People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit, said scientists in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released this week.
“This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC.
“It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.”
The IPCC said the world now faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades, assuming global warming of 1.5°C (2.7F).
Even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible, the report said, adding risks for society will increase, including to infrastructure and low-lying coastal settlements.
Increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals. These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage, the report said. They have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on small islands and in the Arctic.
To avoid mounting loss of life, biodiversity and infrastructure, the report stresses ambitious, accelerated action is required to adapt to climate change, at the same time as making rapid, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
However, it said to date, progress on adaptation is uneven and there are increasing gaps between action taken and what is needed to deal with the increasing risks. These gaps are largest among lower-income populations.
The Working Group II report is the second instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which will be completed this year.
“This report recognizes the interdependence of climate, biodiversity and people and integrates natural, social and economic sciences more strongly than earlier IPCC assessments,” said Lee.
“It emphasizes the urgency of immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risks. Half measures are no longer an option.”
IPCC Working Group II co-chair Hans-Otto Pörtner said, “Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and provide life-critical services such as food and clean water. By restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving 30 to 50% of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean habitats, society can benefit from nature’s capacity to absorb and store carbon, and we can accelerate progress towards sustainable development, but adequate finance and political support are essential.”
“Our assessment clearly shows that tackling all these different challenges involves everyone – governments, the private sector, civil society – working together to prioritize risk reduction, as well as equity and justice, in decision-making and investment,” said IPCC Working Group II co-chair Debra Roberts.
“In this way, different interests, values and world views can be reconciled. By bringing together scientific and technological know-how as well as Indigenous and local knowledge, solutions will be more effective. Failure to achieve climate resilient and sustainable development will result in a sub-optimal future for people and nature.”
Chapter 5 of the report covers food, including animal agriculture and the dairy industry.
The report notes global livestock production may account for 30% of all water used in agriculture and can negatively affect water quality. It adds cropland feed production accounts for 38% of crop water consumption.
It said rising temperatures increase animal water needs, potentially affecting access of herders and livestock to drinking water sources.
The report also states climate change will have an effect on the future distribution, incidence, and severity of climate-sensitive infectious diseases in livestock. In an assessment of climate sensitivity of European human and domestic animal infectious pathogens, 63% were sensitive to rainfall and temperature, and zoonotic pathogens were more climate-sensitive than human- or animal-only pathogens.
Over the past 75 years, more than 220 emerging zoonotic diseases, some associated with domesticated livestock, have been identified, several of which may be affected by climate change, particularly vector-borne diseases.
It said growing infectious disease burdens in domesticated animals may have wide-ranging impacts on the vulnerability of rural livestock producers in the future, particularly related to human health and projected increases in zoonoses.
Estimates of losses in milk production due to heat stress in parts of the US, UK and West Africa to the end of the century range from 1-17%. Much larger losses in dairy and beef production due to heat stress are projected for many parts of the tropics and subtropics: these could amount to $22bn per year for dairy.
The chapter also said direct water use by cattle may increase by 13% for a temperature increase of 2.7°C in a sub-tropical region. Changes in water availability may arise because of decreased supply or increased competition from other sectors. Availability changes may be accompanied by shifts in water quality, such as increased levels of microorganisms and algae, which can negatively affect livestock health.
Dr Simi Thambi, climate economist at the FAIRR Initiative told Dairy Reporter, "The latest IPCC report finds with high confidence that climate change will cause extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves to increase in frequency and intensity. The global livestock industry is particularly vulnerable to such events – from heat stress impacting animals and workers, to damage to feed crops, to increased scarcity of clean fresh water.
"There are signs that the industry is beginning to address these risks by diversifying into alternative proteins. FAIRR’s Protein Producers Index found that, in 2021, almost half of companies had some exposure to alternative proteins, up from just a quarter in 2019. 2021 saw private investment in alternative proteins grow 58% year-on-year to $4.9bn.
"With the world approaching multiple climate tipping points, investors, policymakers and the food industry as a whole must listen to the science and work towards a transition to a more sustainable protein supply chain.”
Greenpeace Aotearoa in New Zealand added the IPCC report underlines how the government must tackle intensive dairy, which it called New Zealand’s biggest climate polluter.
Greenpeace agriculture campaigner Christine Rose said, “The IPCC report lays out in sobering detail how severe the impacts of climate change already are, and that it will only get worse.”
“The Government must now listen to the science and dramatically escalate action on cutting climate pollution from the dairy sector to match the scale of the climate crisis. Around half of New Zealand’s emissions come from agriculture, predominantly from cows and synthetic nitrogen fertiliser used by the dairy industry. But there are currently no regulations in place to significantly reduce agricultural emissions.”
The IPCC report comes the same week the NZ High Court is hearing a case taken by lawyers for Climate Action NZ Inc against the Climate Change Commission, arguing the Commission failed to provide advice to the government consistent with the science of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Greenpeace said it supported the initiative, saying, “the Government needs sound advice and pressure to avert catastrophic climate breakdown – not the weak, unambitious advice being provided by the Climate Change Commission”, and that “the Climate Change Commission seems more interested in placating the dairy industry than doing what is necessary to avert the climate crisis.”
Jackie Dawson, professor of geography, environment and geomatics in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa, was the lead author on chapters in the report.
“We are already observing threats to human well-being and the health of the planet through increases in extreme events such as wildfire, floods, drought, and major storms as well as climatic events such as sea level rise, permafrost thaw, and changing precipitation patterns – all of which have significant impacts for our lives and the lives of our brothers, sisters, friends, and families.
“We will face unavoidable climate hazards over the next two decades even if we are able to keep warming to 1.5 degrees C. (we are currently at 1.1 C warming above pre-industrial times). We are not adapting quickly enough, and the costs of inaction are almost always higher than the cost of action.”
Professor Dawson added, “There is hope and we are well positioned to adapt to the changes and risks that ongoing climate change bring but the way forward is through global cooperation, deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, a commitment to planetary protections, and a strong focus on equity.”