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Finnish WMO Secretary-General: IPCC report shows world heading towards 2-3 degrees of warming

The Finnish expert says Monday's climate change report 'underlines the urgency' of climate action.

An iceberg in Greenland, photographed in 2019. Image: Juha Kivioja / Yle

Petteri Taalas, the Finn who leads the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), said on Monday that the world is on course to miss crucial climate change targets after the publication of the latest report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report's main takeaways include the urgency of keeping the rise in global temperatures to a maximum of 1.5 degrees, the need for adaptation to the new reality as many of the effects of climate change are already irreversible, and reaching net zero emissions as soon as possible as human activity-related CO2 emissions are now known to warm up the planet.

Speaking at the IPCC 2021 Report's press briefing, Taalas said that current emissions are making global warming much worse.

According to the Finnish meteorologist, current global efforts are far from achieving the goals set by the Paris Climate Accord of keeping warming to between 1 and 2 degrees, regarded as the level at which humanity can adapt and mitigate climate change.

One scenario in the report predicts warming of up to 8 degrees Celsius if limitations on emissions remain low.

"At the UN our aim is to reach a 1.5 degrees-warming level which would be best for the welfare of mankind and the biosphere. Now we are heading towards 2 to 3 degrees warming instead," Taalas said. "The report underlines the urgency to enhance the ambition level of climate change mitigation."

In one finding, the report revealed that the past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850.

"Nobody is safe and it is getting worse faster," said under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, adding that "it's time to get serious because every ton of CO2 emission adds to global warming."

Unequal effects of climate change

The path towards a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in average temperature is bringing increasingly unstable and extreme weather, including heatwaves, drought and storms, but these changes do not affect the whole planet equally, the report outlined.

The rise in average temperatures in the Arctic, for example, is twice as high as the global average - possibly up to 4 times higher in the near future.

Areas covered predominantly by land mass are warming at a faster rate than areas near the sea, while the northern hemisphere is warming faster than the southern.

Changing attitudes towards climate change

IPCC reports have historically come under fire for being both too 'dramatic' and 'too soft', according to Taalas. The WMO Secretary General thinks that that is evidence the report is heading in the right direction and said that he is confident in the credibility of the findings.

"This is very much based on extremely solid science. It's not based on individual scientific papers but it's a balanced view of the majority of scientists and I am glad to encourage you to trust these results," Taalas said.

Some 14,000 scientific publications were reviewed to produce the 2021 IPCC report.

With the impacts of climate change becoming increasingly visible, Taalas said that politicians are finally starting to take science seriously compared to when IPCC reports first began to be published.

"It was more theoretical back in the eighties, the impacts were not very visible. But now they are. And that's why we are in a much better position when it comes to mitigation. The problem is understood. The only question is how quickly are we able to react. And luckily we now have better technical means and financial means to be successful in mitigation. But we are not there yet," Taalas said.

Taalas: Humanity must act before all hope is lost

The latest IPCC report reflects the same message as the one published in 1979, but with much increased urgency; humanity must act now, Taalas said, adding that mitigation efforts thus far have not been enough to avoid food level production capacities, water shortages, extreme heat, forest fires, continued sea level rises, with the potential of a refugee crisis and consequential negative impacts on the world economy and biosphere.

To the question of whether all hope is lost, Taalas answers with a "yes and no."

"According to this report we still have a chance to stop the negative climate change during the middle of this century by especially limiting the use of fossil fuels and stopping deforestation. But some changes will continue for centuries or even thousands of years like sea level rises and melting of glaciers and thinning of arctic sea ice and snow cover," Taalas said.

The 2021 IPCC report clearly states that some of the big changes brought by climate change are already irreversible or will be observed for a long time, regardless of whether we decide to act.

"Besides climate mitigation it is essential to pay attention to climate adaptation since the negative change in the climate will continue for decades and in some cases for thousands of years. A quite powerful way to adapt to [climate change] is by investing in early warning, climate and water services," Taalas said.

Only half of the current 193 members of the WMO (World Meteorological Organisations) have such services, according to the Finnish meteorologist, and there are also severe gaps in weather monitoring services worldwide.

Taalas concluded that the decision makers need to raise their level of ambition and their willingness to work together, or "sportsmanship," adding that this report came out at a crucial time, three months prior to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP26.

"The forthcoming COP26 meeting in Glasgow will be a critical milestone to combat climate change," he added.