, we will see further retreat of glaciers.[xi]
- Snow-covered areas and snow volumes will decrease, permafrost will thaw.
- Extreme precipitation is projected to increase in major mountainous regions with potential cascading consequences of floods, landslides and lake outbursts in all scenarios.
Background According to highlights of the Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update by the UK’s Met Office and WMO released in May 2021[xii], there is a 40% chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching the tipping point of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels during the next five years. In 2020, the warmest on record, it was already at 1.2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels[xiii]. We may breach the 2°C during 2040–2060, according to Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.
However, AR6 says the 1.5 degree Celsius is likely to be reached by 2040[xiv]. According to United Nations Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2020[xv], the world is heading for a temperature rise of over 3 degree C this century.
With increasingly sophisticated technology allowing scientists to measure climate change and predict its future path, the report projects global temperature changes until the end of the century under different emissions scenarios. It forecasts — even under optimistic scenarios — “overshoot” of 1.5 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement, and revises upwards its estimates for long-term sea-level rise. It reflects the big progress in attribution science, which allows experts to link individual extreme weather events directly to man-made climate change.
“The AR6 is based on much improved climate models and also using more observed and paleoclimatic data. Therefore, future projections of the climate could be considered to have reduced uncertainty,” said M Rajeevan, former secretary, ministry of earth sciences.
While the IPCC report is purely scientific, SPM is negotiated by national representatives, and subject to competing priorities. Belgian climate physicist and former IPCC co-chair Jean-Pascal Ypersele, who was party to the negotiations, claimed the talks were guided by the underlying science. “The authors of the Climate Report had the last word on every sentence in the SPM, which really was a Summary FOR (and not BY) policymakers,” he said on Twitter.[xvi]
There will be two further parts to the AR6. A working group report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” is set for release in February 2022. The third and last part of the report on Mitigation focusing on solutions for reducing emissions and adapting to climate change will be out the following month. In Sept 2022, AR6 Synthesis report is expected.
Make or Break Chance? Alok Sharma, the UK minister in charge of the COP26 climate summit talks in Glasgow in November 2021, has warned that the meeting is the world’s last chance to get a grip on climate change.[xvii] The climate plans submitted by over 90 countries so far will reduce only 2.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. We need is ten times that emission reduction, otherwise global temperature will warm by more than 1.5 degree Celsius.
But will the AR6 report lead to change in government’s approach. Unlikely in most cases, unfortunately. The govt of India, the third largest GHG emitter will not see any such change, MoEF official told the media.[xviii]
Impact of Climate Change + “Development” However, most scientists and analysts including most from IPCC miss a key point as to how most of what we do in the name of development is working in synergy with Climate Change to create greater disasters than what climate change alone would do. SANDRP has for long been advocating the concept of Disaster Potential Assessment of any area and how that potential changes when development activity and climate change work together in that area. But the government has been completely non responsive to this.
One person however, who is an exception in this regard is Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist from Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and a contributor to IPCC reports. In a sharp article on AR6, Mathew Koll wrote on Aug 10, 2021[xix]: “Multiple factors are aggravating the climate crisis. Our cities and hills and rivers are seeing unplanned and unabated development, turning the environment into a state that cannot absorb the floodwater or the heat anymore. Landslides have increased across the globe, and particularly in India, where unplanned land-use changes are extensive.”
- We need a countrywide assessment that urgently maps the risks based on the changes in climate. Any kind of development should be planned based on an evaluation of these risks – whether that is a public infrastructure, or even a farm or a house.
- We might need to redesign our cities. We need to disaster-proof every district of India because though climate change is global, the challenges are always local. We have the data and tools to monitor and quantify the risks for any region – what is stopping us from doing that? We also need a research centre exclusively for studying the growing threat of severe weather events like floods and cyclones – we do not have one at present.
- While the Covid curve might flatten with vaccination and precautions, climate change is on an upward slope that will not flatten in the near future.
- We should curb the emissions, embrace sustainable development and natural defences – and more importantly, we need to assess the risk before we do anything with the environment.
That provides possibly the most serious warning possible in the current context and also a way forward. But are we listening?