Climate Ambitions Will Fail Without Decarbonization Now

Although 2021 is billed as the super year for governments to ramp up their climate ambition, actionable plans are needed to radically decarbonize economies now.

Expert comment Published 14 December 2020 Updated 27 January 2021 2 minute READ

As 2020 ends, optimism is beginning to percolate through climate campaigning and diplomacy spheres as key countries commit to ambitious targets. China has just announced its 2030 target of lowering its emissions per unit of GDP by more than 65 per cent – relative to 2005 – and has pledged carbon neutrality by 2060.

Joe Biden says the US will re-join the Paris Agreement and achieve net-zero by 2050, while both the EU and UK are targeting significant reductions in emissions – of 55 and 68 per cent respectively – by the end of the decade.

This acceleration of climate change mitigation targets led the independent Climate Action Tracker to announce that ‘if all national governments meet their 2050 net-zero emissions targets, warming could be as low as 2.1˚C by 2100, putting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C limit within striking distance’.

This is certainly an optimistic announcement but it is critical to note that, while pledges and targets are crucial to provide industry, consumers, and markets clarity in the direction of government policy, targets can only be delivered if supported by actionable policies, enforceable regulations, intelligent legislation, and credible stimulus and subsidies. With COP26 due in November 2021, it is important to remember the risks if governments fail to deliver on this optimism.

Relapse or stasis is hugely damaging

The UK-China Co-operation on Climate Change Risk Assessment project has showed that if policy ambition, low-carbon technology deployment, and investment continue along historic trends, we are likely to see 2.7°C of warming by the end of the century, and a plausible worst case scenario of 3.5°C. But any relapse or stasis in climate policies could increase that worst case scenario to 7°C.

Assessing direct risks of climate change by using the assumption that policymakers maintain historic decarbonization trends – under the IPCC Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5 and Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 2 – shows the devastating climate impacts societies around the world will be living with if governments fail to deliver now.

Heatwaves are likely to impact the greatest number of people as, by 2050, the estimate is almost 5.2 billion people – just over half the global population – will be subjected to major heatwaves of at least four consecutive days per year, a huge increase on the historic average of 331 million people.

Across west, central, east and southern Africa, the Middle East, south and southeast Asia, and central America, at least 60 per cent of people will experience major heatwaves each year. By 2100, all these regions except South Asia will be experiencing heatwaves of almost six weeks in length.

Drought also poses a significant risk on a global scale. By 2050, the most likely outcome is that more than 750 million people per year will be exposed to droughts of at least six months, almost double the historic average. In absolute terms, the populations of Asia and Africa are likely to be most impacted, exceeding 360 and 180 million by 2050 respectively.

Drought and damaging hot spells cause reductions in crop duration periods, reducing agricultural yields so that, by 2050, almost 40 per cent of global cropland could be exposed to significant drought each year – far higher than the nine per cent exposed historically. Europe has the second largest cropland area with 20 per cent of the global total and is likely to experience the greatest impact of agricultural drought, with almost half of it likely to be under significant drought by 2050.

Wheat and rice, which together make up 37 per cent of the calorific intake of the average person around the world, could be at huge risk as the 2050 estimate indicates more than 35 per cent of the global cropland used to grow both these critical crops will be subject to damaging hot spells, reducing crop duration periods by at least ten days and affecting availability of winter wheat by 60 per cent, spring wheat by 40 per cent, and rice by 30 per cent.

Importantly, less than five per cent of the land for these critical crops is currently subject to such conditions so, if these estimates are borne out, multiple ‘breadbaskets of the world’ may suffer the effects simultaneously, resulting in significant reductions for overall yields at both global and regional levels.

But these climate impacts are not just about the world in 30 years’ time, several are already emerging right now. Carbon Brief has mapped various studies by climate scientists that ascertain the contribution climate change is making to the prevalence and severity of extreme weather, finding that sixty-nine per cent were made more likely or more severe.

It is imperative societies the world over hold their governments to account now – not in the future – on exactly how they intend to deliver against ambitious climate targets. Failure to do so will result in the manifestation of climate risks that far outweigh the impacts of the 2020 global pandemic.