IPCC Report – We need “climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

By Charlie Wilson

Humanity is on thin ice – and that ice is melting fast, but today’s IPCC report is a how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb. It is a survival guide for humanity. As it shows, the 1.5-degree limit is achievable.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres

This figure, a detail taken from Figure SPM.1 in the AR6 Synthesis Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shows the observed and possible future average global temperature changes. (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Reports, because they have to be politically signed off by all the 193 countries that are signatories to the Paris Agreement, are the product of a negotiated compromise between the science and what is politically acceptable. This is a bit like a patient with lung cancer negotiating with their doctor so they can keep smoking. The process is described by one former UK government climate adviser cited in the FT this week as “intimidation from vested interests”.

As a result, the Summary for Policymakers digests of the full report – the bit that gets read – understate both the gravity of the situation and the solutions needed to deal with it. A rule of thumb to keep in mind is that the trajectory the world has actually been on in the models produced by these reports has been smack in line with the “unlikely worst-case scenario”. In fact, current implemented policies would put global temperatures around 3.2 degrees of heating by 2100 — somewhere in the “intermediate” or “high” pathways of future emissions scenarios depicted in the graphic above, according to NASA climate scientist Alex Ruane; a member of the core writing team for the IPCC report. So, those who blithely assert that these reports are “alarmist” are trying very hard to comfort themselves with complacent delusions; not to mention defending the sort term profits of the “vested interests” that are doing the intimidation.

The damage so far

  • Four-fifths of the total carbon budget consistent with staying under a 1.5C was released between 1850 and 2019.
  • As a result, global land temperatures have already climbed by an average of 1.59°C since 1850.
  • The air over the oceans is only 0.88°C warmer, because the water cools the air above. But oceans will take longer to cool after net-zero emissions, so centuries of sea level rise are already baked in.

The remaining carbon budget allows for no more than 500 gigatons of CO2 to be released to avoid heating over 1.5°C overall.

  • At 2019 emissions levels, which were 59.1 gigatons, there is just 8.4 years of emissions left.
  • During the pandemic, emissions fell to about 49.4 gigatons but rebounded after.
  • The climate impacts on countries in Africa already amount to 5-15% of GDP.
  • We need to cut emissions by 11% a year to be on track to keep below 1.5C.

The Damage to come

  • Sea level rise caused by glacial melting in Greenland and Antarctica will reach up to 1.01 meters by 2100, inundating many of the world’s ports and requiring very expensive mitigation measures, from elevated tidal barriers to wholesale removal to higher elevations.
  • Between 3.3 billion and 3.6 billion people are in regions that will be heavily impacted by climate change, including increased incidence of drought, severe storms, extreme heat, and water shortages that will be 15 times worse than in other regions.
  • Every additional fraction of a degree of heating will multiply the severity of human suffering, mass extinctions of other species, and irreversible damage to the environmental conditions we need to survive.

The clarity of the latest IPCC Synthesis Report – aimed at the Dubai COP in November in calling for the most rapid possible end to fossil fuel extraction to avoid overshooting the remaining carbon budget – the quantity of CO2 that can be emitted before a catastrophic increase in global temperatures leads to civilizational collapse –is nevertheless hard to downplay.

It states baldly that it is now imperative for developed countries to reach net-zero emissions by 2040; and 2050 for the Global South. That means that existing targets and schedules are globally ten years too late to avert disaster. And that requires a rapid acceleration of ambition and action across the board.

In the case of the UK, the current 2050 target for Net Zero which governments are legally required to meet under the Climate Change Act sets a 28 year schedule from here to there. But we don’t have 28 years. We have 17. And this is when we have to have finished the job, not, as it is too often posed, the point at which we have to start taking it seriously. Action taken now has a much bigger impact than action postponed, because delay means greater negative impacts that also have to be dealt with and, if tipping points are reached, we will be reduced to salvaging what we can from the wreckage while trying to survive in an environment that is increasingly hostile. “A future of famine and fear” as one Just Stop Oil protestor put it. It’s really difficult to overstate this. This puts a specific responsibility on Socialists to make this a central priority, as the ruling class are structurally incapable of making the transition.

Instead of taking on board how rapidly the situation is deteriorating, acknowledging that this is an existential crisis that makes almost every other concern a form of displacement activity, and leading society in a gigantic debate about how we have to restructure almost everything we do, and allowing, in Tomas Kraus’s beautiful phrase “the people” to “become a many headed genius” to collectively solve our problem, what have we had this week? The terrifying precision of the science and the absolute imperative to act on it has been buried in the news media by trivia. “Don’t look Up”. Instead of reframing everything that is happening around this core threat, the threat itself is relegated to being “noises off”, almost as if it wasn’t there at all.

Globally, the US government – the declining Global Hegemon – instead of working with China on “win win solutions” and “a common future for humanity” is prioritising its war drive; spending 14 times as much on its military as on domestic investment in green transition, and spending more than ten times as much on military aid to Ukraine in the last year as support for the entire Global South to cope with climate impacts and develop without recourse to fossil fuel reserves. The carbon bootprint of the US military alone is greater than that of the entire nation of France. The sharp increases in “defence” budgets by US allies, Japan, Germany, France, UK, is not simply a diversion of badly needed funds from investment in the transition we need, it will also add significantly to overall military carbon emissions. These are not counted in national emissions figures. Its time they were.

The recent signing, under a Chinese Presidency, of the 30 by 30 agreement on biodiversity shows that win win cooperation is possible as well as necessary.

Back here, the inadequacy of the UK Net Zero Plan published in 2021 in setting firm, quantified and scheduled plans to even meet the 2050 target was confirmed by a legal judgement last September; requiring the government to upgrade and quantify its plans by the end of March. The Green Alliance review of current targets shows that only 28% of them have confirmed policy, 36% are out for consultation, 23% are described as “policy ambitions” and 13% have no policy at all. Mind the gap. The Skidmore Review of the government’s strategy makes 129 recommendations, which the Parliamentary Climate Change Committee has recommended are adopted in full. A key thread running through Skidmore’s arguments is that there need to be long term policy frameworks for all areas to enable serious planning and investment to take place; not the sort of half hearted, short term, penny packet funding that has made government initiatives on insulation and retrofitting such a pathetic flop for the past ten years. The government will announce its updated plan on Thursday (March 30th). The Minister responsible is Grant Shapps. Government papers that have been seen by opposition MPs indicate that the one sacrosanct concern for them is the protection of profits, as if the collapse of the conditions for human life were simply a problem for the income of shareholders.

What is to be done?

The IPCC notes that “Feasible, effective, and low-cost options for mitigation and adaptation are already available” to convert to low- and zero-emissions technologies, improve the efficiency and resilience of human infrastructures, and to address the socio-economic challenges that come with a rapid transition to a new form of energy and projects the following.

  • A shift to solar and wind energy, connected to a resilient modern electrical grid could reduce energy-related CO2 emissions by 73%.
  • Shifting to a plant-centric diet and reducing food waste dramatically, could cut food-related emissions by as much as 44%. Shifting to healthier diets, sustainably produced produce and proteins, and supporting reforestation and ecosystem restoration has to be mandated from above and pushed for from below.
  • Regenerative agricultural practices, which restore complex soil systems with no-till strategies, would contribute to capturing gigatons of CO2 naturally, as would preserving old growth forests, which are more efficient carbon sinks than restored forests and rewilding.
  • Switching to electric vehicles would eliminate 67% of transportation-related emissions; while making a sharp move away from personal vehicle ownership towards public transport, walking and cycling could eliminate the rest. In addition, a development transport paradigm for the Global South based on high speed rail not internal flights is also crucial, as is including emissions from shipping in reduction targets.
  • Upgrading buildings with improved insulation and efficient heating and cooling systems could reduce emissions from the built environment by 66%.
  • Electrifying manufacturing and reducing waste could eliminate 29% of industrial emissions. Deloitte’s Circle Economy report further indicates that a circular economy that reuses all manufacturing materials can reduce the overall environmental impact of everyday life by 30%.

IPCC proposals for carbon capture programs are a mix of nature-based solutions – reforestation, ocean restoration and conservation, rewilding – and support for Carbon Capture and Storage. The latter reflects the pressure of the fossil fuel sector, which has been holding out the mirage of CCS (sometimes CCUS) for decades as a way of carrying on with business as usual. No CCS facility has been built that is economically viable at scale so far , except those used as an auxiliary source for fracking; so, something of a paradox there.

Overall, the IPCC make clear that the critical step is to wind-down fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. These still receive more funding than climate adaptation and mitigation projects globally.

The UN is convening a Special Conference in September two months ahead of the COP. This is perhaps as a recognition that fossil fuel interests are now well entrenched in the COP process and actively sabotaging the progress we need. Holding the COP in Dubai, chaired by the head of the UAE’s oil company, is a symbol of this; like having an anti-cancer summit chaired by the head of British American Tobacco.

A rising anger at the Fossil Fuel company sabotage is leading to proposals from Harvard Environmental Law Review to prosecute them all for homicide – with the penalty of a guilty verdict being to restructure them as public benefit corporations, similar to what happened to Purdue Pharma as part of its settlement for contributing to the opioid crisis. Public ownership would allow for fossil fuel production to be rapidly wound down to reduce further climate harm while ramping up investments in clean energy and protecting workers and communities tied to fossil fuel companies.

Which begs the question why not simply nationalise them anyway, given that this is an imperative that they are structurally incapable of fulfilling? As Progressive International put it this week, On Tuesday, “oil giant Shell published its projections that suggested net zero wouldn’t be reached until next century. They should know. They are in the driving seat of the world economy.” Time to get them out of it. A demand for climate criminals like their chief executives to be locked up in the meantime, might help concentrate some minds on something beyond the three monthly bottom line.

The response in the Climate Movement

In national politics here we have a government that doesn’t include dealing with the climate crisis as one of its priorities. A governing Party that abstained on Jeremy Corbyn’s motion for Westminster to declare a climate emergency, with a hard core of Tufton Street affiliated deniers and delayers linked to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and led by a Prime Minister who seems peculiarly oblivious to it (and thinks it appropriate to upgrade the electricity grid around his home to heat his private swimming pool) and exists to defend the interests of the top 10% of people whose consumption is taking us over the brink, is never going to be able to lead us away from it. One striking illustration of the class forces involved is the Guardian report that an area more than twice the size of Greater London inside Britain’s national parks is devoted to driven grouse shooting.

Even worse, Conservative MPs and Councillors are joining hands with the far right in trying to mobilise a NRA type reaction among car drivers to any measures designed to clean up air and filter traffic. This combines concerns over affordability from a minority of drivers, with unhinged conspiracy theories about 15 minute neighbourhoods being “an international socialist conspiracy” led by the “global elite” (who are well known for their socialism). Mobilising the majority who want to breath healthy air, live in communities in which most necessary things are within easy walking distance and are built around people not vehicles, is a key task this summer.

Labour at least has energy transition as one of its five missions, albeit posed in the most retrograde and insular manner possible. But it is ludicrous that measures like the Climate Emergency Education Bill – which would overhaul the curriculum so that the wholesale social mobilisation we need is understood and acted upon through schools and colleges – or the Energy for All Bill – that would introduce a free Universal Basic Energy Allowance, and give retrofitting a necessary boost – have been left to backbenchers to introduce not flagged up as Shadow Cabinet initiatives to give a clear and unambiguous line of march towards a possible future. To follow the science the Climate Change Act will have to be upgraded to set the new target of 2040, and all government plans and targets accelerated with an appropriate sense of urgency; and it will be up to opposition parties to nail that to the door. Public control of energy and transport networks will be unavoidable to make this transition at the speed we need to. Socialists will have to fight for that.

There is a growing movement in the trade unions to elect and train Green Reps to start bargaining for workplace and sectoral transitions. This is at an early stage, but can’t help but develop. The TUC has just appointed two Green Bargaining Officers to help support this process in the Automotive and Steel industries, but this is a society wide issue, as transition has to happen everywhere, not just in the most carbon heavy sectors. Looking at demands like free travel cards for workers addresses the climate and cost of living crisis at the same time. The Climate Justice Coalition is organising a conference in May and the Institute of Employment Rights is organising a green bargaining conference in the summer, already supported by PCS, Bakers Union and UCU. Getting the broadest possible support and attendance at these events will help generate a groundswell of mobilisation in unions and workplaces across the country.

The climate movement more broadly is making a turn towards mass action. Greenpeace and FOE are supporting the XR four day Big One demo from April 21st to 24th, alongside CND, War on Want, Climate Justice Coalition, Compass, the Peace and Justice Movement, the PCS union and an increasing number of other organisations. This will be like a time limited Occupy action in and around Parliament Square, with pickets at Ministries on the Friday, an Earth Day March on the Saturday, interventions around – and with the cooperation of – the London Marathon on the Sunday, and putting demands into Parliament on the Monday.

Greenpeace put their rationale for this rather well.

But while the UK government is failing to get to grips with the climate crisis, it’s getting busy preventing the public from expressing their anger at this inaction. Not content with the draconian measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – already criticised by the UN – ministers are now tightening their crackdown on the right to protest with the Public Order Bill, which could become law over the next few days. This dystopian legislation will allow police to stop protests before they even happen while widening stop-and-search powers that are already unfairly targeted at overpoliced groups.

A large protest movement, filled with unlikely alliances, is what our government fears, but it’s what our country needs. The change we need can’t be achieved just by asking people to shop sustainably, watch their air miles and sign petitions. A truly mass movement is the only tool within our reach with the power to deliver the change we need, and supporting and building that movement is a crucial task for all of our campaign work. We either succeed together as a united movement, or we fail apart.

Socialists will want to build and be part of these events.