In the lead up to the UK’s fast-approaching COP26 to be hosted in Glasgow, we have seen increased discussion on the topic of climate change. The Scottish Government has set a target of achieving net zero emissions – that’s to say producing less carbon than we take out of the atmosphere - by 2045; but successfully tackling climate change will undoubtedly require a united and collaborative effort across the globe.
The recently published report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will likely precipitate a further focus on the topic, and ought to be treated as a ‘code red for humanity’, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
The report’s findings are startling, as the IPCC warns of extreme weather conditions accompanied by unprecedented rises in the average global temperature in years to come. According to the report all of this is directly attributed to human behaviour.
In its press release of 9 August, the IPCC highlighted the need for ”strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide … and other greenhouse gases” to reduce the effects of climate change over a sustained period. In echoing this sentiment, Guterres urged that there is no scope for delay in responding to the report’s findings, and called on government leaders to ensure that COP26 is the catalyst for urgent action in addressing climate change.
Importantly, the previous IPCC report in 2013 was one of the key drivers towards the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, an international treaty which provides a global framework to ‘avoid dangerous climate change’ and limit global warming. This short article outlines the key findings of the 2021 report, and explores whether it will have the same triggering effect as that of its predecessor.
One of the main concerns raised by the report is the sharp rise in global surface temperature in recent years. According to the report, ‘[i]t is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.’ It is estimated that the range of total ‘human-caused’ increase in global surface temperature from 1850-1900 (when accurate records began) to 2010-2019 is 0.8°C to 1.3°C, with atmospheric CO2 concentrations recorded to be at their highest levels for two million years in 2019.
Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period in the past 2000 years, and will continue to do so without ‘deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions … in the coming decades’. It is feared that without intervention, global surface temperature will continue to rise, with global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C likely to be exceeded in the 21st Century. Despite global efforts, this predicted rise would fail to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets of maintaining a level of global warming well below 2°C.
Human influence is also said to be the ‘very likely’ main driver of the global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s, and the decrease in Arctic sea ice between 1979-1988 and 2010-2019. From 2011-2020, the annual average Arctic sea ice area is believed to have reached its lowest level since at least 1850.
Furthermore, the global mean sea level has increased significantly. The average annual rate of sea level rise was recorded as 1.3mm between 1901-1977, as against 3.7mm between 2006 and 2018; with human influence again cited as the main driver. Since 1900, the global mean sea level has risen faster than over any century in the past 3000 years.
We are also told that ‘human-induced climate change’ is causing extreme weather conditions in every region across the globe. The report states with ‘virtual certainty’ that hot extremes have become more prevalent and ‘more intense’ across most regions since the 1950s, whilst cold extremes are now less frequent and severe. The ‘frequency and intensity’ of rainfall has also increased over most regions since the 1950s, with human influence again cited as the likely main driver. . According to the report, some of the recent heatwaves experienced in the past 10 years would have been ‘extremely unlikely’ to occur, but for human influence.
The report’s findings are deeply concerning but the wide publicity around COP26 and climate change could well act as a catalyst for positive global change in the coming years. As a firm, we are strongly committed to tackling Climate Change, and we regularly work alongside clients and other stakeholders, helping them protect, enjoy and enhance Scotland’s Natural Capital.
Our Energy & Natural Resources team will continue to follow the topic closely over the coming months, and we would encourage all of our contacts to follow and engage with the COP26 conference. We would be delighted to assist in advising your business on how best to take positive steps towards reducing its carbon footprint and contribute to a healthier and more sustainable economy.
Article written in conjunction with Ewan Forsyth, Trainee Solicitor