Sunday Story
Code Red for Planet Earth
Writer: Aparna Sundaresan

On Monday last week (9 August 2021), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth assessment report which raised alarm bells all over the world. The report warned that we were on track to raise the average global temperature by more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial times (the time before factories and industries emerged) by 2040 or even sooner. Only cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions drastically will prevent global disaster. What’s more, this is probably the last chance we have to prevent disaster. After this, we would have crossed the point of no return.

What is the IPCC?

The IPCC is an organization made up of the best climate experts from around the world. It was formed in 1988 by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization. Its responsibility is preparing detailed reports on our knowledge of the climate. Its first report was published in 1990 and it warned of the problems that could arise from greater greenhouse gas emissions. This report helped form the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) two years later. The UNFCCC is the United Nations body that supports the measures of all the countries in the world to combat climate change. 197 countries, including India, are members of the UNFCCC.

What are these assessment reports?

Starting in 1990, the IPCC has published reports about every seven years. Its most recent one, released on 9 August, is part of its sixth assessment report. Only the first part of the report, which covers our knowledge and the actual science of climate change was published on the day. Two more parts will be released next year and they will cover the many impacts of the climate crisis and the ways those impacts can be reduced.

What are the key findings of the sixth assessment report?

  • Surface temperature globally was 1.09 °C higher between the years 2011 and 2020 than between 1850 and 1900.
  • The last five years have been the hottest years since records began being kept in 1850. As the planet warms, weather will become more and more extreme leading to greater disasters. More wildfires, stronger cyclones, heavier rainfall and more flooding are just some examples.
  • The rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled, when compared with the rise between 1901 and 1971. Rising sea levels will cause coastal cities to submerge first.
  • Humans are almost entirely the reason why glaciers have shrunk since the 1990s and the Arctic sea ice has reduced.
  • Hot and extreme weather, including heatwaves, have become more common, frequent and intense since the 1950s. Cold weather events, on the other hand, have become less frequent and less severe.
  • Global warming has made changes that cannot be reversed for centuries or millennia. All glaciers will continue to melt for decades or centuries. Oceans will keep warming and becoming more acidic. They are absorbing the carbon dioxide released in the air, which is turning them acidic. These waters are threatening marine life such as corals and oysters. Some species of fish are unable to detect predators in a more acidic environment and are at risk. As a result, the entire food chain is at risk as well.

What can we do to halt climate change?

Scientists say that if we can cut greenhouse emissions in half by 2030 all over the world, and reach net zero (whatever carbon we put out in the air is absorbed by other mechanisms) by the middle of this century, we can halt and possibly reverse the rise in temperatures.

On an individual level, here are some things we can do to help this happen:

  • Take more public transport. Bicycle too, if possible. Avoid individual modes of transport such as taxis and cars, to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, and therefore, the amount of emissions. Also avoid air travel where possible.
  • Buy products that are produced in environmentally friendly ways. Avoid buying products that use a lot of packaging.
  • Eat a more plant-based diet.
  • Wash clothes with cold water.
  • Recycle more.
  • Drip-dry clothes instead of using electronic dryers.
  • Use more energy-efficient light bulbs such as LED bulbs.

At a larger level, the IPCC, in a previous report, suggested several measures for governments and businesses to help curb climate change. Some of them are:

  • Implement a carbon price: For every unit of greenhouse gas emitted, a certain amount of money needs to be paid as a tax or fine.
  • Build more green energy plants (plants that produce power with renewable resources such as solar, wind and water-based energy). Replace plants that are run with fossil fuels.
  • Increase forest land and agricultural land, but reduce pasture land (grazing land for livestock).
  • Change agricultural practices to reduce waste and emissions.
  • Invest in electric vehicles and energy-efficient appliances (appliances that don’t use much energy to run).

Climate change is a grave threat not just to wildlife but to us humans as well. It needs a lot more attention and urgent action to prevent catastrophe. Keep pushing for change at the individual level where you can, and when you’re old enough to vote, vote for leaders who are environmentally responsible and serious about protecting the planet.

The Guardian: What is IPCC and Why the New Climate Report is Different
UNFCCC: About the Secretariat
UNFCCC: The Paris Agreement
BBC: Climate change: IPCC report is ‘code red for humanity’
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