The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C

Created by Jon Kudelka

You may have seen some headlines about a big climate change report recently from the IPCC. It’s important enough that I read through the 30-page summary and combed over a ton of reactions to it. Below you’ll find what you need to know.

This report came out in October of 2018 and it’s a big deal. Big in the way that if you live on Earth, you should know about it.

But first – What is the IPCC and why did they put this together?

Quick Background: In 2015, at the Paris Climate Accord, nearly every country in the world agreed to limit warming to well below 2°C and to do their best to allow only 1.5°C of warming. The IPCC was then asked to make a report on what the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C would be and what the world would need to do to limit warming to 1.5°C. This is useful because it:

  • Helps everyone understand what a world warmed by 1.5°C looks like versus one that is 2°C warmer.
  • Estimates how much more GHG emissions can be polluted into the atmosphere before we reach these thresholds.

What is the IPCC? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consists of the world’s top experts on climate change. It was established by the UN and World Meteorological Organization in 1988 to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments concerning climate change, its impacts and potential future risks, and possible response options. People doing work for the IPCC are heroes. They are the leading experts in their fields, nominated by their peers, and do this incredibly valuable work pro bono.

This latest report was 700 pages of light reading, had 91 lead authors from over 40 countries, another 130 contributing authors, benefited from over 40,000 comments from experts and governments around the world, and cites more than 6,000 scientific papers including the latest research…they did their homework.

Okay, got it. So what does the report say?

The 1.5°C report spells out the urgency and severity of the situation we’re in. The big takeaway is not new but it is laid out more clearly than ever before: Eliminate greenhouse gas emissions ASAP. …interestingly this message is also found in Crowdsourcing Sustainability’s mission 😉

High-level takeaways:

  • We are already seeing the effects of climate change negatively impacting us at our current 1°C of warming.
  • “Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.”
  • There will be a huge difference in our climate between present-day’s 1°C and global warming of 1.5°C, and again between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming. Each additional .5°C of warming dramatically increases risks to human civilization and the ecosystems that sustain life on earth. This means that every little bit of emission reductions we can make as a society truly matters. Leadership at all levels is needed.
  • Staying under 1.5°C requires cutting CO2 in half by 2030 and reaching “net zero” by 2050.
  • Staying under 2°C requires cutting CO2 by 25% by 2030 and reaching “net zero” by 2070.
  • To limit warming to 1.5°C requires “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems. These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed.”
  • Immediate action is required. The next few years are probably the most important in our history.” – Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.
  • Everyone can help.

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C instead of 2°C:

  • “May reduce the proportion of the world population exposed to a climate-change-induced increase in water stress by up to 50%.”
  • Would keep 10 million people from being exposed to risks related to sea level rise.
  • Means 1.7 billion fewer people will face severe heat waves every 5 years (14% of population v. 37%).
  • Could reduce the number of people susceptible to poverty by several hundred million by 2050.
  • Means a further 70–90% of coral reefs will die rather than over 99%. “The risk of irreversible loss of many marine and coastal ecosystems increases with global warming, especially at 2°C or more.”
  • Is the difference between global economic damages of $54 trillion and $69 trillion in 2100 (net present value).
  • Lowers “climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth.”

My thoughts:

This report is a very interesting development. 1.5°C was an aspirational target in the Paris agreement and mainly included because lower-income countries and island nations demanded it (it could be the difference between being forced to leave their homes or not). Now, the IPCC takes a serious look at 1.5°C for the first time and says “Hold the phone, 1.5°C is still bad…but it’s way better than 2°C. 1.5°C is a much better goal if we’re prioritizing people’s safety, health, and prosperity.”

It’s also important to note that the IPCC was able to throw down the hammer, while still being fairly conservative, as it always is. It goes to show how deep into this we are. Our best case scenario (1.5°C) is disturbing and fast approaching. Most 1.5°C and 2°C scenarios also rely on technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere that are still quite speculative.

Regardless, I love that people are now talking about how much better 1.5°C is than 2°C. Yes, 1.5°C is a moonshot, but it is still possible. Personally, I’d be pleasantly shocked if we limited warming to 1.5°C, but we have achieved moonshots before. The more ambitious we are, the better because, starting today, how quickly we eliminate GHG emissions determines how habitable the planet will be in the coming decades.

We need to understand that our goal isn’t limiting warming to a specific number or else we’re doomed, but rather to reduce GHG emissions as quickly as we possibly can, ultimately reaching “net zero”. The IPCC has made clear that a 1.5°C world is way better than 2°C, but that neither 1.5°C or 2°C is actually “safe”. Every little bit of warming we can prevent is going to make a big difference for us. A 1.5°C world is better than 1.6°C. 1.6°C is better than 2°C. 2°C is better than 3°C. The impacts of each additional 0.1°C of warming are not linear. It’s more accurate to think of them as compounding and more consequential than the last. The other factor at play is natural tipping points. Nobody knows where these tipping points are, but we could knock over the first domino at any time and cause vast amounts of additional warming that we can’t do anything about.

We also need to understand that the most important thing for us to do is to get started. This next week, month, year, few years, and decade will be absolutely critical. Not just for future generations, but for us.

To put the timeline in perspective: If we don’t make changes and keep emitting GHGs at our current rate, a baby born today will be just graduating college when the world reaches 1.5°C of warming.

So, as IPCC authors said, “every little bit matters.” All levels can help (governments, companies, communities, and individuals). And let me remind you that all of these levels are made up of people. So it’s really just up to people.

You are one of those people. And you know a lot of other people. You influence the people that you know more than the rest of the world can.

The situation may seem grim, but let’s not forget that we have the solutions. They are profitable. They are beneficial for our health, our safety, and our well-being. They make the world better for us – and even more so for our kids. We just need to scale them.

We’ve already warmed the planet by 1°C and are on track for 3°C if we achieve Paris commitments, but it’s still possible to limit to 1.5°C. That’s an enormous range of potential outcomes that we could see in our lifetimes.

To me, this report screams that getting out of this mess is still possible and that we have a ton of control over how bad we let it get. If we get our act together, especially over the next 1, 5, and 10 years, we can really get out of this mess without it getting too too bad.

We know what we need to do. Everyone can help get it done. Everyone needs to pitch in to help get it done however they can. You decide what you can do to help. It will be different for all of us because we’re all in different places, with different resources, and different connections to leverage.

The best place to start is to speak up about this issue, the seriousness of it, how beneficial all of its solutions are, and start looking for ways to help implement solutions wherever possible. It’s pretty much always a win-win. Reversing global warming is the best thing we can do from an economic, health, security, and social justice perspective. That will become clearer and clearer.

Solving global warming is our biggest opportunity to improve human well-being and the world.

Yes, the cards are stacked against us. Yes, it is overwhelming and can be depressing. But it’s only depressing because it puts what we know and love at risk. Rather than ignoring that unpleasant feeling and moving on, I challenge you to sit with that feeling for a little because it’s actually a good thing.

Why exactly does global warming make you feel that way? What about it scares you?

Do you know what it all means?

It means you care.

It means you have something that’s really worth fighting for. It means you have the motivation and strength you need to act on climate.

Use it.

Use it to stand up and take action because you know what’s at stake. Use it to fight for what you know is on the line. Use it to rebuild this world for a future that’s as bright as possible for yourself and for those who come after you.

We need an all out, war-like effort to right this ship. No, you’re not going to solve it on your own. But don’t let that stop you because what you do really does make a difference. You can always control your actions and do your part to affect bigger changes. If you do what you reasonably can, you’ll be at peace knowing you did your best.

We may be the underdogs, but we’re also starting to turn it around. We’re getting more energy, more people involved, better technologies, and the momentum is starting to build. Sustainability is inevitable. The question is: Will we get there fast enough?

When it comes to climate change, it’s not game over, it’s game on.


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