On August 9th, 2021, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their Sixth Assessment report which featured over 230 contributors and discussed the current climate, the role of human influence on the climate, and how limiting human-induced climate change could change the future of the climate.
The report dives into the current state of the climate and includes notable changes since the IPCC 5th Assessment Report. Using new climate model simulations, new analyses, and methods, the IPCC determined1 :
- Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850
- Globally averaged precipitation over land has likely increased since 1950, with a faster rate of increase since the 1980s
- Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2000 years
- Temperatures during the most recent decade (2011–2020) exceed those of the most recent multi-century warm period, around 6500 years ago
- Hot extremes (including heatwaves) have become more frequent and more intense across most land regions since the 1950s, while cold extremes (including cold waves) have become less frequent and less severe
- The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s
The IPCC Fifth Assessment report was released in 2014 and since then numerous “once-in-a-lifetime” weather events have occurred.
In Venice, Italy, a rare summer flood overnight, caused by a combination of rising sea levels and high tides, provided up to a meter of water and flooded St. Mark’s Square in August 2021.
The Square has “gone from flooding four times a year in 1900 to over 60 times annually in recent years.”2
In October 2015, South Carolina had more than approximately 20 inches of rainfall in just a few days; the worst disaster in the state since Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989. In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana providing between 40-50 inches of rain in about five days. Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean and parts of Florida in September of 2017 and was the most intense hurricane to hit the US since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Last winter, Texas was hit with an ice storm of 2-5” which also led to a huge impact on their power grid. During this storm, Dallas had the coldest temperature the city has experienced since 1989. Austin and San Antonio also had single-digit temperatures for the first time in over 30 years.
This past June, Brazil saw its worst drought in 91 years.
For the first time in recorded history, rainfall was recorded at the highest point on the peak of Greenland’s ice sheet.
The IPCC states, “human influence has likely increased the chance of compound extreme events since the 1950s. This includes increases in the frequency of concurrent heatwaves and droughts on the global scale . . . fire weather in some regions of all inhabited continents . . . and compound flooding in some locations.”1
While climate change has been in discussion for a while, this report stating that human impact has exacerbated climate change is something to note.
This figure displays future projections for hot temperature extremes for 10-year and 50-year events, as well as a projection for heavy precipitation and droughts in drying regions in a climate without human interference. Each graph begins with the state of the climate in 1850-1900 compared to the present day. The graphs then project future global warming levels if temperatures increase by 1.5°C, 2°C, and 4°C above the 1850-1900 averages. Global averages have already increased by more than 1°C.
The more temperature rises from climate change, the more frequent droughts, heat extremes, and heavy precipitation can be expected.
Dave Rapson, an associate professor at the Davis Energy Economics Program at UC Davis, stated, “it's not too late to try to fix Earth's problems as long as the amount of human emissions drops over the next several decades.”7
The human impact on climate change can alter the future if carbon emissions are driven down and the energy currently being used transforms into green energy. Almost 20% of US electricity is generated by renewable sources including wind, solar, and hydropower while another 20% is from nuclear power. The Biden administration is setting a goal of 80% of US power to be from renewable sources and to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.3
In 2016, the Paris Agreement was started and is a “legally binding international treaty on climate change . . . its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”5 As of February 2021, 194 states and the European Union have signed the Paris Agreement including the United States, Canada, Australia, China, and Brazil.
Businesses and countries all over the world are also making a pledge to reduce their carbon footprint.
Chevron, the third largest oil company in America, and Brightmark recently announced a collaboration to produce and market dairy biomethane, a technology that converts methane emissions from dairy digesters into renewable natural gas.. Shell, a Dutch-British oil and gas company, pledged to lower their emissions 20% by 2030 but a Dutch court ruled in May 2021 that it must reduce its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030.
On June 24th, Greenland suspended all oil exploration off of their coast noting the decision as a measure to combat climate change.
The New York Power Authority is exploring a green hydrogen project at one of their gas-fired power plants which will involve “replacing up to 30% of the plant's gas-fired power with . . . hydropower from Canada.”6 The American Clean Power Association reported a 73% increase of installed solar capacity from Q1 while their wind sector had a 10% increase compared to last year, and battery energy storage had a 439% quarter increase.4
Individual Impact on Climate Change
While there are large-scale, systemic factors contributing to climate change, there are also smaller, individual actions we can take to mitigate our impact and move towards a more sustainable future. These actions contribute to growing awareness, generating support for low carbon technologies and solutions, and an overall culture of sustainability. Every action we take as individuals that requires less energy or has a smaller carbon footprint is considered a step in the right direction.
When looking at the primary drivers of climate change, transportation, agriculture, and electricity production and use are the largest factors.
With electric vehicles becoming more prevalent and Biden’s goal of electrifying 50% of the US auto fleet by 2030, there are many options available to individuals to change the future of the climate. While this goal is being pushed forward, we can also walk, bike, or use public transportation to help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
Meat production, particularly beef from concentrated feeding operations, has an incredibly high carbon footprint. Cattle produce an immense amount of methane and are typically raised far from populated areas, requiring extensive transportation and refrigeration to make it safely onto a dinner plate. Consuming low-carbon foods like fruits and veggies, preferably ones grown locally, have a much lower carbon footprint.
For energy production and use, the two main areas of focus are low-carbon energy production from renewable sources like PV Solar, Wind, Tidal, or Geothermal, and improving the energy efficiency of our technologies. Many power utilities and independent programs now offer the ability to choose where your electricity is purchased from, giving individuals the opportunity to directly purchase their power from renewable sources.
Alternatively, commercial and residential buildings may host distributed energy resources (DER) like rooftop solar panels or a battery storage system to store excess energy for use in emergency situations or to lower individual electric bills. Energy efficiency may be addressed on the individual or commercial scale through responsible purchasing and utilization of more energy-efficient technologies, such as LED lighting certified by the DesignLights Consortium® or electronics with an ENERGY STAR® label.
Rebate programs and financing options are often available to increase accessibility to these solutions and accelerate return on investment for larger technologies. Financing and rebate programs have been touted by organizations such as the World Resources Institute and the United Nations as important drivers of low-carbon technology adoption.
Although the report from the IPCC focusing on the future of the climate looks bleak, there are many goals and initiatives in place that could alter the future. Modifying travel, reevaluating energy production, and initiatives including the 2030 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Target and Paris Agreement can lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
The utilization of more renewable energy sources, corporate targets, and penalties for large amounts of pollution will also lead to this reduction.
On October 31st, the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties which will gather these parties together to discuss and accelerate the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Coauthored with Justin Linfield, Program Coordinator, Encentiv Energy
1 IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.