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By Roger Highfield on

COP27: Pressure mounts for urgent action on climate emergency

Roger Highfield, Science Director, reports on how the need for urgent action to curb climate change has intensified as the UK’s presidency of COP26 draws to a close.

King Charles will host a reception at Buckingham Palace this Friday, 4 November, to bring together over 200 international business leaders, decision makers and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to mark the end of the United Kingdom’s presidency of COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, which was held in Glasgow.

The event will also look ahead to the COP27 summit in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, which begins on Sunday, and at Friday’s event the new UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, ‘will say a few words.’

The pressure for more radical measures has intensified since COP26. At a meeting held in September in the Science Museum, organised with the Natural History Museum, Alok Sharma MP, President of COP 26, called for accelerated action to curb climate change and address biodiversity loss.

Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, speaking at the Pre-COP27 Briefing Conference hosted at the Science Museumon the 5 September 2022.

Since then the UN environment programme has reported that there is ‘no credible pathway to 1.5C in place’, referring to the Paris climate agreement that requires we limit warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees C,’ and it added that ‘only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid climate disaster.’

The UN’s meteorological agency also reported last week that atmospheric levels of the three main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide all reached new record highs in 2021. Measurements from WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch network stations show that these levels continue to rise in 2022 over the whole globe.

Research by Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter and colleagues, published in the journal Science in September,  suggests that even global warming of 1°C, a threshold that we already have passed, puts us at risk by triggering tipping points, where the global climate system irreversibly and abruptly changes.

Beyond a tipping point, change becomes self-sustaining so that, even if temperatures stops rising, once the ice sheet, ocean or rainforest has passed a tipping point it will carry on changing to a new state.

Professor Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute and Professor Andy Purvis from the Natural History Museum at the Pre-COP27 Briefing Conference, hosted at the Science Museum.

The research concludes we are already in the danger zone for five climate tipping points: melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, widespread abrupt permafrost thaw, collapse of convection in the Labrador Sea, and massive die-off of tropical coral reefs.

Multiple climate tipping points could be triggered if the global temperature rises beyond 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, according to the analysis, which has increased the list of potential tipping points from nine to 16.

Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter and a member of the Earth Commission, said: ‘Since I first assessed climate tipping points in 2008, the list has grown and our assessment of the risk they pose has increased dramatically.’

Lead author David Armstrong McKay, from Stockholm Resilience Centre, University of Exeter, and the Earth Commission, has also stated: ‘We can see signs of destabilisation already in parts of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, in permafrost regions, the Amazon rainforest, and potentially the Atlantic overturning circulation as well.’

Four of these have shifted in probability from “possible” to “likely” at 1.5°C global warming, with five more becoming possible around this level of heating. The corollary of this research is that even the United Nations’ Paris Agreement goal to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting warming to well below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C is not fully safe.

Co-author Johan Rockström, co-chair of the Earth Commission and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said: ‘The world is heading towards 2-3°C of global warming. This sets Earth on course to cross multiple dangerous tipping points that will be disastrous for people across the world.’

Many tipping elements are interlinked, making cascading tipping points an unsettling possibility.

In more encouraging news,  the International Energy Agency’s ‘World Energy Outlook 2022’  shows that the global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has the potential to hasten the transition to a more sustainable and secure energy system.

Moreover, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva narrowly defeated President Jair Bolsonaro in the race for the Brazilian presidency, inviting  international cooperation to preserve the Amazon rainforest.

At the Pre-COP27 Briefing Conference. L-R: David Shukman, journalist and former Science Editor BBC News; Dr Julia Knights, Deputy Director, Science Museum; Dame Mary Archer, Chair of the Science Museum Group’s Board of Trustees; Dr Roger Highfield, Science Director at the Science Museum Group; Prince Hussain Aga Khan; Dr Doug Gurr, Director of the Natural History Museum; and Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.