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Window to adapt to climate change fast closing, acting now can save lives, says UN IPCC report

Global warming must be kept to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Even temporary breach of this will cause severe risks, says UN panel’s 6th Assessment Report, released Monday.

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New Delhi: The window of opportunity to act against climate change and adapt to rising temperatures is fast closing. But acting now to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels can result in a “substantial” reduction in losses and damage to human settlements and ecosystems, says the latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  

The report, released Monday, is the second part of the sixth assessment report authored by the IPCC’s Working Group II, and examines the impact of climate change, the world’s vulnerability to it, and adaptation. 

Approximately 330 to 360 crore people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change. Even a temporary breach of the 1.5-degree limit will result in additional severe risks, some of them irreversible, says the report. The people and ecosystems that are most vulnerable to climate change will be the least equipped to deal with the impact. 

Governments must move towards adopting climate resilient development, which includes safeguarding biodiversity and conservation, in order to reduce emissions and better prepare for climate change, the report says.  

“Past and current development trends (past emissions, development, and climate change) have not advanced global climate resilient development,” says the report, which adds, “Importantly, climate resilient development prospects are increasingly limited if current greenhouse gas emissions do not rapidly decline, especially if 1.5°C global warming is exceeded in the near term.”

IPCC chair Hoesung Lee said the report is “a dire warning about the consequences of inaction”. “It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks,” Lee said.

UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a strongly worded statement in reaction to the report, calling it a “damning indictment of failed climate leadership”.

Risks of rising temperatures

The report was produced by 270 scientists, who studied more than 34,000 scientific papers. They found that 3 to 14 per cent of terrestrial species face a high risk of extinction at 1.5 degrees of global warming. If global warming hits 5 degrees Celsius, this range could increase to 3 to 48 per cent of species being at risk of extinction. 

Temperatures have already risen by 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the first part of the IPCC report, released in August last year, had revealed. If major cuts in emissions are not made, temperatures will cross the 1.5-degree mark by 2040, it said.

Rising temperatures are pushing certain ecosystems to reach their hard limits, beyond which species can take no adaptive action, putting them at risk of extinction. Coral reef, arctic ice, and terrestrial ecosystems are at highest risk in the short term, till 2040, the report says. 

Safeguarding the resilience of these ecosystems “depends on effective and equitable conservation of approximately 30 per cent to 50 per cent of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean areas, including currently near-natural ecosystems”, says the report. 

Some humans have reached their “soft limits” of adaptation, which means they can take adaptive action but are constrained by various other factors, such as their financial, institutional, or social contexts. If such constraints are addressed, through poverty alleviation and climate education for example, these soft limits can be overcome, the report says. 

“Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and provide life-critical services such as food and clean water,” said IPCC Working Group II co-chair Hans-Otto Pörtner in a statement. 

“By restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving 30 to 50 per cent of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean habitats, society can benefit from nature’s capacity to absorb and store carbon, and we can accelerate progress towards sustainable development, but adequate finance and political support are essential,” Portner added.

Also read: Calling young people ‘leaders of tomorrow’ is a waste of time. Climate action starts now

Climate-resilient development

Urbanisation can put cities and other human settlements at greater risk of losses and damage due to climate change, but it also offers an opportunity “in the near term, to advance climate-resilient development,” the report says. 

Climate-resilient development includes taking mitigative and adaptive actions “supporting sustainable development for all”. 

The time to implement this is now, the report warns. “The prospects for climate resilient development will be further limited if global warming levels exceeds 1.5°C and not be possible in some regions and sub-regions if the global warming level exceeds 2°C,” it says.

The IPCC report also presents evidence of maladaptation, when short-term actions lead to negative impacts in the long term. “For example, seawalls effectively reduce impacts to people and assets in the short term, but can also result in lock-ins and increase exposure to climate risks in the long-term unless they are integrated into a long-term adaptive plan,” says the report.

Funding climate adaptation

The report acknowledges that there are gaps in progress towards adapting to climate change across the world, and that closing those gaps will require strong political commitments and mobilisation of finance. 

The need for adaptation finance is “estimated to be higher” than the last IPCC report, released in 2014. “Building capacity and removing some barriers to accessing finance is fundamental to accelerate adaptation, especially for vulnerable groups, regions and sectors,” says the new report. 

Adaptation finance was a topic of contention at the COP26 conference held in Glasgow last year, where it emerged that high-income countries had failed to deliver a package of $100 billion in adaptation finance for developing countries.

UN secy general’s statement

In his statement on the report, UN Secretary General António Guterres said, “Adaptation saves lives”.

“As climate impacts worsen — and they will — scaling up investments will be essential for survival. Adaptation and mitigation must be pursued with equal force and urgency,” he said.

“That’s why I have been pushing to get to 50 per cent of all climate finance for adaptation. The Glasgow commitment on adaptation funding is clearly not enough to meet the challenges faced by nations on the frontlines of the climate crisis,” Guterres added.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: G20 must spend 140% more on nature-based solutions to fight climate change, says UN-WEF report


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