What the IPCC’s climate report told us

Following the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, Chris Richards, Director of Policy at the Institution of Civil Engineers, reflects on its findings.

In its Sixth Assessment Report, a regular series looking at the physical understanding of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that it is explicit that human activity has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land.

As things stand

This warming has and will continue to result in weather and climate extremes in all regions worldwide. The IPCC also warns that the past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850 and that the impact of overall warming will take centuries to millennia to reverse. Looking ahead to meeting the Paris Climate Agreement ambition of limiting global warming to below two degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels and aiming for 1.5 degrees, the IPCC says 1.5 degrees warming will now be reached by 2040. Unless action is taken in the next few years, it will happen even earlier.

All of this makes COP26 later this year more important. At COP21 in Paris, countries agreed to return five years later to put forward meaningful and ambitious targets to reach the 1.5 degrees target; pledges at COP21 fell short of meeting that target.

Meeting the challenge 

Several countries have already declared climate emergencies and set ambitious net-zero emissions targets, including China. Following the UN Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020, countries representing 65% of global CO2 emissions and around 70% of the world’s economy were expected to commit to net-zero emissions or carbon neutrality by early 2021 ICE President Rachel Skinner outlined the role of infrastructure and civil engineers in meeting the net zero emissions target in her inaugural address.

The UN says global GHG emissions need to be approximately 55 per cent lower than their 2017 levels by 2030 in order to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C. image courtesy of Wikipedia

She reminded us that civil engineers have a responsibility for meeting the challenge with infrastructure being responsible for around 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, either because of the processes that create it or because of the behaviours it enables. Because civil engineers also understand the whole life-cycle of this infrastructure and its associated systems, they are ideally placed to drive down carbon emissions through mitigation and assist with adaptation.

In looking at the causes of climate change, the IPCC report states that “fossil fuel combustion for energy, industry and land transportation are the largest contributing sectors on a 100-year time scale” and that current emissions from East Asia and North America are the “largest regional contributors to additional net future warming on both short and long time scales”.

Chris Richards Director of Policy, Institution of Civil Engineer
Chris Richards: Director of Policy, Institution of Civil Engineers

Turning to the impact of lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the report says that the pandemic led to detectable reductions in emissions driven largely by transport. However, emissions reductions and improvements in air quality were not as much as “what would be expected from sustained implementation of policies addressing air quality and climate change”.

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia