At the end of its 58th session, taking place in Interlaken, Switzerland, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the Synthesis Report of the Sixth Assessment Cycle on Monday, March 20, 2023.
On the dedicated official website, the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) and the longer report are now available, together with the figures representing data in the Synthesis Report (SYR) and its headline statements. The full volume is coming soon.
The SYR summarizes the findings of the reports produced during the Sixth Assessment Cycle: the contributions of the three IPCC Working Groups (respectively on the physical basis of climate change; on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability; on climate change mitigation) and the three Special Reports (respectively on global warming of 1.5°C, on oceans and the cryosphere, and on land use). The reports are based on peer-reviewed literature published between the conclusion of the previous assessment cycle in 2014 and 2019; the process involves more than one thousand authors from all over the world. The intergovernmental panel, composed by representatives of the States that are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), approves line by line the wording of the SPM by voting in the plenary session, while it accepts the full reports. In any case, scientific data is not negotiable.
This SYR has a new structure if compared with previous ones, aimed at better-integrating knowledge from the different Working Groups and providing relevant information on near and long-term climate change and possible climate action. The sections of the SYR are dedicated to the “Current Status and Trends”, assessing both the changing climate and the implementation of adaptation and mitigation measures, to “Long-Term Climate and Development Futures”, describing a range of socio-economic futures up to 2100, and to “Near-Term Responses in a Changing Climate”, displaying opportunities for effective action up to 2040.
It is relevant that this report is destined to inform the first Global Stocktake of the implementation of the Paris Agreement under the UNFCCC, which will be concluded during the 28th Conference of the Parties of the FCCC (COP 28), taking place in Dubai from November 30 until December 12, 2023. The Global Stocktake is a critical juncture as it will show whether countries and other stakeholders are making progress toward the achievement of the goals agreed upon in the Paris Agreement (“holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”).
According to the SYR, they are not: the report states there is high confidence that “global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase, with unequal historical and ongoing contributions” and “global GHG emissions in 2030 implied by nationally determined contributions (NDCs) announced by October 2021 make it likely that warming will exceed 1.5°C during the 21st century and make it harder to limit warming below 2°C”. The report carves into stone that “human activities, principally through emissions of greenhouse gases, have unequivocally caused global warming, with global surface temperature reaching 1.1°C above 1850–1900 in 2011–2020”, and that human-caused climate change has already led to impacts, losses, and damages to nature and people, while “every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards”.
This discouraging picture is followed by a message of urgency and hope: there is high confidence that “deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a discernible slowdown in global warming within around two decades”. Nonetheless, some future changes are unavoidable, but adaptation measures are available and should be taken today before they become more constrained and less effective. According to the IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee, “mainstreaming effective and equitable climate action will not only reduce losses and damages for nature and people, it will also provide wider benefits” (see IPCC press release).
As the report clearly states, choices and actions of this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years. A meaningful concept in the SYR is that of climate-resilient development, a model that integrates adaptation and mitigation to advance sustainable development for all. Increased International cooperation would be crucial to the implementation of such an approach, and the report confirms that, more broadly, political commitment, multilevel governance, institutional frameworks, laws, policies, and strategies are fundamental for effective climate action.
Quoting the IPCC press release on the SYR, the report “brings into sharp focus the losses and damages (…) hitting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems especially hard”. Scientific findings in the report are interpreted in the light of climate justice principles: starting from the fact that “vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected”, and highlighting that “prioritizing equity, climate justice, social justice, inclusion, and just transition processes can enable adaptation and ambitious mitigation actions”. In the words of the IPCC Chair mentioned above, Hoesung Lee, “we live in a diverse world in which everyone has different responsibilities and different opportunities to bring about change. Some can do a lot while others will need support to help them manage the change.”
As no new IPCC reports are scheduled to be released before 2030, this SYR seems of paramount importance for political leaders, decision-makers, the different stakeholder groups, and, not least, climate change litigation. The IPCC reports have become a source of evidence for judicial proceedings, and, vice versa, the contribution of Working Group III on mitigation released in 2022 mentioned the relevance of climate change litigation in climate governance (see a comment on this in a previous blog post).
The effort of the SYR authors toward the accessibility of the information is noticeable. As usual, the report is written in the so-called calibrated language, the distinctive feature of the IPCC publications. Each finding is grounded in an evaluation of underlying evidence and agreement: the level of confidence is expressed by five qualifiers from very low to very high, while the likelihood of outcomes is expressed with eight qualifiers ranging from exceptionally unlikely to virtually certain. A novelty of the SYR consists of italicized annotations in the figures: simple explanations written in non-technical language, to help non-experts navigate complex content. IPCC authors also provided online tools for readers with different expertise to navigate through the panel’s findings, such as the WGI Interactive Atlas and the WGI SPM Figure Explorer.
Some of the straightforward figures of this SYR are destined to become iconic. Figure SPM.1 effectively represents how the extent to which current and future generations will experience a hotter and different world depends on choices taken now and in the near term. This figure already appeared in several posts on social networks in the days following the SYR release, while Twitter registered almost a 1,000% increase in user activity around key climate hashtags compared to the previous week.
Written by Elena Nalato, Ph.D. Student, Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Climate Change, University School for Advanced Studies IUSS Pavia, Italy
Picture credits: Fog Opening the Dawn, Jeong Jinsil, Weather and Climate Photography & Video Contest 2021, Korea Meteorological Administration