Climate change – we must act now!

27 March 2023


In perhaps the most important report of our lifetime, the world’s scientists tell us that only drastic and immediate action can prevent our children facing an unliveable future and biodiversity being destroyed worldwide.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up in 1988. It comprises hundreds of leading climate scientists and is the world’s official body for providing the scientific underpinning for international policy on climate change. 

The IPCC’s latest report, released on Monday 20th March, is the final part of its mammoth ‘Sixth Assessment’ known as AR6, which covers the physical science and impacts of climate change and how we can cut greenhouse gases. This final report in the series runs to thousands of pages, synthesising the key insights from the six previous reports.

The main message of the report? 

That we must act now or it’s too late. That only swift and drastic action can avert irrevocable damage to the world. That it must be done, it can be done, and, by and large, we know how to do it (and it makes economic sense too).

Are people already in trouble? 

The report leaves us in no doubt that humans have caused the planet to heat up because of our carbon emissions. And our emissions continue to grow, despite more than 30 years of warnings from the IPCC, which published its first report in 1990. Annual global emissions have risen by 54% since that first report, and in 2019 were 12% higher than in 2010. Global temperatures are now on average 1.1℃ above pre-industrial levels. Although this figure may not seem high, it equates to larger increases over land, of on average almost 1.6°C, and we have to keep in mind the unprecedented speed of this change. Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2000 years.

Between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people live in countries that are ‘highly vulnerable’ to the effects of climate breakdown, such as the Arctic, Central and South America, Small Island Developing states, South Asia, and much of sub-Saharan Africa. These highly vulnerable countries experience conflict, inequalities and development challenges (like limited access to clean water) that make them even more susceptible to climate hazards. As a result, death tolls from storms, floods and droughts were 15 times higher in vulnerable countries than in those with very low vulnerability between 2010 and 2020.

Climate change has reduced food security and affected water security, hindering efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. More than 4 billion people (half of the global population) already experience severe water scarcity for at least one month of the year. Higher temperatures are facilitating the spread of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, West Nile virus, and Lyme disease. Weather extremes are forcing people to move and leave their homes and neighbourhoods behind. Since 2008, extreme floods and storms have forced over 20 million people from their homes every year.

How is nature being affected? 

We are already seeing changes to the climate system in every region of the world that have not happened for hundreds and thousands of years, from rising sea levels and more extreme weather events to rapidly disappearing sea ice. The stable, balanced climate within which all life on earth evolved and found its niche is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Climate change has caused substantial damage in all the world’s ecosystems – on land, in freshwater and in the oceans – and has already led to hundreds of local losses of species driven by heat extremes.

In 2019, an international group of scientists working under the banner of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published an assessment of global biodiversity and ecosystem services. It concluded that a million or more species are at risk of extinction, that extinction rates are accelerating, that nature’s decline is unprecedented, and that transformative changes are needed to halt and reverse the trend. Climate change was identified as one of the key drivers of nature’s decline.

How much worse is it going to get? 

No matter what we do, the planet’s continued warming is projected to further intensify the global water and precipitation cycle – this means our climate and weather will become ever more variable, and there will be greater extremes of wet and dry weather. Shockingly, temperatures are likely to reach 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels in the early 2030s, and a world beyond 1.5℃ is predicted to be an incredibly scary one.

At 1.5℃, these weather extremes will mean that 950 million people living in the world’s drylands will experience water stress, heat stress and desertification, while at the other end of the scale, 24% of the global population will be exposed to flooding. The report predicts with frighteningly high confidence that in the near term, every region in the world will face further increases in climate hazards, increasing multiple risks to people and biodiversity alike. Hazards and associated risks include an increase in heat-related mortality and morbidity; food-borne, water-borne, and vector-borne diseases; mental health challenges; flooding in coastal and other low-lying cities and regions;, and a decrease in food production in some regions.

Climate change exacerbates injustices, and we must accept the intergenerational inequities at play here. A child born now is likely to suffer, on average, several times as many climate extreme events in their lifetime as their grandparents did.

And what will become of nature? 

Increasing climate hazards and risks in the near-term will also increase risks to the world’s natural ecosystems, manifesting as biodiversity loss in land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems.

The report encourages us to understand the risk of tipping points. With more global warming, the more likely it will be that abrupt and irreversible changes affect the whole climate system, and the impacts will be harsher. With more warming, there is more of a risk of complete species extinction or irreversible biodiversity loss in forests, coral reefs and in Arctic regions, in particular. Thawing permafrost or massive forest dieback, while tragic in themselves, will also trigger self-amplifying feedbacks that further increase global warming and set us on a runaway trajectory that we will not be able to come back from.

How long do we have? 

All of these impacts are set to increase rapidly, as we are already seeing evidence of in the world around us, because we have so far failed to reverse the 200-year trend of rising carbon emissions.

Looking at the results of modelling, the report finds that there is a more than 50% chance that global temperature rise will reach or surpass 1.5°C by 2040. Under a scenario of high emissions, this may be even sooner, between 2018 and 2037. 1.5°C is the threshold beyond which our damage to the climate will rapidly become irreversible. The importance of this statement cannot be overemphasised. In such a carbon-intensive scenario, average global temperatures could increase to somewhere between 3.3°C to 5.7°C by 2100. To put this projected amount of warming into perspective, the last time global temperatures exceeded 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels was more than 3 million years ago – when people and much of today’s wildlife were not around.

Can we adapt? 

The report stresses that there are ‘hard’ limits to adaptation – meaning that in some areas, some hazards simply cannot be adapted to beyond a certain threshold, and adaptation is harder for those living in highly vulnerable countries. For example, above 1.5°C, limited freshwater resources pose potential hard adaptation limits for small islands and for regions dependent on glacier and snow melt. Entire coral reef systems that support livelihoods and food security will die out leaving coastal communities with nothing. With increasing warming, losses and damages will increase and more systems – that people and wildlife rely on – will reach adaptation limits.

The report also makes it clear that if we fail to cut carbon emissions drastically, adapting in the future will be more difficult and expensive and our existing adaptation options will not work.

What can we do to stop this? 

To keep warming within 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, global emissions must decline by around 21% by 2030 and around 35% by 2035, with the aim to reach net zero by the early 2050s. Only 510 gigatons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) net can be emitted between now and the early 2050s in order to achieve that goal. Frighteningly, existing fossil fuel infrastructure, and that being planned by today’s world leaders, could surpass that limit, emitting an impossible 850 GtCO2.

Keeping warming below 1.5℃ requires even stronger emissions reduction – they would need to peak as soon as possible (before 2025 at the latest) and be reduced rapidly in the following years (models suggest the need for them to decline 43% by 2030 and 60% by 2035, relative to 2019 levels).

To avoid dangerous warming, society must employ a mix of strategies. We must retire existing fossil fuel infrastructure and cancel all new projects. But even this is not enough. We must scale up renewable energy sources like solar and wind, as well as carbon capture and storage technologies, including those that pull carbon dioxide out of the air. Natural solutions to carbon capture are by far the most reliable, feasible and effective. Protecting and restoring the natural world must play a huge part in our efforts to limit the impacts of climate change. Healthy trees, soils and oceans can sequester (lock away) huge amounts of carbon. Ensuring that these ecosystems are healthy and functional relies on protecting the wildlife species that live within them, each of which play important functional roles and are vital to maintaining these natural systems.

To make this work for everyone, emissions cuts must be accompanied by transformational changes across all aspects of today’s society: power generation, buildings, industry, transport, agriculture, forestry and other land uses, health and nutrition, livelihoods and economies. Also, a multi-fold increase in finance for mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage is essential.

Will we be able to cope with all this change? 

Rapid action on the climate would have numerous additional benefits to us all. There are benefits to using alternatives to fossil fuels and to many of our current adaptation options such as improving agricultural productivity, innovation, health and wellbeing, food security, livelihoods, and biodiversity conservation.

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind are now cheaper than fossil fuels in many regions, and this saving could be passed on to households. Better home insulation can help us deal with extreme weather as well as reduce heating and cooling costs. Moving people off flood-prone areas and returning these areas to more natural systems can reduce flood risk, increase biodiversity and store carbon in plants and soil.

As some actions require behavioural and lifestyle changes there will be benefits for societal well-being. Our health will benefit from reduced air pollution, active mobility (e.g., walking, cycling), and shifts to sustainable healthy diets.

Ecosystem-based adaptation – such as protecting and restoring natural ecosystems, as well as making agriculture sustainable by integrating trees into farmlands and increasing crop diversity – can help communities adapt, while also improving health and food security and delivering economic benefits. Many of these solutions can be implemented at relatively low costs today. Preserving and restoring natural ecosystems is vital to our efforts to limit global warming and maintain the services ecosystems provide, including clean water, clean air and healthy food, as well mitigating the impacts of extreme weather events.

Tackling the climate crisis is also about seeking justice. Vulnerability is exacerbated by inequity and marginalisation as a result of gender, ethnicity, low incomes, disability and age, as well as historical and ongoing effects of colonialism, especially for many local communities. By prioritising equity, climate justice, social justice, inclusion and just transition processes, while respecting human rights and freedoms, we can enable adaptation and mitigation. Integrating climate adaptation into social protection programs improves resilience.

The report emphasises a very sobering statistic. Households with incomes in the top 10% (a large share being in developed countries) emit around 45% of the world’s carbon, while families earning in the bottom 50% account for as little as 15%. Yet the effects of climate change will hit poorer, historically marginalised communities the hardest (and indeed already are). Given this bias in responsibility and suffering, it is not difficult to understand why the world’s rich and powerful decision makers are not making the right decisions.

So, that main message again? 

Limiting global temperature rise to 1.5℃ is still possible, but only if we act immediately. The world needs to peak carbon emissions before 2025, nearly halve them by 2030, and reach net-zero by 2050, while also ensuring a just and equitable transition. We need a varied and global approach to limit the damage and suffering by people and nature as much as possible, and to adapt to the changes that are locked in. Governments, the private sector, civil society and individuals must all step up to keep the future we desire in sight.

Given the reality set out in the IPCC’s report, we have no choice but to act. We are almost out of time, so we must act now.

See our Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss webpage for more information on what Born Free is doing, and what YOU can do.

Climate Change and Biodiversity loss READ THE FULL IPCC SUMMARY HERE