Kids born today face a far more extreme future than their parents and grandparents say scientists

Earth is on course to reach more than three degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, according to the latest report from the IPCC.

In this outcome, resulting from what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes as a ‘high emissions scenario’, major changes to the planet’s natural systems and temperature increases, will continue beyond 2100.

This latest IPCC Synthesis Report, released overnight, brings together the findings of six major studies released by the panel since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. That agreement aims to limit global temperature increase to ideally 1.5 degrees and no more than two degrees by the end of the century.

But among its key findings, the IPCC found the window to address climate change is closing rapidly, with rapid alterations already taking place to the atmosphere, oceans, land and iced areas.

And the hope of keeping warming to two degrees is also precarious. The Earth’s current trajectory – for potentially 3.2 degrees of warming by century’s end – is the consequence of a gap between current national commitments and ‘on the ground’ policy implementation.

Four fifths of the ‘carbon budget’ to avoid 1.5 degrees of warming was spent last decade, primarily in the form of carbon dioxide emissions for energy and transport.

So severe are the consequences of the current trajectory that Professor Mark Howden, a review editor on the report, and director of the Australian National University’s Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, says people born today will witness a substantially different natural world to that experienced by previous generations.

“A child born now is likely, on average, to have experienced three or four times as many extreme climate events in their lifetime as their grandparents did,” Howden says.

“We’re actually leaving a world behind that is actually less safe than the world we [older generations] inherited.”

A chart showing the trajectory of climate warming projections.
Global emissions pathways consistent with implemented policies and mitigation strategies. Credit: IPCC

Based on existing emission reduction targets laid out in 2021, the 1.5-degree marker will be surpassed before the end of this decade.

This is consistent with other findings over the past year, including that the carbon budget for the 1.5-degree target is almost exhausted, and that Australia is already experiencing worst case climate scenarios years ahead of time.

Among the impacts of a three-degree warmer world to Australia are the exposure of the continent’s top end to at least half-a-year of potentially lethal temperature and humidity.

Biodiversity would take a beating as well: More than eighty percent of organisms across most of the Northern Territory and swathes of Western Australia would encounter potentially dangerous climate conditions.

And fish stocks will also decline across Australian waters, even in modest temperature increases.

Image 2
Increasing climate change is projected to intensify risk across natural and human systems. These graphs show how different warming scenarios will impact biodiversity, human health limits and fishery yields. Credit: IPCC/ANU

Adaptation underway, but “fragmented”

The IPCC points to combining climate adaptation measures with carbon reduction as the most effective way to curb temperature increases.

It singles out “notable” mitigation options as being solar and wind energy, electrification of urban systems, green infrastructure, energy efficiency, demand-side management, reducing food waste and grassland management as popular and technically viable.

“There is hope both in terms of the emission reduction side of things,” Howden says.

“Things like effective research and development in terms of climate adaptation, putting in place appropriate planning and policy mechanisms, and appropriate finance to actually support people who otherwise couldn’t adapt to climate change.

“I think we, amidst all of those messages of increasing risk, I think there needs to be also a message of increasing capacity to deal with this, if we choose to do so.”

Despite steps taken to address climate change, the fragmented nature of adaptation, which is often incremental and sector specific, is limiting progress on the issue. Experts have also noted Australia is “well behind” other developed economies investing in adaptation and mitigation research.

Broadly, the report calls for “a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use” and a “minimal” use of unabated fossil fuels, effectively coal, oil and gas, where the mass of greenhouse gas emissions from their use is not captured and removed.

Howden’s colleague Professor Frank Jotzo says gaps in both implementation and financing policy look set to remain in the short to medium term, with a three to sixfold funding increase required to reach the level of infrastructure required to meet carbon reduction targets.

“The big gaps remain in policy application and in coverage of policies and in stringency,” Jotzo says.

“The IPCC does not provide assessment of policy settings and effectiveness in individual countries,. but if we can extrapolate a little, that statement, of course, would apply to Australia as well: increasing deployment and plans for deployment of policies.

“But gaps remain and are set to continue to remain. So, over coming years [there is] tremendous need and potential to do better there.”

Data for these projections was obtained prior to the 2021 COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Since then, a change of government in Australia has resulted in a legislated target to cut emissions by 43% on 2005 levels by the end of this decade.

Subscribe to energise from riaus

Are you interested in the energy industry and the technology and scientific developments that power it? Then our new email newsletter Energise, launching soon, is for you. Click here to become an inaugural subscriber.

Please login to favourite this article.