Earlier this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its final body of work under the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). This report and the AR6 report series represent the culmination of nearly a decade of research by hundreds of scientists across various disciplines. This report shows us the state of our climate and provides solutions to help us maintain a 1.5°C pathway. It also shines a stark reflection on how much farther we must go to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
The past three AR6 assessment reports looked at different aspects of our changing climate. The first report in 2021 involved a deep analysis of climate science and our role in creating our present climate reality. The second looked at the intensity of our changing climate, the damage this will cause, and potential mitigation pathways. The third report in April 2022 gave us a grade on how we can improve these situations. This most recent report gives us a comprehensive assessment of our climate impacts, a clear understanding of where we are at—akin to a report card—and, lastly and most importantly, guidance on how to get ourselves out of this climate catastrophe.
The report focuses first on the state of our climate and current trends; it moves into potential scenarios and pathways before looking into future climate risks and long-term responses, ending with near-term responses. In this way, the report gives us both an indicator of where we are, and a set of overarching goals we will need to achieve to stay on track for a 1.5°C pathway.
The state of our climate and climate impacts
Today, we are witnessing the climate impacts of a 1.1°C world. Our atmospheric carbon pollution has been at the highest level seen for more than two million years. The rate of temperature increases over the last fifty years is the highest in 2,000 years. What we see today is essentially incomparable to any past climate reality known to humanity. For comparison, humans didn’t exist when Earth last saw warming similar to these levels.
Our present-day climate impacts—ranging from unprecedented glacial retreat to sea level rise and iceless summers in the Arctic—all point to our new self-inflicted climate reality. These impacts will increase substantially as we move from our present 1.1°C world towards 1.5°C and (potentially) beyond 1.5°C later this century.
These impacts adversely affect the ecosystems we rely on and cause far-reaching harm to vulnerable communities. Climate change continues to most heavily impact those least responsible, with communities in poorer developing countries facing the starkest impacts—from biodiversity and agriculture impacts to extreme heat and drought. If we fail to reach our 1.5°C target, these climate-fueled environmental risks will be exacerbated further across every indicator.
The economic impact of these major climate and earth system transformations will forever change where and how we grow our food, build factories, and get products to market. Our modern society has existed alongside a stable climate where it physically makes sense to perform these activities. As we continue to experience climate shocks, it will, in turn, create twin environmental and economic risks to our local and global economies.
Global emissions and our net-zero transition
We still have an opportunity to meet our 1.5°C targets, but the IPCC estimates a 50% chance we will reach or exceed that target. Global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) will have to peak by 2025 to align with the 1.5°C target.
To achieve our 1.5°C goal, the IPCC states that we must cut our 2019 emissions by 43% by 2030, reaching a 60% reduction by 2035 compared to 2019 levels. This would bring global emissions from 59.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2019 to 23.6 GtCO2e by 2035.
The most significant threat to our climate and achieving the 1.5°C target agreed to in the Paris Agreement is our overreliance on fossil fuels, which account for over 80% of global energy production and 75% of pollution. This all creates an uphill battle for our emissions goals and the rapid transition to a net-zero economy, outlined in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2021 report. This latest IPCC report further underscores the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and dramatically cut emissions over the next decade.
What other actions do we need to take?
The IPCC states that we will need a mix of conservation and nature-based solutions with technical solutions to avert the worst climate outcomes. An “all of the above” approach will be necessary. We must utilize carbon removal technologies with deep decarbonization to build resilience, cut emissions, and achieve our climate goals. Nature-based approaches to remove carbon from both our oceans and on land will also be required. This would include restoring wetlands, reforestation, seaweed cultivation, and similar habitat restorations. The IPCC estimates we will need to remove 5 to 16 GtCO2e annually by 2050.
The IPCC report will help inform the final rounds of the first global stocktake at COP28 in Dubai this November, where global commitments will be assessed against global actions to cut emissions. By 2025, nations will also have to re-up their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to increase ambition. Earlier COPs required an increase in global and national commitments but have largely fallen flat.
This latest IPCC report adds validity and urgency to the call for climate action. It clearly underscores the need to cut emissions dramatically to ensure a habitable world. Achieving 100% of the current global pledges towards net-zero would have us overshoot our 1.5°C target, hitting 1.8°C of warming by 2100. Presently, the EU has a goal to cut emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030. The U.S. currently has a goal to cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Businesses should anticipate a continued focus and an expansion of policies and carbon disclosure requirements, particularly on the role of scope 3 emissions. In the U.S., the Biden administration is requiring federal contractors to comply with CDP guidance on climate and emissions accounting, disclosing emissions, and setting science-based targets. The SEC has also proposed new rules on climate disclosures for all publically listed companies. Meanwhile, the European Union has a series of required business disclosures regarding climate and emissions contributions, like the CSRD and SFDR.
With this latest IPCC report joining the slew of other international governmental assessments, like from the IEA, and the upcoming World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, we should anticipate added pressure on governments to increase climate ambition and, in turn, elevate the role of business emissions accounting to achieve and exceed climate targets.
1. IPCC, “SYNTHESIS REPORT OF THE IPCC SIXTH ASSESSMENT REPORT (AR6),” https://report.ipcc.ch/ar6syr/pdf/IPCC_AR6_SYR_SPM.pdf Accessed March 23, 2023
2. World Resources Institute, “10 Big Findings from the 2023 IPCC Report on Climate Change,” https://www.wri.org/insights/2023-ipcc-ar6-synthesis-report-climate-change-findings Accessed March 23, 2023
3. CNN, “‘The climate time-bomb is ticking’: The world is running out of time to avoid catastrophe, new UN report warns,” https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/20/world/ipcc-synthesis-report-climate-intl/index.html Accessed March 23, 2023
4. IEA, “Net Zero by 2050,” https://www.iea.org/reports/net-zero-by-2050 Accessed March 23, 2023
5. Climate Action Tracker, “Temperatures,” https://climateactiontracker.org/global/temperatures/ Accessed March 23, 2023
6. European Commission, “A European Green Deal,” https://commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en Accessed March 23, 2023
7. The White House, “Statement by OSTP Director Arati Prabhakar on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/ostp/news-updates/2023/03/20/ostp-statement-ipcc-ar6/ Accessed March 23, 2023