Fix the Planet newsletter: 5 takeaways from the IPCC climate report

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This is Fix the Planet, the weekly climate change newsletter that reminds you there are reasons for hope in science and technology around the world. To receive it in your inbox, sign up here.

It may have been overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but this week’s big climate report still manages to shock.

The impacts of a rapidly warming world are being felt “all around the world”, it said. And they are more widespread, earlier and have deeper consequences than anticipated, according to the latest instalment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

I’ve covered the impacts in our news story, so today’s Fix the Planet instead unpacks the report’s five key takeaways on how we should try to adapt. In some senses, this should be the sunny side of the report. But I should warn you: it’s important, but doesn’t make for cheery reading!

We are not doing nearly enough

In the eight years since the last version of this IPCC report, there have been more adaptation efforts by countries. Most of that has been attempts to combat droughts and flooding, such as building coastal defences. And much of it only occurs in the aftermath of extreme weather events, when they’ve already wrought economic and human costs. But the main problem is that humanity’s adaptation efforts to date are incremental and small scale, warns the IPCC. Efforts are simply “too weak”, according to Inger Andersen at the UN Environment Programme.

Even with today’s warming, we are rubbing up against limits to adaptation

Most climate change adaptation programmes got under way in the past 15 years, with much of the analysis on their success or failure only trickling in since 2014. “We know a lot more, in particular about the limits to adaptation,” says Lisa Schipper at the University of Oxford. “There are limits to how much we and other species can adapt,” said Hoesung Lee, the IPCC’s chair, at a press conference on Monday.

The IPCC divides these limits into soft ones – where there might be ways to circumvent them, such as more money or new technologies – and hard ones, which can’t be overcome. Humanity hasn’t yet come up against hard limits. But ecosystems, such as tropical coral reefs in some areas, have already reached them, finds the report. Animals and plants are expected to have a tougher time as temperatures rise: at 1.6°C of warming, more than a tenth of all species are projected to become endangered. Still, people are already experiencing soft limits at today’s 1.1°C of climate change, particularly people in coastal cities and small-scale farmers, says the IPCC.

Another key message is that more warming will see us hit soft and hard limits sooner. The world is currently on track for at least 2.4°C of climate change if governments deliver on their carbon-cutting commitments. Even at 1.5°C, the level where countries have pledged to hold the line, nature faces more hard limits “driving high risks of biodiversity decline, mortality, species extinction”, says the IPCC. “The adaptation options become more and more limited as the warming level increases,” says Peter Alexander at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

Some of our adaptation efforts are backfiring

The IPCC report says “maladaptation has been observed across many regions and systems”, meaning adaptation projects have had negative impacts. “One of the most striking examples of maladaptation is… examples of coastal infrastructure that is attempting to protect from coastal erosion or sea level rise or cyclones or other kinds of storms,” says Schipper. “[It] sometimes creates problems further down the coast, it increases erosion for other people. Or sometimes that infrastructure doesn’t take into account heavy rainfall and doesn’t leave enough space for the water to drain properly. So it essentially creates a new problem.” Bad examples have been seen in both rich and poor countries, she adds. Why does it happen? A lack of knowledge, plus short-term and fragmented planning, says the IPCC.

No one is spending enough on adaptation

“Insufficient funding” is a key reason for the gap between the amount of adaptation needed and what’s happening on the ground, says the report. Rich countries have been promising to give poorer ones up to $100 billion a year for climate finance, some of which will be used for adaptation, but have missed a deadline of 2020 to meet that goal. It now looks unlikely to be met until this year or 2023. But even that relatively small sum (the UN thinks up to $300 billion a year will be needed for adaptation as soon as 2030) has catches. The IPCC report notes that more climate finance money between 2014 and 2018 was in the form of debt rather than grants. And the private sector is making a pitiful contribution, just 1 per cent of all adaptation finance in 2018. Moreover, financing for adaptation is dwarfed by spending on climate mitigation, such as efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Just 4 to 8 per cent of all the billions spent in 2017-18 were on adaptation, according to US non-profit organisation the WRI.

Nature is our ally

Much of the report spells out in painful detail the battering that fauna, flora and ecosystems are taking from climate change already. But other important passages reveal how vital nature will be for helping us adapt, from trees cooling cities to mangrove forests taking the sting out of coastal floods. “We need to take a much more joined-up approach where the needs of people and the natural environment are looked at together,” says Mike Morecroft, an IPCC author based at environmental advising body Natural England. “If we don’t protect and restore natural ecosystems, then we’re making the whole problem a whole lot harder to deal with, verging on impossible.” Around 30-50 per cent of Earth’s surface needs to be effectively conserved to build that sort of resilience against climate change, the IPCC report finds. But exactly how much land and ocean should be in protected areas is a whole other story, and will be the subject of another major UN effort, at a biodiversity summit in China starting this April.

More Fixes

  • 175 countries yesterday agreed to develop a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution, which could have a big impact on the oil industry. More in our story here.
  • Heat pumps will be cheaper than gas boilers over their 15-year lifetime at some point this year, according to the UK innovation foundation, Nesta. The group thinks they could be £60 to £110 a year cheaper.
  • “A three-month trial in Saudi Arabia has shown that a solar panel add-on system can harvest water without using any electricity by exploiting the day-night warming and cooling of solar panels,” reports my colleague Michael Le Page. Read his story here.

If you enjoy Fix the Planet, please do recommend it to your friends, family and colleagues –  they can sign up here. And if you haven’t already, become a New Scientist subscriber to access all our science journalism and help keep this newsletter free.

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