The State of the Earth in 2021: A Guide to the Latest IPCC Report

by Alexandre Perin, Aug 29, 2021

In the past 12 months, the Earth suffered climate disasters directly linked to climate change. From the famine in Madagascar that left 1.4 million people in need for help to the heatwave followed by the wildfires in Canada where over 500 people died and a village was completely erased from the map, as well as the raging wildfires in Turkey, Greece, and Algeria that have led to the evacuation of thousands of people and hundreds of deaths. This non-exhaustive list of events shows us what the future holds for many parts of the world.

On August 9, 2021 the WGI (The Working Group 1) of the IPCC (intergovernmental panel on climate change) published its 6th report named The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change which is most certainly the biggest update we had on the scientific knowledge and on the comprehension of the effect’s climate change since its last report in 2013. This is an almost 4000-page long document which is a synthesis of 14 000 scientific papers written by 234 main authors. This document is essentially an analysis of the earth now and the best predictions for the future according to our actions or lack of. Due to the scale of the documents provided this article will focus on the Summary for Policymakers and the technical report.

In this report and in many coverages of climate disasters it is often said that climate change increases the overall temperature of the earth, but it is not often discussed why that might be a problem for us. The scientists have analysed the effects of this increase in temperature with all the data gathered and showed that one disastrous effect for humans would be the increase of climate disasters and their intensity. As seen on these two infographics (table 1) the frequency of these events has already increased to such a point that hot temperature events that happened twice a century now happen every decade. In the worst case if the temperature keeps rising some events that happen once in ten years could happen every year. For reference, that means a category 3 hurricane, classed as a 10-year event, would happen every year. Recent example of these is the Sandy hurricane of 2012 that cost 68.7$ billion and 233 lives similarly the Zeta (2020) hurricane cost over 4.4$ billion and 8 lives. Droughts but also precipitation that cause heavy floods will also increase in intensity and frequency. Heatwaves happening every 50 years now happen every decade and this frequency could increase with every degree we gain.

Table 1

Source: IPCC 2021 Summary for Policymakers SPM-23

With this being just one of the major impacts global warming would have on the world, we would also be the witness to displacement of between 150 to 200 million climate refugees by 2050. In 2019 the amount of people moving because of extreme weather was twice the number of people displaced because of violent conflicts. That amounts to already 7 million people in 950 different weather events. The climate also contributes to the melting of ice worldwide in Greenland, Antarctica, and in many glaciers. This will contribute directly to the rise in sea level of up to 32 inches by 2100.

Antartica Melting

Source: Clamor World

To know what the future might hold for us the IPCC made 5 possible scenarios for the average temperature over the years 2081-2100 compared to 1850-1900 in their report as seen on table 2. In the best scenario, SP1 we would gain up to 1.8 degrees Celsius, which is already enormous and would require for the world to have a negative CO2 emission in 40 years and drastically reduce all other emissions. In the worst Scenario, SP5 the increase could get to 5.7 degrees Celsius for which no one has any plans or idea of how dramatic the consequences would be in such a world. Last time we were above 2.5 degrees Celsius compared to 1850-1900 was over 3 million years ago.

In terms of statistics there is a 66% chance we will have a rise in temperatures that will occur between 2.5 to 4 degrees Celsius and a 90% chance we will suffer a rise between 2 and 5 degrees Celsius. This is positive news as the world should most probably not reach an increase of over 5 degrees Celsius, but it also means a 2 degrees increase is almost certain.

Table 2

Source : IPCC 2021 Summary for Policymakers SPM-23

To end on a positive note, in this report it is said many times that if today our emission stops the increase in temperature will cease almost instantly and except for the irreversible events already in action, the humans around the world could live relatively well or at least much better than if we continue. Meaning the question is not if it is physically possible to stop global warming but if there is political will to work towards a negative carbon world.