The most important document of the decade has been published. The official IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report went online at 14:00 on Monday, 20 March. It is the fourth volume of the sixth climate assessment report drafted by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This synthesis report, thus labelled because it brings together the key results of the three previous main sections, contains the overall knowledge of the climate and the unambiguous indications for actions in the political and economic spheres, which cannot refrain from reading and incorporating this document.

Though it is dark and bleak, it still offers hope, albeit ever-shrinking. There are many feasible and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to anthropogenic climate change, “so long as we act with the greatest urgency”. The political message from science is clear: act now, immediately, without delay. There is no concept reiterated more strongly in the document.
“Mainstreaming effective and equitable climate action will not only reduce losses and damages for nature and people, it will also provide wider benefits,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. “This Synthesis Report underscores the urgency of taking more ambitious action and shows that, if we act now, we can still secure a liveable sustainable future for all.”

A distillation of the climate crisis

The Synthesis Report, approved after days of plenary session in Interlaken, Switzerland, does not contain new scientific information but all the knowledge on the matter is distilled into 37 pages, with clear messages for the ruling class divided into three sections: the current climate status and developing trends, future risks and long-term responses, and responses in the near-term.

The first part reiterates the current level of global heating, which stands at 1.1°C compared to preindustrial levels, and emphasises the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events that have had ever more dangerous impacts on nature and people in every region of the world.
The report does not shy away from highlighting the enormous impact that this level of heating will have on human lives: more acute heatwaves, more intense rainfall, and other extreme weather events will increase mortality and health impacts (very high confidence), including food insecurity (high confidence) and water scarcity (medium confidence, given that causes such as poor management are concomitant). The latter phenomenon will primarily affect climate hotspots, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, but also the Mediterranean, Italy included.

Decarbonisation, mitigation, and adaptation: long-term planning

“Almost half the global population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change. In the past decade, deaths from floods, droughts and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions,” said Aditi Mukherji, one of the 93 authors of the report.
There is no doubt about what must be done to save a huge number of lives: to stay within the 1.5°C global temperature increase threshold requires deep, rapid, and lasting reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors. Emissions must be reduced by almost half by 2030. End of story. There can be no whining and rending of clothes by industrial niches and oil potentates.

The solution is development that is resilient to climate change. This involves the integration of measures for adapting to climate change with actions to reduce or prevent greenhouse gas emissions in ways that provide increasingly wide-ranging co-benefits. According to IPCC, decarbonisation and adaptation offer many more benefits than damages: this is what anyone attempting to defend the status quo should keep in mind when raising issues such as the impact on jobs in the fossil fuel industry and damage to the landscape.

The report drafted by the world’s best scientists cites many examples of co-benefits: “improved access to clean energy sources and technologies generate health benefits especially for women and children; electrification combined with low-GHG energy, and shifts to active mobility and public transport can enhance air quality, health, employment, and can elicit energy security and deliver equity. […] The economic benefits for human health from air quality improvement arising from mitigation action can be of the same order of magnitude as mitigation costs, and potentially even larger.”

Actions, especially those involving adaptation, must be undertaken immediately. “Adaptation options that are feasible and effective today will become constrained and less effective with increasing global warming. With increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits. Maladaptation can be avoided by flexible, multi-sectoral, inclusive, long-term planning and implementation of adaptation actions, with co-benefits to many sectors and systems (high confidence).”

In terms of mitigation, the focus obviously stays on fossil fuels and CO2, without however overlooking methane emissions which must be reduced by at least 34% by 2030. USA, Russia, and agrifood sectors be warned. There is not much scope for GHG capture and storage: although they have a role to play, it will not be more than a cameo appearance, given the rate of introduction of CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology. Instead, carbon dioxide removal practices that should be promoted include reforestation, improved forestry management, soil carbon sequestration, peatland restoration, and the management of coastal marine carbon, all of which can reduce atmospheric CO2 while improving biodiversity and ecosystem functions, employment, and local livelihoods. Non-circular bioeconomy options are less advisable. “Production of biomass crops can have adverse socio-economic and environmental impacts, including on biodiversity, food and water security, local livelihoods and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, especially if implemented at large scales and where land tenure is insecure.” This sends a very clear message to many multinationals, especially in the Oil & Gas sector, which are investing heavily in CCS. You can bet that the world of finance will take these indications into account.

High urgency for renewables, food systems, biodiversity, and cities

The third part of the report discusses the actions that need to be undertaken most urgently. A close focus on energy systems, with renewables leading the way. Solar and wind power excel in terms of costs, while hydropower and geothermal are becoming less relevant also due to costs and exposure to risk (such as the droughts in northern Italy). The debate over nuclear power has also been resolved once and for all, carving out a role for it but limited by the highest costs by far in terms of gigatonne of CO2 removed (see infographic).

The reform of food systems also plays a major role, in particular with regard to animal farming, deforestation, and the protection of terrestrial, coastal, and marine biodiversity. Cities and living, public and electric mobility, and the energy efficiency of buildings are also key areas for reform. Such transformations of the economy will require considerable investment, which if erroneously directed risk causing more harm than good. There is sufficient global capital to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so long as existing barriers (bureaucratic, legal, cultural) are removed. “Increasing finance to climate investments is important to achieve global climate goals. Governments, through public funding and clear signals to investors, are key in reducing these barriers. Investors, central banks and financial regulators can also play their part,” the report states.

The document ends with a reflection on the importance of politics: “Political commitment, coordinated policies, international cooperation, ecosystem stewardship and inclusive governance are all important for effective and equitable climate action.”

Reactions to the IPCC Synthesis Report

There has been no shortage of reactions. “The Synthesis Report should be seen as a tool that science makes available to make strategic decisions for our future,” explains Italian Climate Network president Serena Giacomin, speaking to Renewable Matter. “The request to “act now” that the scientific community has been making to the collective for years now is starting to sound repetitive. What we encounter day-to-day is a constant misrepresentation of reality on the part of decision-makers, constantly delaying the implementation of mitigation and adaptation measures. Tackling the problem is not something we can postpone and the government should acknowledge this. Solutions – even economic and social ones – must be found with awareness and know-how. In the decision-making system, in this case, we are not at a crossroads: there is one road to be taken, heading toward development that is truly sustainable.”

According to Laura Clarke, CEO of ClientEarth, “the IPCC Synthesis Report makes it clear that it is very likely that the world will go beyond the 1.5°C threshold. We need more urgency and actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the key to doing this is abandoning fossil fuels. Legal battles over the climate are increasing to ensure that governments, companies, and others rapidly decarbonise, not only in the interest of humanity’s survival but also because it is to their advantage, building long-term feasibility and sustainability. The lawsuit risk should help change mentalities and behaviours and guarantee that all those that occupy positions of power take the necessary actions to plan and guide the net-zero transition. Inactions and delays are not an option, and ClientEarth has no qualms about pursuing legal action to guide the change that we need and fulfil our global commitment.”

The tangible effect this Synthesis Report will have is yet to be seen. Now, political decision-makers have a crucial beacon, provided by the findings that the best international scientists have to offer. Those who will decide to ignore the report’s guidance in the key decade will be assessed and remembered by history for having condemned their people to a miserable and perilous fate.

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