Last reviewed 16 March 2022

The UN International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) warns that many global warming effects are now irreversible and pushing humans and nature beyond their ability to adapt. But businesses have a key role to play in narrowing opportunities to avoid the worst. Jon Herbert reports.

Between late 2021 and August 2022, the IPCC will release a series of four seminal studies compiled over seven years into the causes, impacts, solutions and lessons learned about climate change.

With two still to be released in 2022, they already make disturbing reading.

The first, in August 2021, on the physical science of global warning, found conclusive evidence that human activity is “unequivocally” a cause of accelerating climate change.

The second, in February 2022 — Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability — focusses on causes and solutions, but also details how we can try to adapt and protect against some of the negative effects.

Companies on the frontline

However, impacts that are now “irreversible” include not only melting ice caps and glaciers, but also a cascading effect in which wildfires, dying forests, drying peatlands, and thawing permafrost release further emissions that amplify the initial warming.

Business, now seen as a key leader of a low-carbon future, is being asked to set sustainable long-term goals, use less energy, turn to renewables, reduce waste and early obsolescence, reassess transport needs, develop green supply chains, and use emerging low-carbon and heat-free technologies.

Additionally, as explained later, businesses will soon have to make wide-ranging statutory disclosures of risks they and their stakeholders face. The aim is to make them more efficient and climate robust.

Options

IPCC authors caution that the planet’s capacity to adapt to impacts will diminish rapidly the further temperatures rise, quickly reaching “hard” limits beyond which adaptation will be impossible.

However, they stress that over-heating is not inevitable if a world distracted by other major crises can unite to suppress the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere — and carbon dioxide and methane in particular.

A third assessment in April 2022 will cover ways in which greenhouse gas emissions can be cut before a fourth in October summarises lessons learned for governments when they meet at the crucial COP27 climate summit in Egypt to try to make vital cuts that were not achieved at COP26.

Bleak picture

While pointing out that a narrowing chance remains to avoid some of the worst impacts, the UN’s panel of world scientists behind the authoritative studies in their “bleakest warning yet” are concerned that the global climate emergency is getting worse at a much faster rate than expected.

Moreover, temperature rises greater than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will be a “critical level” after which climate crisis impacts will accelerate until an increasing number become irreversible.

The report says no inhabited region will now escape severe rising temperatures and extreme weather impacts. More than 40% of the world population — between 3.3 billion and 3.6 billion people — already live in “highly vulnerable” areas. Millions face food and water shortages at current heating levels.

Even worse, around half the world’s population already suffers severe annual water shortages. One in three people are also exposed to deadly heat stress; this could increase to 50% to 75% by 2100.

An extra 500,000 people each year also face serious flooding risks; a billion living on coasts will be exposed by 2050. Rising temperatures and rainfall will increase the spread of crop, livestock and wildlife diseases. Mosquito-borne dengue fever is set to affect billions of people by the end of the century.

Already worse than expected

In fact, extreme climate change-linked weather events, such as extensive floods and heatwaves, are already hitting humans and other species much harder than previous assessments projected, to the point where impacts are already going beyond the ability of many people to cope.

And some are also being hit much harder depending on where they live. For example, between 2010 and 2020, 15 times more people died from floods, droughts and storms in vulnerable regions of Africa, South Asia and Central and South America than other parts of the world.

Scientists add that with 2100 only 78 years away: “Actions taken now will have a profound effect on the quality of our children’s lives.”

Threats to the natural world

Nature is also under siege. The mass die-offs of trees and coral are well advanced. Coastal areas and small low-lying islands will be swamped with rises above 1.5°C. Key ecosystems will be turned into carbon dioxide sources rather than sinks.

Even with rises below 1.6°C by 2100, 8% of current farmland will become climatically unsuitable as the global population reaches 9 billion. Some 183 million more people could go hungry by 2050.

About 50% of living organisms assessed in the report are now moving towards higher ground or the poles. Some 14% of species may face a very high extinction risk at 1.5°C, rising to 29% at 3°C.

Creatures in areas classed as vulnerable biodiversity hotspots could see their already very high extinction risk doubled as warming rises to 2°C, and increased tenfold at 3°C.

Politics and culprits

Four months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the new UN study illustrates the size of the challenge.

Professor Debra Robert, co-chair of the IPCC, explained that: “… places where people live and work may cease to exist”. She added that “… ecosystems and species that we've all grown up with and that are central to our cultures and inform our languages may disappear.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres underlined the point. Describing the findings based on 34,000 studies as an "atlas of human suffering”, he commented that, "I've seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this.”

"The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world's biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home," Guterres continued, adding: “Delay is death.”

No short-cuts

It has been suggested that allowing temperatures to rise above 1.5°C for a brief period might be acceptable if they fell below that level again soon afterwards. The report says this is dangerous.

Any overshoot could increase the risk of hitting tipping points, with feedback implications such as permafrost thawing, according to Linda Schneider of the Heinrich Boll Institute. "That would make it a lot more difficult, it could make it impossible to get back below 1.5°C," she warns.

The report also dismisses many technological fixes, such as deflecting the sun's rays, or removing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, on the basis that they could make things worse.

Instead, in the summary for policymakers it puts more emphasis on “climate resilient development”, which it says will help to build a greater global capacity to cope with climate change.

Last chance climate saloon

As Dr Helen Adams, a lead author from King's College, London, explains, "One of the things that I think is really, really clear in the report is that yes, things are bad, but actually, the future depends on us, not the climate."

The authors anticipate a brief window to avoid the worst impacts, but warn that near-term actions to limit global warming to around 1.5°C might reduce damages to human systems and ecosystems substantially but not eliminate them all. Some low-lying areas may be doomed already.

February’s report adds that “losses and damages escalate with every increment of global warming”. In other words, adaptation is vital. However, it is also heavily underfunded. Even so, investing now in adaptation measures will be far cheaper than acting later.

What businesses can do

The report’s post-COP26 conclusion, shared with the independent Climate Change Committee which advises government, is that private sector action is now pivotal in reaching net zero, and so fighting climate change.

All businesses must appreciate that the ecosystems in which they operate will be very different by 2050 from those relied on now, even if the 1.5°C limit is not breached. Global businesses will find that countries they operate in will be affected by both a failing climate and ecological collapse.

Developed countries are not exempt. The Environment Agency warns the UK is dangerously unprepared for impacts that cannot be reversed even if Britain reaches its legally binding emissions cut goal of net zero by 2050.

Not only in their core activities, but also through their supply chains, and how they operate in the field, businesses may have to change radically as the climate crisis increases.

Planning for a range of unknown futures

One relatively new factor that will affect how companies manage themselves is the introduction of non-financial disclosures to provide “consistent, decision-useful and forward-looking information on the material financial impacts of climate change”.

Although this may still be an unfamiliar concept, the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) has “developed a set of recommendations that are changing the way organisations manage climate risks and opportunities”.

Since January 2021, large UK companies have had to say in annual reports whether their information disclosures meet TCFD recommendations, and if not why not. From 2025, this will be mandatory across the UK economy.

A key tool to help businesses prepare for a spectrum of not definite but theoretical and potentially possible circumstances is scenario analysis.

By looking at physical, strategic and financial risks and opportunities in a “consistent and comparable framework”, this assists companies in understanding and quantifying uncertainties anticipated, predicted, or imagined under different hypothetical futures.

The aim is to help organisations future-proof themselves against a range of threats that include higher temperature rises. For more information, see the TCFD’s recommendations.