UN climate report declares planetary emergency

Paddy and maize fields in Kavre. A heavier than usual monsoon this year brought destructive floods, but was a boon to farmers. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

As if the droughtwildfire and flood disasters this year were not bad enough, scientists have warned that unless the world reduces emissions of greenhouse gases drastically, these disasters will get much worse.

Hundreds of scientists spent the past two years drafting a 4,000 page report for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but even as they did so, news of climate calamities were coming in thick and fast: heat waves, continental-scale wildfires, flash-floods, biodiversity loss.

A summary of the report for world governments was released on Monday, three months before world leaders meet in Glasgow in November for a Climate Summit called COP26 (Conference of Parties 26).

The highly technical Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the IPCC on the science behind climate change has forecasts that will directly affect Nepal and the Himalaya. It also has pointers on what must be done urgently to reduce its impact.

The IPCC report contains the most direct correlation scientists have drawn between climate change and extreme weather around the world.

‘The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events … and droughts have increased since the 1950s,’ the report states with ‘high confidence’, adding that human-induced climate change is likely the main driver.

It adds categorically: ‘Increases in monsoon precipitation since the 1980s have resulted from rising GHG (greenhouse gas) concentrations … Monsoon precipitation is projected to increase in the mid- to long term on a global scale, particularly over South and Southeast Asia.’

Source: IPCC

It predicts that these heavy precipitation events will intensify and become more frequent in most regions as the world continues to warm. Globally, there will be 7% more extreme weather for every 1° Celsius of global warming.

Even under the best-case scenario of reduced greenhouse gas emission, global average temperature is set to exceed 1.5°C by the turn of the century. The Himalaya will get hotter faster than other parts of the world, and could warm by 1.8-2.2°C.

The main conclusions of this IPCC report were leaked to AFP in June, and predicts global surface temperatures increasing until at least the mid-century even under the best scenario. The warming will ‘exceed 2°C during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades’.

The 2015 Paris Agreement recommended capping global warming at ‘well below 2°C’ above pre-industrial levels, and to 1.5°C in the next 30 years by reducing emissions. However, the increase is already at 1.2°C Celsius, and on track to exceed 2°C.

This will lead to mass species extinction as ecosystems collapse, more widespread diseases, heatwaves making parts of the world unfit for human habitation, cities and small island nations at risk of being submerged by sea level rise.

For Nepal, even a 1.5°C rise in global temperature will mean heavy precipitation and associated flooding of the kind the country saw in 2018 and this year. At 2°C increase, the floods, heat waves and droughts  will be even deadlier.

The other impact on Nepal will be a Himalayan meltdown, as the mountains thaw with rising temperatures.

‘Human influence is very likely the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s,’ the report states. ‘…The global nature of glacier retreat, with almost all of the world’s glaciers retreating synchronously, since the 1950s, is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years.’

Future annual emissions of CO₂ under the five scenarios SSP1-1.9, SSP1-2.6, SSP2-4.5, SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5. Source: IPCC

This is even truer for the Himalaya because of its proximity to the equator. Scientists say it is already warming up to 0.3-0.7°C faster than the global average due to a phenomenon called ‘Elevation Dependent Warming’. But at the current trajectory, the mountains may see warming of up to 5.7°C during this century. In such a scenario, the Himalaya will lose two-thirds of permanent ice, and most glaciers will have melted.

It predicts that even if greenhouse gas emissions are curtailed, mountain and polar glaciers will continue melting for decades or centuries. This will impact not just Nepal but about 1 billion people living downstream from the Himalaya in China, India, Bangladesh and southeast Asia.

‘Human influence has likely increased the chance of compound extreme events since the 1950s, increases in the frequency of concurrent heatwaves and droughts on the global scale, fire weather in some regions of all inhabited continents, and compound flooding in some locations,’ the says the IPCC report, almost describing the winter drought, wildfires and floods that have ravaged Nepal in the past 8 months.

The main cause of all this warming is that in 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years. Global surface temperature averaged over 2081–2100 will be higher by 1.0°C to 1.8°C compared to pre-industrial levels even if emissions are controlled in the next 30 years.

The IPCC report summary says that the only solution is for world governments to immediately agree on reaching net zero anthropogenic CO2 emissions to stabilise human-induced global temperature increase.

If the biggest carbon emitters like India and China meet cut back targets, under the most optimistic scenario global average temperature would stabilise at below 1.5°C toward the end of the 21st century after overheating by 0.1°C. But experts do not sound very optimistic about this happening.

Projected global temperature rise under the intermediate, high and very high GHG emission scenarios considered. Source: IPCC

Nepal’s greenhouse gas emission is negligible, but it has doubled in the past seven years according to a mandatory report filed by the Ministry of Environment with the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Most of this is because the volume of petroleum imports from India has doubled in the past 10 years to meet the demand of transportation, expansion of cement and other industries.

Last year, Nepal had submitted its second Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to meet zero emission by 2050. Switching to electric public transport and battery vehicles to reduce the petroleum import bill by just 10% would save Rs21 billion a year. This will also clean up the air, dirty air killed 41,000 people in Nepal in 2019.

It is a sign of just how desperate the situation is that the IPCC scientists say in their report that the only hope for life on the planet may be a major volcanic eruption this century that would reduce global surface temperature because the sun will be blocked out for 2-3 years.

The reports says rather phlegmatically: ‘If such an eruption occurs, this would therefore temporarily and partially mask human-caused climate change.’