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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Can we stop the runaway train of climate change?

Sometimes, even the cold, precise language of science cannot mask a sense of alarm. This is evident from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report that was published on Monday.

The Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis report, the first of IPCC’s sixth round of Assessment Reports (AR6), issued the starkest warning yet by the world’s climate scientists: humans are ‘unequivocally’ causing ‘irreversible’ climate change by burning fossil fuels for energy and emitting planet-warming greenhouse gases (GHG) like CO2.

In fact, the report says, the worst of what we are seeing today, from glacier melt to heatwaves to wildfires, cyclones and floods, is the result of the heating of the past few decades. The additional heating we are causing today, with our present emissions, will result in worse climate catastrophes in the near future.

So, what are the key points that the report makes? First of all, the world is on track to cross a safety threshold within the next 20 years. This will happen when global temperatures warm up by 1.5 degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels (1850-1900).

The 2015 Paris Agreement seeks to limit global warming to under 2 degree Celsius by 2100, preferably to 1.5 degree Celsius. However, according to the latest report, this mark will be breached between 2030 and 2040 even in the best-case scenario. If the world’s governments are successful in reaching net zero emissions by about 2050, then this temperature rise will stabilize to about 1.4 degree Celsius by 2100. If global emissions continue at their present levels, then by 2100, the world would be looking at a temperature rise of 3.6 to even 4.4 degrees Celsius.

This would be nothing short of cataclysmic. For every .5 degree rise in the temperature, heatwaves, violent rainfall, droughts and other extreme climate events will become more intense and happen more frequently.

This is especially bad news for India. After all, India is in the somewhat unique position of being a country that faces the worst of climate impacts on multiple parameters. This includes heatwaves, sea level rise, droughts, extreme rainfall, floods and the accelerated melting of Himalayan glaciers.

It is already well-documented that since 1970, the global ocean has absorbed the bulk of the heat generated by climate change. The latest IPCC report confirms that the Indian Ocean is warming faster than the global average.

Over the past few years, this has resulted in marine heatwaves causing coral bleaching and greater acidification demolishing fish stocks. Abnormally warm Indian Ocean sea surface temperatures have both supercharged cyclones and have increased the likelihood of extreme rainfall and floods in western and central India.

Moreover, the global mean sea level is rising at the rate of about 3.7mm per year. As against this global average, in certain areas of the Indian Ocean, like in north Bay of Bengal, Indian climate scientists are already observing sea level rise of 5mm per year. With greater warming, each of these things will get worse.

The report warns that at 1.5 degree Celsius of warming, heatwaves will increase, as well as the duration of warmer seasons. At 2 degree Celsius of warming, heat extremes would reach “critical tolerance" levels for humans. At that level of warming, once-in-a-decade extreme heat events will occur five times more frequently around the world. At 4 degree Celsius of warming, such events will occur nearly every year. For an already heat-stressed country like India, this scenario doesn’t even bear thinking about.

One of the key climate change impacts that’s already locked in, according to the report, is the fact that high mountain regions and the poles will continue to lose their snow and ice, for decades and centuries. This is grim news for the Himalaya. As the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s (ICIMOD) 2019 report on the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region had pointed out, for a global average of 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise, temperatures in the Himalaya will rise by 2.1 degree Celsius. Anything between 35% and 90% of Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2100.

So, is there any good news? Well, the choice is still in humanity’s hands, though the window of opportunity is closing fast. The only way that the runaway train of climate change can be brought under control is to make a complete global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2050.

Indeed, the IPCC has itself pointed out previously that the world must slash fresh emissions by half by 2030 to stand any chance of meeting that goal. The latest study, the science body’s starkest warning yet, puts the ball firmly in the court of governments. The pressure is now on them to chart a meaningful course to end emissions at the Glasgow climate change conference in November. We have been warned, yet again.

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