This week, scientists and representatives from 195 countries are gathered at the 54th Session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to review the world’s most comprehensive assessment of our climate – the Sixth Assessment Report. IPCC reports have historically underpinned global climate action and influenced the decisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
We sat down with Joyce Msuya, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Deputy Executive Director, to find out more about the role of climate science in decision-making and what can be done to prioritize climate action to protect people and planet.
Given the world is still grappling with a global pandemic, how urgent is the issue of climate change?
Extreme weather is the new normal. From Germany to China, to Canada or the United States – wildfires, floods, extreme heat waves – it is an ever-growing, tragic list.
And whilst climate crisis – together with biodiversity loss and pollution – has been underway for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this triple planetary crisis into sharp focus. It is a warning from the planet that much worse lies in store unless we change our ways. These crises threaten our collective future, and it’s time to take action.
With countries investing unprecedented amounts of resources to kick-start the global economy, we need to recover in a way that is safe, sustainable and that does not exacerbate the challenges we already face.
Is there a link between the degradation of the environment and pandemics like COVID-19?
Studies report that the majority (approximately 60 per cent) of emerging infectious diseases are of animal origin and, like COVID-19 can be transferred between animals and humans. As the world’s population edges towards 8 billion, land-use change and development put humans and animals in closer contact, making it easier for zoonotic diseases to spill over into human populations. This occurs as habitats are destroyed and specialist species in those habitats are replaced by generalist species like bats and rodents – both of which are more likely to carry zoonotic pathogens than most other mammalian groups – thus increasing the risk of zoonotic spillover. This is because the current host species for the disease are less available and hence allow diseases to transfer to other species and, in turn, humans. In the last 50 years, meat production has also increased by 260 per cent, and today, dams, irrigation, and factory farms are linked to 25 per cent of infectious diseases.
The pandemic is a reminder of the interconnectedness between humans and the environment, and the potential impacts of the transfer of diseases between species – the risk of which is significantly increased with the degradation of the environment.
How does the IPCC contribute to our collective efforts to tackle climate change?
Fundamentally, the role of the Panel is to establish what we know about climate change – to provide the scientific basis for decision-making, policy development and international negotiations. For this reason, all IPCC publications represent a rigorous process by the global scientific community.
Past assessments by the IPCC have helped establish human actions as a cause of global warming, prepare a pathway to the historic Paris Climate Agreement and garner commitment to limit temperature rise. Countries also look to the IPCC reports for guidance in developing their national ambitions. For example, the IPCC has made clear that each and every country in the world must commit and develop a plan to realize a net-zero future.
What do we need to know about the Sixth Assessment report currently under review?
The IPCC report is a tool for understanding past warming – how and why it has occurred, and for developing future projections, including a better understanding of how human actions have influenced extreme climate events. The first component of the full report to be released next month represents the greatest collaborative effort yet, with 234 authors, information from 14,000 scientific papers, and revisions by 750 experts and 47 governments.
The report will give us a better understanding of extreme weather events and the impacts of COVID-19 on climate change and air pollution. It will provide the momentum we need to galvanize global actions as we head towards the UN Climate Change Conference in October. And it will give us the science we need to inform the First Global Stocktake of the world’s collective progress towards achieving the Paris Agreement goals in 2023.
A Working Group is now meeting to scrutinize each and every line of the full report before its final approval by the IPCC.
Could it be too late for human actions to slow the trajectory of climate change?
A growing number of countries are committing to net-zero targets. But to remain within the 2°C limit and have a chance at the 1.5°C goal, commitments need to be translated into policies and actions.
It’s not too late but we need to make up for lost time – particularly in three areas. First, we must put financing in place for adaptation. Second, we must place a stronger focus on nature-based solutions in updated Nationally Determined Contributions. Third, we must unite the nature and climate agendas.
We know that developing nations often bear the disproportionate burden of climate change. As countries roll out COVID-19 recovery and stimulus packages, we have a golden opportunity to chart a sustainable future. UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2020 found that investing in a green pandemic recovery could cut 25% off greenhouse emissions by 2030.
UNEP is supporting a landmark initiative agreed by Ministers of Environment of 54 African countries in December 2020 to support a comprehensive green recovery plan from COVID-19.
The African Green Stimulus Programme will mainstream environmental considerations across all facets of African economies. UNEP is also pleased to note that every country on the continent either already has, or is developing a national adaptation plan.
Adaptation is critical to build resilience of communities and economies to the impacts of climate change.
Indeed, 2021 will be a pivotal year for climate action. It is when much of the work to set our post-pandemic course is taking place. It is the year of the delayed UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). It is the year to agree on a global Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework. And it is the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
2021 must mark the beginning of the era of action. And it must be the year where science reigns supreme.