We can still avoid breaking the 1.5ºC climate change barrier, says IPCC scientist — but we need to act *now*

In a new report, climate experts grouped under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned over unprecedented changes faced by the planet because of man-made global warming, some of which are irreversible. Still, it’s not too late and we can still take action by reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Image credit: Flickr / UN

The IPCC found that the global average temperature has already increased 1.1ºC compared to pre-industrial times, mainly because of the extensive use of fossil fuels — yes, that’s our doing. In other words, we’re already dangerously close to exceeding the 1.5ºC limit, which scientists argue would trigger even worse consequences than the ones we are already experiencing in our climate. 

Global countries have committed to not exceeding that target in the Paris Agreement on climate change, signed back in 2015. But climate action from most of them has been less than ideal, not reducing their emissions sufficiently. With the current climate pledges, the world is closer to reaching 3ºC instead of 1.5º by the end of the century — and we’re not keeping those pledges either. 

In its new report, the IPCC warned the 1.5ºC barrier will likely be broken – unless we act now and we do it with a lot of ambition. Gregory Flato is the Vice-Chair of IPCC’s Working Group I, in charge of the report. In an interview with ZME, he described the main findings and the road ahead for the world to avoid climate change’s worst consequences. 

What’s the main new message of the climate report?

Gregory Flato: “There’s not a brand-new message but a more strong and more robust one. We have known for a long time that climate is warming, that there are many changes under way in the climate system and that the cause of that warming is human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases. The report strengthens the evidence that we have by looking at the new science that has become available over the last eight years.”

There seems to be stronger wording of the human influence on the climate compared to previous reports. Is there more evidence now than before? 

GF: “There’s more evidence of the human influence and that is why its expressed stinger than in the past. We are now able to say on the basis of the evidence that we have that is now unequivocal that human activities have influenced the climate and led to warming of the climate system. Part of that is that because of improvements in methodology and observations.”

Can we still avoid temperatures exceeding 1.5ºC?

GF: “The report looks at five illustrated scenarios from very low emission scenario to a very high emission scenario. The lowest of the emissions scenario does indeed cross 1.5 very slightly before the middle of the century but then returns back below 1.5 by end of the century. What that indicates is if we do deep and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions we could limit warming below 1.5ºC even though there will be a slight overshoot before returning back below.”

The report also brings a lot of attention to extreme weather. Are we going to see it worsening in the future?

GF: “There is more of a focus on extremes and that is based on new understanding and better ability to measure changes in extremes and to anticipate how these will change in the future. What is clear is that extreme events like heatwaves and extreme precipitation droughts extreme fire weather those are all thing that change in line with global warming. As the climate system warms these extremes get more severe. The report highlights that. Every additional warming that we allow to happen will lead to this increase in frequency and severity on extreme events, which have a strong impact on society and ecosystems.”

What is the main message for policymakers, who will now have to act based on the report’s findings?

GF: “As all IPCC reports, this one provides science basis for decision makers to take decisions and to change policies. IPCC doesn’t prescribe anything and doesn’t recommend actions. It lays out scientific information. The information we show is that rapid and drastic cut will allow us to stay below 1.5ºC but the longer we continue to emit the more warming that will happen. The only way to stop warming and stabilize temperature is to reach net zero carbon emission. That is the goal to have in mind to stabilize temperature.”

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