What did the latest IPCC report on climate change actually say?

Climate protesters in Washington D.C., 2017. Image: Getty.

The world’s climate scientists have spoken: if we want to limit human-induced global warming to 1.5℃ we probably can. But it will be tough, given where we’re starting from.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The focus on 1.5℃ is the result of years of international negotiation. Starting in 1994, a central aim of the UN’s climate change efforts (the Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC) was to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. Much was written on what this meant, particularly the word “dangerous”.

Negative impacts of climate change occur on a continuum, and defining a point at which climate change becomes dangerous is difficult and contentious. On the other hand, climate change negotiations are difficult without some target to work towards.

Fifteen years later, the UNFCCC’s Copenhagen Accord introduced a 2℃ target, and its 2015 Paris Agreement was even more specific: it “aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change... by holding the increase in... temperature to well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the... increase to 1.5℃”.

The IPCC provides scientific advice to the UNFCCC, which makes policy, and the IPCC itself has never stated a temperature target. It does however list climate change risks using five “reasons for concern”. These include impacts such as “unique and threatened ecosystems and cultures” (such as coral reefs) and “extreme weather events”, each of which is rated on a scale from “undetectable” to “very high”. The IPCC’s most recent (2014) Fifth Assessment of the scientific evidence found that at around 1.5℃ warming there was a transition from moderate to high risk for threatened ecosystems and cultures and for extreme weather events. Thus there is consistency between the Paris and IPCC assessments.

The Paris Agreement asked the IPCC to report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5℃, and this new publication is the result. Its tone is not “we must avoid 1.5℃ warming”, as you might think from many commentators, but more “if we want to avoid 1.5℃ warming, this is what must be done”. The report contrasts the impact of 1.5℃ and 2℃ warmings, giving information on what would be gained by the extra effort needed to limit warming to 1.5℃.

As the IPCC’s reports are largely based on a critical assessment and synthesis of published scientific papers, many of its latest conclusions are unsurprising. There are many well recognised uncertainties in understanding climate change - for instance, even if we set a course aiming to hit 1.5℃ (which is mostly determined by future CO₂ emissions), we could end up hitting, say, 1℃ or 2℃ instead. The report provides uncertainty ranges in its estimates and confidence levels, based on expert judgement.

The new report tells us that human activity has already caused about 1℃ of global warming, while at the present rate of warming (0.2℃ per decade) we’ll hit 1.5℃ by about 2040. National pledges made as part of the Paris Agreement still mean we are on course for warming of about 3℃ by 2100, meaning four of the five “reasons for concern” would then be in the high to very-high risk category.

Achieving the 1.5℃ target will require anthropogenic CO₂ emissions to decline by 45 per cent by 2030 (relative to 2010). By 2050, they will need to reach “net zero” - any further CO₂ emissions due to human activity would then have to be matched by deliberate removal of CO₂ already in the atmosphere, including by planting trees. Net zero would have to occur by around 2075 to meet a 2℃ target.

Many illustrations are given for the difference between 1.5℃ and 2℃ worlds. At 1.5℃, summertime Arctic sea ice is projected to disappear once per century, compared to once per decade at 2℃; 8 per cent of plants that have been studied would lose half their climatically-suitable area, compared to 16 per cent; sea level rise would be 10cm less (with 10m fewer people impacted at today’s population levels); and while coral reefs might decline by a further 80% at 1.5℃, they could virtually disappear at 2℃.

The report identifies various routes by which emissions cuts would limit warming to 1.5℃; each makes assumptions about future changes in, for example, economic strategy, population growth and the rate at which low carbon energy is adopted. The IPCC recognises the challenges are “unprecedented in scale” but notes, for example, “the feasibility of solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage mechanisms have substantially improved over the past few years”.

The report is sensitive to the fact that changes required to meet 1.5℃ must be consistent with the UN’s wider sustainable development goals. Limiting climate change will help meet goals associated with health, clean energy, cities and oceans. But there are potential negative impacts on others (poverty, hunger, water, energy access) “if not carefully managed”.

So where next? Of course, the conclusions will be widely debated at many levels, but eyes will be on the UNFCCC’s response at its next meeting, in Katowice, Poland, in early December.

The Conversation

Keith Shine, Regius Professor of Meteorology and Climate Science, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.

It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.