The UN just released a landmark climate-change report. Here’s the grim timeline it gives us

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In the time it will take a current fifth-grader to graduate high school, the world needs to realize massive, rapid and sustained cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in order to yank the planet back from the brink of disastrous climate change consequences, according to a major United Nations report.

Countries such as Canada must slash carbon emissions by almost half in the next seven years to prevent that same fifth-grader from living out her old age in a world with increased floods, fires, crop failures, forced migration and infectious disease outbreaks, and to zero by 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report.

“In short, our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres at a news conference for the report’s release. He suggested wealthy countries such as Canada need to reach net zero even sooner — by 2040.

“This can be done. Some have already set a target as early as 2035,” Guterres said.


While Guterres referenced a science fiction movie in his remarks, the solutions to this crisis are both well understood, already in use and, in some cases, almost embarrassingly simple. Protecting intact forests, wetlands and other natural ecosystems would have massive payoffs. Solar and wind power are already contributing energy to power grids, even in fossil-fuel friendly places such as Texas. Bike-riding made the list.

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The report is the world’s most comprehensive assessment of the current state of climate change. The last synthesis report came out in 2014, and acted as both a major impetus and the scientific underpinning for the historic Paris Agreement, when nearly all the world’s governments agreed to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That goal is necessary to keep the world within 1.5 degrees of warming, a critical guard rail that, if overshot, will lead to increasingly destructive planetary outcomes, some irreversible.

The synthesis report released Monday concludes years of work by hundreds of scientists around the globe, and will lay the stage for a different kind of momentous meeting later this year: a conference at which nations will assess their Paris commitment progress so far.

The actions pledged by nations so far are insufficient to keep the world within that guardrail, and would result in 2.8 degrees of warming by the end of the century, the UN’s initial assessment found. The world will gather again in Dubai starting in November to conclude that global “stocktake.”

Climate change is a story of inequality, the report emphasizes. The 10 per cent of households with the highest per-capita emissions contribute at least a third of global consumption-based household greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom half of households contribute only 15 per cent.

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The effects of climate change are extremely unequal, too. Between 2010 and 2020, deaths from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change, places that are far more likely to be poor and underdeveloped, with fewer resources to adapt.

Meanwhile, some parts of the world are already close to irreversible changes — including thawing Arctic permafrost.

“I thank the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for showing the fact-based, science-grounded way out of the climate mess,” Guterres said.

“We have never been better equipped to solve the climate challenge — but we must move into warp speed climate action now.”

Kate Allen is a Toronto-based reporter covering climate change for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @katecallen


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