Five scientific warnings underpinning Cop26

The weight of climate science has borne down on planet Earth with suffocating force in 2021

A suite of scientific initiatives has been announced at Cop26, such as new commitments to accelerate innovation and low-carbon transition in industry and cities and the formation of the global Adaptation Research Alliance to increase the resilience of vulnerable communities on the front line of climate change.

The UK government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, affirmed the vital role of science and innovation in reducing emissions and adapting to the effects of climate breakdown.

But science has not only provided solutions to global warming, it has given evidence which has compelled world leaders both past and present to Glasgow for the vital climate conference.

In the year of Cop26, the weight of scientific evidence has borne down on planet Earth with particularly suffocating force, from a candid warning of the effects of global warming by the World Meteorological Organisation, to the infamously leaked UN climate report which laid bare impending disaster.

Including these, here are five times that science made the world sit up and fear for its future.

1. Carbon Action Tracker reveals cataclysmic 2.4°C rise by 2100

The most recent scientific insight came on Tuesday courtesy of the Carbon Action Tracker, which chose Science and Innovation day at Cop26 to release its annual global update on the trajectory of global warming.

The analysis found that taking into account 2030 pledges alone, the global temperature increase would be at 2.4°C in 2100.

From analysing what countries are actually doing as opposed to the rhetoric, the predicted rise was even higher, standing at 2.7°C.

“This new calculation is like a telescope trained on an asteroid heading for Earth. It’s a devastating report that in any sane world would cause governments in Glasgow to immediately set aside their differences and work with uncompromising vigour for a deal to save our common future,” said Greenpeace international executive director Jennifer Morgan.

“Instead we’re seeing subversion, sabotage and selfishness from the powerful, while vulnerable countries fight for their lives and youth activists cry out for justice. You have to ask, where is the empathy?"

A similarly themed report by McKinsey and Company on Monday warned a 2°C increase in global temperatures would mean 800 million more people struggling to find an adequate supply of water, while an additional 1.6 billion people could be exposed to heat stress by 2050.

2. Unsustainable oceanic climate mitigation load

The role of the ocean in both mitigating and aggravating climate change is understood by scientists but ignored by politicians, says the paper The forgotten ocean - why COP26 must call for vastly greater ambition and urgency to address ocean change, released on the eve of Ocean Day at the conference.

It is the work of scientists from around the world including lead author, marine scientist and ocean conservationist Prof Dan Laffoley.

“To turn the tide in favour of humanity and a habitable planet, we need to recognise and better value the fundamental role that the ocean plays in the Earth system and prioritise urgent action needed to heal and protect it at the ‘Earthscape’ level – the planetary scale at which processes to support life operate,” he said.

The ocean is carrying the heaviest load in terms of climate mitigation, absorbing more than 90 per cent of the excess heat produced, in comparison with only about 3 per cent absorbed by land. It is also the largest carbon sink on Earth.

However, this work is damaging to the ocean, eroding its ability to function and creating feedback loops that exacerbate climate change.

The paper advocates protecting half of the currently unregulated planet with a “robust and strong High Seas Treaty”, expediting biodiversity initiatives and highlighting how global economies can help by placing a value on the ocean’s natural capital.

3. Past seven years set to be the warmest on record and sea level rise at new high

Before the start of Cop26, the World Meteorological Organisation released a chilling (figuratively, not literally) report enunciating the extent of the problem faced by planet Earth called State of Climate in 2021: Extreme events and major impacts.

Its headline findings were the past seven years are set to be the warmest on record and sea levels are at a record high.

Measured since the early 1990s by high-precision altimeter satellites, the global mean sea level rise was 2.1 millimetres a year between 1993 and 2002 and 4.4mm a year between 2013 and 2021, an increase by a factor of 2 between the periods.

This was mostly due to the accelerated loss of ice mass from glaciers and ice sheets, including from Greenland, where meltwater reached 3.5 trillion tonnes over the past decade.

4. Food shortages will affect millions more within decades

The scientific report on the climate that garnered the most headlines worldwide – and was indeed the most portentous – was that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Policy choices made now, such as promoting plant-based diets, can limit these health consequences but many are unavoidable in the short term, the report says.

It warns of the cascading effects that simultaneous crop failures, soaring inflation and the falling nutritional value of basic foods are likely to have on the world’s most vulnerable people.

Depending on how well humans get a handle on carbon emissions and rising temperatures, a child born today could be confronted with numerous climate-related health threats before turning 30, the report says.

The IPCC’s 4,000-page draft report, scheduled for release next year, offers the most comprehensive summary to date of the effects of climate change on the planet and its species.

The protein content of rice, wheat, barley and potatoes, for instance, is expected to fall by between 6 and 14 per cent, putting close to 150 million more people at risk of protein deficiency.

Essential micronutrients – already lacking in many diets in poorer nations – are also set to decline as temperatures rise.

Extreme weather events made more frequent by rising temperatures will cause “multi-breadbasket failures” to hit food production more regularly, the report predicts.

5. Tropical disease diaspora

The same report contains an epidemiological warning attendant on rising temperatures.

As the warming planet expands habitable zones for mosquitoes and other disease-carrying species, half the world’s population could be exposed to vector-borne pathogens such as dengue, yellow fever and Zika virus within decades.

Risks posed by malaria and Lyme disease are set to rise and child deaths from diarrhoea are on track to increase until the 2050s at the earliest, despite greater socioeconomic development in high-incidence countries.

The report says climate change will increase the burden of non-communicable illnesses.

Diseases associated with poor air quality and exposure to ozone, such as lung and heart conditions, will “rise substantially”, it says.

“There will also be increased risks of food and water-related contamination” by marine toxins.

As with most climate-related effects, these diseases will ravage the world’s most vulnerable people.

Updated: November 9th 2021, 6:15 PM