IPCC Report: “A code red for humanity”

Implications and opportunities of the IPCC’s new report for decision-makers

A sobering message on the state of the world’s climate is provided in the first part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described AR6 as a “code red for humanity”: “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk”.

The first part of the AR6 was prepared by Working Group 1 of the IPCC, which has the role of assessing the physical science of climate change. It builds on and updates the findings of historical reports and incorporates subsequent new evidence from climate science. The Summary for Policymakers of the AR6 was unanimously approved by the governments of the 195 country members of the IPCC and will form the shared evidentiary understanding at the UN climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow this November.

The report, issued in August, presents the ‘Gold Standard’ of climate science and what the IPCC considers to be ‘unequivocal’ evidence that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land, and sets out the possible climate futures ahead of us.

“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk”

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

Humans have unequivocally warmed the climate

The IPPC used paleoclimate archives to provide a comprehensive view of each component of the climate system and its changes to date. Their key findings are that:

  • The rate at which the world is warming is ‘unprecedented’ in the last 2000 years. Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850. Global average surface temperatures are on average 1.09°C above pre-industrial temperatures, and now on par with temperatures not seen for at least 125,000 years. [1]
  • Human activities are the ‘unequivocal’ cause of this warming and greenhouse gases are the main driver. 1.07°C of the 1.09°C global surface temperature increase from 1850 is the result of human activities. [2] Well-mixed greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), were the main driver of warming since 1979. Notably, since 1750, increases in CO2 (47%) and CH4 (156%) concentrations far exceed the natural multimillennial
    changes between glacial and interglacial periods over at least the past 800,000 years.
  • Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since AR5.

While the report paints a confronting picture for our planet, the information reinforces the Climate Change Commission’s recent advice to the Government and is powerful in galvanising those sections of society and business already demanding and empowering climate action. It also plays a role in educating others who remain sceptical or indifferent to the threats of climate change.

Keeping warming below 2°C, and perhaps 1.5°C, is still possible but only with immediate and sustained emissions cuts

The IPCC illustrates five possible emissions scenarios for the future covering the range of possible emissions levels (noting that the feasibility or likelihood of individual scenarios is not part of the assessment). Modelling demonstrated that global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all five emissions scenarios. In addition, the IPCC identified that under scenarios with increasing CO2 emissions, the ocean and land carbon sinks are projected to be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.

Anticipated extent of warming by 2100

  • 1.4°C – very low emissions
  • 1.8°C – low emissions
  • 2.7°C – mid-level emissions
  • 3.6°C – high emissions
  • 4.4°C – very high emissions

"The report plays a role in educating others who remain sceptical or indifferent to the threats of climate change.“

Government and business decision-makers have the scientific backing to drive change

New Zealand’s political and non-political dialogue around climate change and the need for a response and adaptation has gained momentum over the past few years. AR6 reinforces the importance of decisive climate action. In particular, it bolsters the Climate Change Commission’s
advice to the Government in Inā tonu nei: a low emissions future for Aotearoa that current policies do not enable Aotearoa to achieve its targets and that the targets are inconsistent with New Zealand’s international emissions reduction commitments. However, it also indicates that New Zealand may need to go further than the Commission’s recommendations.

The Minister for Climate Change, Hon James Shaw, intends to set the first three emissions budgets and an emissions reduction plan towards achieving the 2050 target under Climate Change Response Act 2002 by 31 May 2022 (the current deadline of 31 December 2021 will be extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to align with next year’s budget). The warnings of AR6 will only reinforce the need for a strong approach to be taken in making these decisions. Individuals and businesses in New Zealand should expect the Government to act on the recommendations of the Climate Change Commission’s advice, at the very least.

The report also supports decisive climate action from New Zealand businesses, in particular:

  • It reaffirms the ‘why’ for your emissions reduction strategy. Politics aside, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential for a sustainable planet and future. AR6 sends a strong, scientific message that urgent action is required. There is a lot to point to for putting in place an emissions reduction or elimination strategy; AR6 is another strong trigger.
  • The report is likely to drive a strong Government response and will accelerate action to reduce carbon, methane and nitrogen emissions in all sectors. Those actions, in turn, are likely to present a cascade of market risks (and opportunities) that will have a demonstrable impact on New Zealand business, far beyond the baseline of domestic regulatory requirements.
  • It reinforces the need to consider climate risks on a forward-looking basis. AR6 provides useful evidence, tools and standards on which to assess your physical climate risk exposure, as well as the viability of your offsets and carbon budget strategy. The IPCC provides a number of interactive tools and factsheets, including the Interactive Atlas with regional specific information.
  • It vindicates those who have already been taking action in this space. These “first-movers” will become industry leaders. Their learnings can be taken forward by others in their industry that are motivated by the AR6 to take action and think long-term.

More to come

There are three more AR6 reports yet to come. Working Group 2, which assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, and Working Group 3, which focuses on climate change mitigation, are expected to release their reports in February and March
2022 respectively. The synthesis report in November 2022 will combine the findings from the three Working Groups.

Drawn from ‘The science is in – so what now? Implications of the new IPCC report for corporate and government decision-makers’ first published by MinterEllison in August 2021.


[1] Summary for Policy Makers (SPM), at [A.1], [A.1.2], [A.2.2], [A.3])

[2] SPM, at [A.1]

This article was co-authored by Caroline Woodward, a Senior Solicitor in our Environment team.

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