Infrastructure Policy Watch: UN Climate Change Panel warns of 'code red for humanity'

The UN's latest report warns more extreme events are to come unless governments take action.

  • Updated: 09 August, 2021
  • Author: Chris Richards, ICE Policy Director
Chris Richards
In this fortnightly blog, ICE's Director of Policy Chris Richards looks at developing policy landscape for infrastructure, what decisions mean, and their implications, so that infrastructure professionals can play their part in shaping the discussion.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes Sixth Assessment Report

In its Sixth Assessment Report, a regular series looking at the physical understanding of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that it is explicit that human activity has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land. This warming has and will continue to result in weather and climate extremes in all regions worldwide.

The IPCC also warns that the past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850 and that the impact of overall warming will take centuries to millennia to reverse.

Looking ahead to meeting the Paris Climate Agreement ambition of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels and aiming for 1.5 degrees, the IPCC says 1.5 degrees warming will now be reached by 2040. Unless action is taken in the next few years, it will happen even earlier.

All of this makes COP26 later this year more important. At COP21 in Paris, countries agreed to return five years later to put forward meaningful and ambitious targets to reach the 1.5 degrees target; pledges at COP21 fell short of meeting that target.

Several countries have already declared climate emergencies and set ambitious net-zero emissions targets, including China. Following the UN Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020, countries representing 65% of global CO2 emissions and around 70% of the world’s economy were expected to commit to net-zero emissions or carbon neutrality by early 2021.

ICE President Rachel Skinner outlined the role of infrastructure and civil engineers in meeting the net-zero emissions target in her inaugural address.

She reminded us that civil engineers have a responsibility for meeting the challenge with infrastructure being responsible for around 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, either because of the processes that create it or because of the behaviours it enables. Because civil engineers also understand the whole life-cycle of this infrastructure and its associated systems, they are ideally placed to drive down carbon emissions through mitigation and assist with adaptation.

In looking at the causes of climate change, the IPCC report states that "fossil fuel combustion for energy, industry and land transportation are the largest contributing sectors on a 100-year time scale" and that current emissions from East Asia and North America are the "largest regional contributors to additional net future warming on both short and long time scales".

Turning to the impact of lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the report says that the pandemic led to detectable reductions in emissions driven largely by transport. However emissions reductions and improvements in air quality were not as much as "what would be expected from sustained implementation of policies addressing air quality and climate change".

ICE’s view

The IPCC report serves as a reminder on two fronts.

The first is the need to drive down emissions far more aggressively by taking early, decisive and sustained policy decisions in areas where difficult trade-offs are needed.

The UK Climate Change Committee progress report to Parliament warned that realistic policy continues to lag behind ambition. The Office for Budget Responsibility highlighted the return on investment to the public finances from taking early action.

The second reminder is that climate change will be happening and we have to adapt to manage its effects and make the built environment more resilient. We can't reverse the effects in the short term; the aim is to reduce emissions, limit temperatures, and minimise the effects of climate change over the long-term horizon.

The Chair of the Environment Agency recently wrote about the impacts already being felt and why resilience shouldn't be relegated in the discussion on climate change. Providing advice to governments and supporting civil engineers to decarbonise the infrastructure system is a significant driver of ICE's work. If you would like to be kept informed of our future activities, sign up for our monthly newsletter ICE Informs.


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