As we look ahead to COP26 as a key inflection point for deciding the global level of ambition in responding to the climate crisis, Forum’s new Associate Director – Climate, Dhaval Negandhi and Climate Strategist Iain Watt share key reflections on the latest IPCC report findings and the deep transformation required to create a just and regenerative future.

This month saw the release of the latest IPCC Report, and there’s no shortage of blogs and articles summarising its key conclusions.

So what is there to add?

Firstly, sobering as the Report is, our climate predicament is likely worse than it suggests.

It always is. Perhaps the most reliable finding from every new synopsis report (whether from the IPCC or elsewhere) is that a) things are worse than previously thought and b) we have less time than previously thought. It’s true for this one; and it will remain true with the next one.

The latest IPCC Report only includes new research and data up until 31st January, 2021. Any analysis of the floods, temperature extremes, and fires that have devastated forests and communities this year will therefore have to wait for the next report. As will any research conducted or released after January – such as the sobering finding from earlier this month that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), “may have evolved from relatively stable conditions to a point close to a critical transition.”[1] As the IPCC points out, “if such a collapse were to occur, it would very likely cause abrupt shifts in regional weather patterns and water cycles”.

While the IPCC’s 2018 report stated it to be “very unlikely that the AMOC will undergo an abrupt transition or collapse in the 21st century[2]” the assessment has now shifted to only “medium confidence that there will not be an abrupt collapse before 2100”. Two data points don’t make a trend but it does indeed sound like things have gotten worse than previously thought.

It’s also worth a reminder that this report considers the physical impact of climate change in isolation. But the climate crisis is dovetailing with a wider ecological crisis that will itself pose increasing challenges for humanity. And then there’s the societal response to climate change. If you think projecting or predicting the physical impacts of climate change is tricky, just try forecasting how our economic, political and social systems will respond.

Secondly, the human desire to find and stress the positive – while important – risks continued complacency and could distract from the deep and urgent transformation required.

Twitter is currently full of statements along the lines of: “The new IPCC report shows that we can prevent many of the worst impacts of climate change and keep warming below 1.5°C.” We personally find this a curious reaction to a report in which – under all five scenarios considered – the 1.5°C threshold is crossed. 

Sure, under SSP1-1.9 – the very ‘best’ scenario considered – we “decline back to below 1.5°C toward the end of the 21st century” (as a result of collectively fashioning a ‘gross-negative’ world from 2055 onwards, and then somehow finding a way to extract multiple gigatonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year), but framing this as good news feels somewhat of a stretch.

The assumption that ‘bad’ climate news will cause despair – and can motivate only hedonism or inertia – has dominated the environmental movement for more than two decades. Yet, it’s unclear why this idea has so much traction. We have never yet witnessed any despair-driven inaction from any of the companies or governments we’ve worked with over the years, but we’ve seen plenty of complacency-based inaction.

Our collective nervousness about offering up bad news means we’ve soft-balled the potential risks of climate change for decades. Yet we also seem bewildered as to why governments, investors and CEOs have carried on largely as normal.

It seems we’re inhabiting a strange twilight world in which panic stations have been called, yet those in the institutions where it matters aren’t panicking. Where wake-up calls don’t seem to require any actual waking-up. And certainly not any boat-rocking.

How does this happen? There is clearly much at play (the sheer momentum and inertia surrounding the current way of doing things is clearly strong), but we also can’t help think that the environmental community has at least humoured it with our relentless positivity. When we say ‘there’s still time’, we downplay the experiences of an ever-growing list of communities already devastated by flood, fire and thaw. When we say ‘there’s still time’, we give governments and conglomerates license to think, “so I don’t really have to act now...”.

And bear in mind that the emissions reductions required to get the planet on the SSP1-1.9 pathway – the only scenario that gives us a chance of stabilising somewhere near 1.5°C – will require the urgent and fundamental restructuring of the global economic, energy, food, and transportation systems. So it’s not just a case of having to act quickly, but acting quickly to utterly transform society. We need deep, radical and urgent transformation, not shallow and incremental change – and the messaging and approach of the environmental community must change accordingly.

Countries and organisations must build robust net-zero strategies that follow the Avoid-Reduce-Replace-Offset hierarchy, avoiding an over-reliance on negative emissions technologies and offsetting solutions. While nature-based solutions provide an opportunity to sequester carbon, badly designed initiatives risk increasing hunger and fuelling land inequality. We need to avoid the concept of net zero being undermined by businesses looking to use it to obscure an unwillingness to rapidly cut emissions from their operations and value chains, and transition to business models, products and services that are truly fit for a just and regenerative net-zero future.

Thirdly, the ambition of companies, investors and governments alike has to be radically increased.

A 1.5°C world – one that now looks inevitable – will be highly disruptive. To pick just one potential impact, the IPCC projects we will lose 70-90% of coral reefs when we reach that threshold, with devastating impacts for the hundreds of millions of people whose livelihoods depend on them. And a recent study by Cotton 2040 found that – under a high emissions scenario (RCP 8.5) – half of global cotton growing regions could face drastic climate risks, threatening the livelihoods of millions of already vulnerable smallholder farmers and affecting global textile supply chains.

Yet our only hope for stabilising somewhere close to 1.5°C is through the radical transformation of society.

Companies and governments alike are going to face challenges from both directions – from an increasingly volatile climate; and from a rapidly changing society. And the warmer we let it get, the greater the disruption, and the harder it will be for any business to adapt. Unreliable supply chains; shaky markets; political instability. None of these will be good for business, but inaction on climate will make things much, much worse.

Yet a small cadre of extractive industries still seem to be calling the shots when it comes to political lobbying. Where are the other corporate voices? CEOs and investors should be screaming from the rooftops for radical action on climate. And we don’t mean signing joint letters of intent or coming to climate conferences and telling the environmental community what we want to hear. We mean in the lobbies of Parliament; in the corridors of Brussels; and in the backrooms of Davos. The full might of corporate lobbying; the dark arts of marketing; and the power of PR must all be brought into play to tackle the climate emergency.

Corporate targets and ambition need to be ratcheted up significantly too. If your ‘science-based’ target assumes that all other companies will play ball, then it’s utterly ignorant of the social sciences, never mind the precautionary principle. If you aren’t aiming for net zero by 2030 or sooner (and on the basis of a low-carbon business model, rather than an offset-heavy ‘strategy’) then you’re not a leader. Yes, we know that achieving that will be hard. Leadership within – and through – the climate emergency will be hard.

Across the board, we need to recognise that achieving our climate goals and net zero, will require a focus on just transitions across all systems; not just the energy system, but also our production and consumption systems, and our underlying economic systems.

And those transitions will not succeed unless they address both social and environmental challenges. We need a deep transition towards creating a just and regenerative future, one that is equitable in terms of both the costs and benefits associated with the rapid transition to a net-zero economy. This will require a serious look at how the rapid scaling of the renewable energy sector can drive positive social as well as environmental outcomes. It will require a radical shift in our framing of farming and how we think about land. This transition also needs to acknowledge how ambitious climate action can bring about positive outcomes in systems like health and nutrition. And, critically, it needs to focus on adaptation measures as well as mitigation, addressing climate justice issues in addition to carbon reduction.

It might be getting too late for 1.5°C (and we shouldn’t shirk away from facing up to this – nor from articulating and preparing for the challenges this will pose to society), but it’s not too late for 1.7°C, nor 2°C. And threatening as 2°C is, it’ll be much better than 2.5°C, and so on. Every single tonne of carbon, every single part-per-million of CO2, every single 0.1°C of warming is worth fighting for.

But to do so effectively, we must wrench ourselves out of this strange twilight zone – this emergency that isn’t; this silent wake-up call – and face up to the scale of the challenge ahead.