Keir Starmer has declared that the “biggest threat we now face is not climate denial but climate delay” after the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change issued its most severe warning yet.
The report published today, the culmination of 14,000 separate studies and the panel’s first major review of climate change since 2013, stated that it is “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land”.
The authors of the document reported that human activity is changing the climate of the planet in ways “unprecedented” over at least the last 2,000 years, and warned that some of those changes are now “irreversible”.
They concluded that temperatures are likely to rise by more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, breaching the commitment of the Paris climate agreement signed in 2015, within the next two decades.
The report sets out five scenarios for the future of climate change with varying degrees of severity projected, but all scenarios predict that the 1.5 degree increase will be reached by 2040 and sooner if emissions are not reduced.
“The IPCC report is the starkest reminder yet that the climate crisis is here right now and is the biggest long term threat we face,” Starmer said this morning.
“It confirms that the extreme weather events of recent months are only going to become more frequent, and that we need urgent action both to drive down emissions in this decisive decade and to adapt to the changes to our climate that are already baked in.”
The report found that the last four decades have been successively warmer than any decade since 1850, surface temperatures in the first two decades of the 21st century were around 1.1 degrees higher than 1850-1900, and that global surface temperature has increased “faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period”.
The most optimistic IPCC projection, which assumes “very low” emissions and the achievement of net zero around 2050, found that the world will hit 1.5 degrees in 20 years but that it could level off at 1.4C towards the end of the century.
The IPCC review also reported: “Crossing the 2°C global warming level in the mid-term period (2041–2060) is very likely to occur under the very high GHG emissions scenario, likely to occur under the high GHG emissions scenario, and more likely than not to occur in the intermediate GHG emissions scenario.”
The Labour leader added: “The biggest threat we now face is not climate denial but climate delay. Those who, like our Prime Minister, acknowledge there is a problem, but simply don’t have the scale of ambition required to match the moment.
“Our communities and planet can no longer afford the inaction of this government, who are failing to treat the crisis with the seriousness it deserves.
“A Labour government would deliver the action we need to drive down emissions, with progressive solutions for our citizens, and leadership on the international stage to ensure a global effort to tackle the climate and nature crisis and limit global heating to 1.5 degrees.”
The UK government, along with many others, has pledged to reach net zero by 2050, which means reducing emissions as much as possible and offsetting the rest, but has been criticised for failing to match ambition with action.
The government launched the green jobs taskforce, comprised of industry figures, experts and trade unions, in November last year after Boris Johnson unveiled his ten-point low-carbon plan. It published a report last month.
Recommendations included creating a new national organisation to help shape the transition to a green economy, establishing a ‘green carers launchpad’ and publishing a comprehensive net-zero strategy ahead of the COP26 summit.
But, writing in The Guardian ahead of a visit to Scotland last week, Starmer accused Johnson of being “missing in action” on the climate emergency, arguing that a “credible government now would be demonstrating serious ambition”.
He also committed the party to achieving the “substantial majority” of greenhouse gas emission cuts by 2030 during an interview with The Independent last Tuesday, a pledge made by the previous Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband said the report today set out “in prose the picture painted by the fires and floods across the world in recent weeks” but added that “our generation is unique in the history of this crisis”.
“Thanks to reports like this, the paths of our different futures are now mapped and modelled in front of us; and we still have a choice about the path to which we will commit ourselves and future generations,” he argued.
“In the decisive years ahead, our destiny is still in our own hands. Faced with the threats laid out in this report, the case for transformative action to reduce emissions now is not only the overwhelming, moral choice but also the only sensible prudent, economic course. That is why Labour has said that we should cut the substantial majority of emissions this decade.”
The IPCC review said the past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850 and the recent rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled compared with 1901-1971.
Hot extremes have become more frequent across all regions, the UN panel said, and added that “climate change is already affecting every inhabited region across the globe with human influence contributing to many observed changes”.
Human influence on climate change is “very likely” (90%) to have been the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s and the decrease in Arctic sea ice area between 1979–1988 and 2010–2019, the report today found.
It also concluded that the impact of humans was very likely the main factor in sea level increases since “at least 1971”, and that human activity has warmed the climate at a rate “unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years”.
According to the document, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least two million years, concentrations of CH4 and N2O were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years and rises in CO2 (47%) and CH4 (156%) concentrations have far exceeded natural multi-millennial changes.
“What this report does confirm is that there is an unequivocal link between human activity and the climate crisis that we’re now seeing unravelling. This isn’t a crisis that is some way down the track that we can park,” Luke Pollard said.
“But the report also sets out that there is a route to avert the most severe climate chaos and that comes from taking bold steps to decarbonise our economy right now, and that’s why we need to see COP26 being a success.”
Countries have been asked to come to COP26, being hosted in Glasgow later this year, with plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to achieve the Paris agreement 1.5 degree goal, which the IPCC review stressed is still possible, but only just.
The Shadow Environment Secretary added: “We need the government to lead by example. That means not pursuing their plans for new coal mines, which they’ve wanted to do, not cutting green housing retrofit budgets, which they sadly have, bringing forward the planned investment to create green jobs now and to be utterly determined, laser-focused, to cut emissions wherever they come from.
“And, in particular for Britain, that comes from transport and from housing in particular. That’s where we really should be making more progress to decarbonise those methods, and by doing so creating new jobs and cutting bills.”
Labour set out a plan for a drive towards a clean economy focusing on the UK manufacturing sector last November, calling for a rapid stimulus package of at least £30bn over the next 18 months with dedicated funding to low-carbon industries.
Johnson has faced pressure and his commitment to tackling climate change has been challenged most recently after saying in a BBC interview last week that he was “not aware” of proposals for a new oil field off the coast of Shetland.
Campaigners have urged the Prime Minister to stop the controversial project that Greenpeace has said will, in the first phase, produce emissions equivalent to 18 coal-fired power plants running for a year.
If the scheme goes the go ahead, production would begin in 2025 and run until 2050 – the same year by which the UK is supposed to achieve net zero. The Labour leader has called for a “hard-edged timetable” to end oil and gas exploration, and said the opposition party would not support the new oil field.