Everything, everywhere, all at once: IPCC's 2023 report

The message from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was clear as ever. The latest IPCC report is for him “a survival guide for humanity.”

Cast an eye over the front pages the following day however, and you’d be forgiven for missing the story – for what is indisputably the existential challenge for humanity.

Why? Put simply, it’s because many readers (and news editors) think we’ve heard it all before. And it does feel similar other reports over the past few years. That’s because it’s a synthesis of several years of work, by hundreds of the world’s scientists. But make no mistake, the language in this is particularly stark, and for the first time it makes explicit that that 1.5°C mark is going to be passed, and soon.

The report updates the science, relates the impacts that have already taken place, and how they are set to get worse; and it sets out clear actions the world needs to take:

The science is clearer now than it ever was. Burning fossil fuels has been the main driver of global warming. Irrespective of action on emissions now, the 1.5°C warming target will likely be surpassed in the early 2030s. If the world is to have any hope of a sustainable future, it means keeping warming as close as possible to that number and perhaps getting back down to that level in the future.

The impacts of climate change on people and ecosystems have been far worse than anticipated, and every fraction of a degree of further warming will intensify its effects: sea level rise, extreme weather, flooding, water scarcity and lower agricultural productivity are all set to worsen. It almost goes without saying that those most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis are the people least-equipped to deal with them.

The response should be immediate, drastic and far-reaching. We need to halt our dependence on fossil fuels, cancelling coal, oil and gas projects or retiring them early. Deep systemic change is necessary in order to decarbonise all sectors: energy, buildings, transport, industry, agriculture and land use. And that won’t be enough – carbon removal is also crucial, whether that’s from natural solutions (sequestering carbon in soil and trees), or technologies which pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (much of which is as yet unproven).

Who pays?

Underlying the response is the critical questions – who pays? The impacts we already see have exacerbated inequality and that unfairness is set to continue. The wealthy emit the most but are shielded from the impact; the people and countries most vulnerable to change are those with least resources. So, climate finance is about adaptation in those countries; it’s about mitigation, everywhere; and crucially it’s about channelling global capital to projects which will ultimately help the world’s climate stabilise.

In the week the world marks International Day of Forests, funding for Nature is an illustrative example. Some of the world’s most valuable natural assets – many of the forests which act as carbon sinks and protect us from the worst climate impacts – are located in the Global South. There are projects aplenty which need funding. That requires public, philanthropic and institutional investor funds to be sent in the right direction.

Financing is a key enabler and there is plenty of capital available, but it’s in the wrong place. This year promises movement in this area, following Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s call for a different approach to international finance; and a new president at the World Bank should accelerate that change.

The final warning

The IPCC scientists were at pains to point out that humanity is not beyond the point of no return. In suggesting strategies for governments, businesses and financial institutions to follow, the implication was clear – we have the resources to adapt to the worst of the climate impacts, and the depth of knowledge to curb global warming. As ever, it’s the political will that is lacking.

Antonio Guterres called for “climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.” But is everyone listening?