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Is a green recovery already out of reach?

Like the recent Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the findings of the United in Science 2021 report are stark. 

Rising global temperatures are fuelling devastating extreme weather throughout the world, with spiralling impacts on economies and societies. Billions of work hours have been lost through heat alone. The average global temperature for the past five years was among the highest on record. There is an increasing likelihood that temperatures will temporarily breach the threshold of 1.5° Celsius above the pre-industrial era, in the next five years, the report said.

The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years. Even with ambitious action to slow greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels will continue to rise and threaten low-lying islands and coastal populations throughout the world, according to the report.

The report is coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with input from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Global Carbon Project (GCP), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the Met Office (UK). It presents the very latest scientific data and findings related to climate change to inform global policy and action. 

Key findings:

  • CO2 emissions have largely bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.  Overall emissions reductions in 2020 likely reduced the annual increase of the atmospheric concentrations of long-lived greenhouse gases, but this effect was too small to be distinguished from natural variability.
  • Reducing atmospheric methane (CH4 ) in the short term could support the achievement of the Paris Agreement. This does not reduce the need for strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
  • Fossil CO2 emissions – coal, oil, gas and cement – peaked in 2019, followed by an extraordinary drop of 5.6% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on preliminary estimates, global emissions in the power and industry sectors were already at the same level or higher in January-July 2021 than in the same period in 2019.
  • Five years after the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the emissions gap is as large as ever.  The COVID-19 crisis offers only a short-term reduction in global emissions. It will not significantly reduce emissions by 2030 unless countries pursue an economic recovery that incorporates strong decarbonization.
  • The increasing number of countries committing to net-zero emission goals is encouraging, with about 63% of global emissions now covered by such goals. However, to remain feasible and credible, these goals urgently need to be reflected in near-term policy and in significantly more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions for the period to 2030.
  • The global average mean surface temperature for the period from 2017–2021 is among the warmest on record.  In September 2020, the Arctic sea-ice extent reached its second lowest minimum on record.
  • 2021 recorded devastating extreme weather and climate events – a signature of human-induced climate change has been identified in the extraordinary North American extreme heat and west European floods.
  • Annual global mean near-surface temperature is likely to be at least 1 °C warmer than pre-industrial levels in each of the coming five years and is very likely to be within the range 0.9 °C to 1.8 °C.
  • There is a 40% chance that average global temperature in one of the next five years will be at least 1.5 °C warmer than pre-industrial levels. 
  • It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.
  • Human-induced climate change is already increasing the frequency and intensity of many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.
  • Global mean sea levels rose 20 cm from 1900 to 2018.  Even if emissions are reduced to limit warming to well below 2 °C, global mean sea level would likely rise by 0.3–0.6 m by 2100, and could rise 0.3–3.1 m by 2300.
  • Rising temperatures are linked to increased heat-related mortality and work impairment, with an excess of 103 billion potential work hours lost globally in 2019 compared with those lost in 2000.
  • COVID-19 infections and climate hazards such as heatwaves, wildfires and poor air quality combine to threaten human health worldwide, putting vulnerable populations at particular risk.

According to the report for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, known as COP26, to be a turning point, all countries need to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, backed up by concrete long-term strategies, and enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions which collectively cut global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, compared to 2010 levels.

The findings of this report make it imperative that the soon to be published Climate Action Bill contains ambitious, concrete long-term strategies to reduce our emissions with commensurate resourcing, and a commitment to a just transition.  The aviation, transport, freight, agriculture and energy sectors must all make a significant contribution to our climate goals. As Government draws up the Climate Action Plan, there are some immediate policies that must be implemented if Ireland is to meet its national and international climate targets:

  • Set ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030 and ensure sufficient resources to support implementation of these targets;
  • Review and phase out tax expenditures that support environmentally damaging activity;
  • Adopt targets and a reporting system for each of the Sustainable Development Goals;
  • Integrate a Sustainable Development Framework into economic policy;
  • Introduce a strategy for Ireland that includes the principles of the circular economy and cradle-to-cradle development;
  • Introduce shadow national accounts, and assign value to natural capital and ecosystems in our national accounting systems;
  • Develop a comprehensive mitigation and transition programme to support communities and people in the transition to a low carbon society;
  • Develop a progressive and equitable environmental taxation system;
  • Develop a new National Index of Progress encompassing environmental and social indicators of progress as well as economic ones;
  • Develop a Just Transition Dialogue structure at regional and national level.