Climate Justice Durham


I Read the IPCC Report So You Don't Have To

By Alyssa Scanga

This article was originally published in Trent University's Arthur Newspaper.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report, released Monday, March 20th, provides an overview of the most recent Sixth Assessment Cycle. It includes three working group reports and three special reports, covering the physical science of climate change, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, mitigation, the state of the world at 1.5℃, impacts on the land, ocean and ice environments… all summarized in what is arguably the most important 85 pages of scientific literature ever.

In a fit of singular autistic laser focus and, let’s face it, a touch of masochism, I read the entire thing. Let’s talk about it. 


For the uninitiated: the IPCC, is a body of the United Nations and the leading, internationally accepted authority on climate change. They perform massive, systematic reviews of all relevant publications and scientific literature to create their assessment reports, which inform governments and the public about the current state of climate change and strategies for tackling the threat. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of time and effort, from thousands of volunteer scientists and experts all over the world. The sheer volume of information the IPCC synthesizes is truly mind-boggling. 

Since the IPCC was created in 1988, there have been several Assessment Cycles advancing scientific knowledge of climate change. The release of the Synthesis Report marks the end of the Sixth Assessment Cycle (AR6), which included three working group reports (Working Group I’s The Physical Science Basis, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability by Working Group II’s, and Mitigation of Climate Change by Working Group III) and three special reports (Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, Special Report on Climate Change and Land, and Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate). The Synthesis Report compiles key findings from all these reports into one central document.

The Main Findings

I’m aware that not everyone has a science brain, so here is my best plain-language summary of what I consider the highlights of the Synthesis Report:

In case there was any doubt: “human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming” (emphasis mine). There is “high confidence” that atmospheric CO₂ concentrations are higher than at any time over at least the past two million years. Global surface temperatures have already increased by 1.1°C relative to preindustrial levels, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. Nor are greenhouse gas emissions evenly distributed: the 10% of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute 34–45% of global consumption-based household GHG emissions, while the bottom 50% contribute 13–15%.

We are already seeing widespread and rapid changes in every Earth system, and this is already causing widespread adverse effects and losses. The magnitude of these impacts is larger than we previously thought and those who are least responsible for climate change are disproportionately affected by these catastrophes. Taking action on climate change will have bonus benefits too! It will advance progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals and reduce inequities.

There has been an increase in adaptation planning, but it is still not where it needs to be. In some places, adaptation is not feasible, and in others, it isn’t possible. In terms of financial support for adaptation measures, there is a major gap between where we are and where we need to be, particularly when it comes to the most affected areas of the world. Finance flows for fossil fuels still exceed those for climate adaptation and mitigation. 

Climate change mitigation policies have also been increasing, but still aren’t where they need to be. In 2030, if all countries met their 2021 pledges, we’d likely exceed 1.5°C during the twenty-first century and it would be harder to limit warming below 2°C. To make matters worse, there is also an implementation gap, meaning current policies and actions are not sufficient to meet these targets. 

Some future changes are unavoidable and/or irreversible. Now, you may be thinking, “Alyssa, if we’re already locked into some feedback loops causing unavoidable warming, isn’t it too late to act on climate?”

Glad you asked- the answer is no - just like it’s never too late to stop kicking adorable puppies in the head. When it comes to climate warming, every fraction of a degree matters. Every tonne of CO₂ that we emit (or don’t) matters. While the impacts are much worse than we thought, if we rapidly reduce emissions, warming would begin to slow noticeably within two decades. Those telling you it’s too late to do anything want you to believe that because they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. If we give up trying to change things, it gives them carte blanche to continue driving us off a cliff at full speed.

Even though some of the changes are inevitable/irreversible, they can be limited by deep, rapid, and sustained global greenhouse gas emissions reduction. The likelihood of abrupt and/or irreversible changes increases with higher global warming levels. The level of greenhouse gas emission reductions this decade largely determines whether warming can be limited to 1.5°C or 2°C. About 80% of coal, 50% of gas, and 30% of oil reserves cannot be burned and emitted if warming is limited to 2°C. Significantly more reserves are expected to remain unburned if warming is limited to 1.5°C, and limiting warming to 2°C or lower will result in stranded assets (That means fossil fuels are a bad investment, Trent!).

Solutions exist, and we need to transition to them now. The more we do now, the less damage there will be. The more we delay, the less we’ll be able to do and action will become more expensive. We have a “rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”. But a window is not a wall. There is still time for us to, for lack of a better phrase, get our shit together. So don’t throw up your hands and give up, because this decade will be pivotal. 

For those of you who want to read more in-depth about the main findings, I refer you to the IPCC’s Headline Statements or Summary For Policymakers. In fact, let’s talk more about the Summary for Policymakers…

The Summary for Policymakers

Obviously, the average person is not going to sit down and read the entire report. Politicians are definitely not going to sit down and read the entire report. (Although when it comes to some of them, I remain wholly unconvinced they can read.) There’s a very simple reason for that: 

IPCC reports are really fucking long. Really, really long. The Physical Science Basis report came out to 3,949 pages when all was said and done. In the wise words of Kimberly "Sweet Brown" Wilkins, ain’t nobody got time for that. I certainly don’t. (Honestly, I don’t even have time to read the Synthesis Report, much less write about it. If any of my professors read this, I apologize in advance for the less-than-stellar quality of the work you’re about to receive from me.) That’s why the IPCC also develops a Summary For Policymakers, which gives a very basic overview of the report. All IPCC reports have a Summary For Policymakers - including the Synthesis Report.

Unlike the longer report, which is entirely driven by contributing authors, the Summary For Policymakers must be approved, line-by-line, by all 195 countries party to the IPCC. The authors wrote a draft SPM, and then delegates from the participating countries got to work bickering over what parts were most important to include and what wording should be changed. 

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin (the only media allowed into the approval sessions) has released its report on who lobbied for what changes to the SPM. It’s a fascinating read if you happen to be an international development student, polisci major, or me. Here are some of the highlights: 

Finland wanted to include a line about the root cause of climate change being the use of fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia pushed back. Saudi Arabia also wanted to change a sentence saying that CO₂ emissions from existing infrastructure would exceed the remaining carbon budget for 1.5°C to include the phrase ‘without additional abatement’, referring to carbon capture technology. This was approved. 

Norway weakened the language on cutting emissions, by successfully changing a reference to “deep, rapid, and sustained” reductions to “strong” reductions. The US also attempted to delete the word ‘equitable’ from a section on climate finance, which was unsuccessful. 

France, Germany, and Denmark wanted to ensure the SPM included mention of the risks and challenges of scaling up carbon dioxide removal technology. Saudi Arabia pushed back again, saying if the barriers to CDR were included, then they would demand similar language exploring the limitations of renewables. China, New Zealand, and the Netherlands supported Saudi Arabia and the risks of CDR were relegated to a footnote on page 22 and a passing reference in a page 24 sub-note. 

Finally, China attempted to delete a section on how much carbon dioxide emissions would need to fall to keep global warming to 1.5°C: 48% by 2030, 65% by 2035, 80% by 2040, and 99% by 2050. They managed to delete it from the main text and compromised by having it put as a line in table XX.

This approval process took almost a week and was supposed to conclude two days before it did, meaning many delegates weren’t able to stay for the entire deliberation- mainly delegates from Global South countries most impacted by climate change. 

None of this is to say that the Summary for Policymakers isn’t valuable: it is! Anything that makes good science more accessible to the average person is a victory in my book. Just be aware that politics is in everything… even a code red for humanity.

Final Thoughts

Reading an IPCC report is always difficult work. So is reading about an IPCC report. But if you’ve learned anything from this piece that I wrote instead of my final essays, it’s this: we aren’t out of time. We aren’t out of choices. Throughout the report, the authors focus on what can and must be done rather than what is impossible. It’s time for us to do the same.


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