17 October 2023, London, United Kingdom.
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Good morning ladies and gentlemen
It’s a pleasure to take part in the opening session of The Times & Sunday Times Earth Summit as the new Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the IPCC.
I have to warn you that as IPCC Chair I cannot comment on the policies of any of the 195 countries that make up IPCC’s membership. But hopefully I can make some global level remarks that you might consider to be pertinent in a more specific context.
This is the decade of climate action, and I want to use this opportunity to set out some clear messages from the IPCC and the scientific community.
I can sum it up in a three-letter acronym – “UAE”. And I am not referring to the location of COP 28, but to three guiding concepts: urgency, agency and equity.
On urgency, it is clear that climate change, unequivocally caused by human activities, is already upon us. We have all seen in the last few months many striking examples of climate extremes and climate change impacts that already touch people’s lives directly.
Climate policies have begun to bend the upward trend in emissions, but we have yet to put global emissions on a downward path, never mind the steep downward path needed. The physics is simple: unless the world as a whole gets to net zero CO2 emissions, temperatures will continue to rise. Above 1.5°C warming, new risks will emerge: permafrost degradation; biodiversity loss; water scarcity in drylands; more extreme weather events; the productivity of food systems to name a few. And sea level rise poses existential risks for small islands and low-lying coastal areas.
Without immediate action to reduce emissions and adapt to continued warming, threats to planetary health and human systems are inevitable.
Fortunately, we have the tools available to take the necessary actions. There is a critical message of hope in the last IPCC report: we, humans, do have the agency to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and shape our future on this planet.
We have started to make progress. The costs of renewable energy have fallen dramatically; wind and solar energy are growing exponentially. Electricity is increasingly used in markets dominated by oil and gas, for transport and heating. But this growth has been concentrated in just a few parts of the world. Infrastructure investment in developing countries will be key to continued expansion. We are also seeing progress in terms of avoided deforestation and reforestation. Together, energy and land-based opportunities offer substantial mitigation potential in the near-term.
However, we need to be mindful of the fact that, although those directly involved might not concur, renewable energy and forestry represent the “easy” options. Specific investment decisions, for example for gigawatt scale offshore windfarms, can have a huge impact on emissions. As climate action starts to involve smaller scale measures that touch more directly on people’s lives, the challenges will rise.
But we have the policy tools and the financial resources. More than half of the world’s emissions are covered by climate laws, policies and institutions. More than a fifth are covered by some form of carbon pricing. And there is enough money in the world to undertake ambitious climate action. Enhanced financial flows and policies that leverage private sector finance are needed to unlock the trillions of dollars needed.
Our message on agency is blunt: we have the technologies, the know-how and the money to tackle climate change. We need to put them to use. Now.
This brings me to my final point. The way we deploy the tools available to us has equity dimensions. The last IPCC report showed that those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are those who contribute, and have contributed, least to warming. Within countries, there are large inequalities in terms of both emissions and exposure to risk.
Ambitious climate action that addresses the needs of the most vulnerable forms part of the pursuit of equity on a global scale.
Within counties and regions, people will be impacted not only by climate change but by climate action itself. Low-carbon activities and sectors provide new economic opportunities, but there are risks for those employed in declining sectors and the communities that host them. Ambitious climate action needs to pursue a just transition, with consent at all levels of our societies. That consent will come only if climate action is, and is perceived to be, genuinely and fundamentally fair.
Now, what of the future? IPCC is just starting a new, seventh assessment cycle which will last between five and seven years, that is, we could be finishing in 2030. In the next few months, IPCC governments will decide the shape of the cycle and what reports will be produced.
We have been challenged by governments, and by others, to produce reports that are more succinct and more readily understandable by non-specialist audiences. IPCC scientists were challenged in the last cycle by the scale of the activity that governments requested: full reports from our three Working Groups on physical science, impacts and adaptation, and mitigation; three Special Reports on 1.5°C warming, climate change and land, and oceans, cryosphere and climate change; as well as a Synthesis Report. All produced through ever more demanding and rigorous procedures.
We need a realistic work programme for the seventh cycle, but already have multiple proposals for Special Reports on a range of topics, including the global goal on adaptation and the implications of exceeding, and returning to below, 1.5°C warming.
Whatever governments choose to do, the key considerations are becoming apparent: remaining policy relevant, taking into account the parallel activities of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, notably the second Global Stocktake in 2028; and focussing on informing climate action. We will build on the excellent collaboration between IPCC’s three Working Groups.
To conclude, the voice of science is crystal clear. Ambitious and determined climate action during this decade is critical. Emissions are halved by 2030 in scenarios that avoid the increasingly most dangerous effects of climate change by limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Global net zero emissions are reached mid-century.
As the new Chair of the IPCC I look forward to engaging with scientists and decision-makers to deliver the latest scientific findings, and actionable information for those shaping climate policies and responses at all levels and in all sectors worldwide.
I encourage decision-makers in politics and businesses to build on the best available science in your collective efforts to lead the transition and accelerate transformational changes already underway.