School of Life Sciences

IPCC Report Urges Swift Climate Action with Strong Focus on Africa and Cities

Despite efforts to reduce risks, climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruptions in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world. People (such as those in informal settlements) and ecosystems least able to cope with the effects of human-induced climate change are the hardest hit. Responses need to be ramped up to protect human wellbeing and planetary health.

This is the message from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released on 28 February – a major international collaboration between scientists from 67 countries that has enjoyed substantial support from UKZN, which has hosted a component of the Working Group II Technical Support Unit (WG TSU II).

Co-chaired by UKZN Honorary Professor Debra Roberts, South Africa’s first IPCC Co-Chair and acting Head of eThekwini Municipality’s Sustainability and Resilient City Initiatives Unit, the Working Group II report dealt with the impact of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity and human societies, their various vulnerabilities, and evidence on adaptation to climate change. With Professor Hans Otto-Pörtner of Germany, Roberts oversaw the development of the Working Group II report, the second instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which will be completed this year. The WGII’s contribution to the AR6 provides extensive global and regional information to enable climate resilient development.

‘This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,’ said Dr Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC. ‘It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.’

With unavoidable multiple climate hazards at global warming of 1.5°C, some severe impacts could be irreversible, putting society at increased risk.

Extreme events are already driving mass mortality in plant and animal species, and their cascading impacts are leading to acute food and water insecurity in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on small islands and in the Arctic.

To avoid mounting loss of life, biodiversity and infrastructure, ambitious, accelerated action is required to adapt to climate change, at the same time as rapidly and substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Lee, the report emphasises the urgency of immediate and more ambitious action. It also focuses on available solutions, providing new insights into nature’s potential to not only reduce climate risks but also to improve people’s lives, with an emphasis on the restoration of ecosystems and sustainable development.

In this assessment cycle, there was a concerted effort to make information collected by the authors available to those living on the African continent, with a virtual briefing session on the African region where lead authors elucidated the findings of the Africa chapter of the WGII report.

‘This is a critical report for Africa,’ said Roberts. ‘We can be proud of our authors from Africa who penned a powerful and compelling story about our continent and how it is impacted, will be impacted and how we can respond.’

She outlined key messages from the report, saying that society is clearly making efforts to accommodate change and adapt. However, these are uneven, not at scale and not fast enough. Inadequate adaptation poses the risk of missing a rapidly closing window of opportunity to create a climate-resilient world.

‘We have to deal with climate change as part of the bigger development challenges we are facing,’ said Roberts. She noted that this report would affect future reports as human issues and impacts and those of the natural world were considered together.

Solutions focused on two arenas for action that are relevant to Africa as one of the fastest urbanising continents in the world.

‘We strongly call out the global-scale but time-limited opportunity of using our cities to create a more climate-resilient society; cities can become the location of bold and ambitious climate action if we approach their planning, management, financing, governance and institutions in a new and different way,’ said Roberts.

With the drive to protect natural ecosystems and the biodiversity that humans are directly dependent on, Roberts also highlighted the opportunity for Africa as the home to enormous and rich biodiversity to protect this life while considering how to advance development in a just and equitable way.

She emphasised the need for a whole of society response, and for investment in adaptation, particularly in the most vulnerable areas. The report also took a novel approach in focusing on the regions where people live, with a solution and implementation focus that provides a rich body of knowledge for policymakers.

‘We have only a very limited window of opportunity to move and to act boldly and ambitiously,’ said Roberts. ‘We have to do so within this decade if we want to achieve climate resilience, otherwise the window will close and we will be exposed to very significant challenges to sustainable development in places like Africa. Every choice that is made at every level is absolutely critical.’

Words: Christine Cuénod

Image: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change