Scientists have issued the starkest warning yet that the world’s ice is under serious threat from even moderate, near-term global warming, and have demanded a radical redefining of climate ambition ahead of the COP28 climate summit this month.
Stating that “1.5 degrees Celsius is the only option,” the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) warns in new report, published Thursday, that a global temperature increase of just 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century will cause irreversible harm to ice sheets, glaciers, snow, sea ice and permafrost, and accelerate sea level rise.
Subtitled “We cannot negotiate with the melting point of ice,” the report calls on nations attending the COP28 climate summit, to begin November 30 in Dubai, to define 1.5 degrees as the upper limit for global warming.
That would be a radical move: the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement [PDF] committed the international community only to limit temperature rise “to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels ” and to “pursuing efforts” to limiting increase to 1.5 degrees. But the researchers say a tighter limit is necessary to prevent “irreversible” ice loss, and hope that such an ambition will help boost efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions and finance climate action.
“We can and need to do much more, heading for a future where non-renewable energy is no longer an option,” the authors state. “The only way through this climate crisis is to finally leave fossil fuels behind and resist greenwashing. After all, the melting point of ice pays no attention to rhetoric, only to our actions.”
Noting that global average temperatures could come close to passing 1.5 degrees of warming this year, they further warn that “frankly even 1.5 degree Celsius is too high.”
James Kirkham, a report author and the Chief Science Advisor and Coordinator for the advisory group Ambition on Melting Ice, explains: “The cryosphere is both a lifeline for billions of people who depend on it for drinking water, agricultural irrigation and hydropower generation. It’s also a massive threat.”
Kirkham tells me that, for the duration of human history, ice has played a stabilising role in the climate, allowing human civilisation to flourish. Now, however, greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels, are pushing global temperatures to a point that humans have never experienced.
“Although these regions are incredibly remote and difficult to access, the impacts of the changes that occur in these regions ripple across the entire planet and leave no country untouched,” Kirkham says. “The old phrase what ‘happens in the polar regions doesn’t stay in the polar regions’ is very true in this regard.”
Some two-thirds of current sea level rise is being driven by ice loss from glaciers and ice sheets, Kirkham explains. With more than 600 million people living within 10 metres of the sea, every additional centimetre of sea level rise exposes 2-3 million more people to flooding.
Sea level rise also creates massive economic harms. In just one example, experts found that sea level rise accounted for an additional 13% in economic losses—$8 billion dollar’s worth of damage—when Hurricane Sandy struck the U.S. East Coast in 2012. Scientists are expecting 0.5 metres of sea rise (1.6 feet) by 2100, even if governments adhere to current climate pledges, potentially putting 150 million people in harm’s way.
But sea level rise is only one impact of ice loss. In Asia, almost 2 billion people rely on meltwater from mountain glaciers and snow for irrigation, drinking water and electricity generation. Under the current global warming trajectory, up to 75% of Himalayan ice could be lost this century.
Elsewhere, Kirkham stresses, the melting of permafrost—frozen ground—is “incredibly worrying,” with permafrost now emitting around the same amount of greenhouse gases as a top-10 emitting country, in effect reducing the amount that countries can emit if the world is to remain with 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. “If we continue to thaw vast areas of permafrost, these emissions could grow to the same as that of the U.S. or China today if critical climate targets are missed,” Kirkham says.
In its research, the ICCI shows that the impacts from each of the effects observed would worsen for each additional tenth of a degree of temperature rise, and that once ice loss accelerates, it cannot be reversed for thousands of years, even when temperatures stabilize.
For that reason, the report stresses the urgent need for rapid emissions reductions, and identifies the COP28 climate summit, to be held in the UAE, as the platform for a new level of global ambition.
Responding to the report today, Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir said: “1.5 degrees Celsius is not simply preferable to 2 degrees or higher. It is the only option. At COP28, we need a frank global stocktake, and fresh urgency especially due to what we have learned about cryosphere feedbacks, worsening for each additional tenth of a degree in temperature rise. We need tangible results, and clear guidelines to phase out fossil fuels and for financial mechanisms to finance climate action.”
Pema Gyamtsho, Director General of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which studies climate impacts in the Himalayas, said: “The Hindu Kush Himalaya is at the epicentre of the global cryosphere crisis with our glaciers, snow, and permafrost already undergoing unprecedented and irreversible changes. These changes are upending the lives of mountain communities by increasing uncertainty in the timing, availability, and seasonal distribution of mountain water resources, threatening water, food, and energy security. The ‘State of the Cryosphere’ report is a warning to global leaders that inaction at COP28 will be disastrous.”
COP28 will take place in Dubai from November 30 to December 12.
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