Code red for humanity, UN climate report warns

death by drought
Devastating drought. A UN landmark report has warned of unprecedented changes in the climate in every region of the world. Copyright: Brendan Cox / Oxfam, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Landmark UN report warns of warming up to 2 degrees Celsius by end of century
  • Only rapid reductions in CO2 emissions can limit impact – IPCC
  • ‘Listen to the science’ at COP26, urges science-development community

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Unprecedented changes in the climate are being seen in every region of the world and only sweeping reductions in carbon emissions can limit their potentially devastating effects, a UN panel on climate change has warned in a landmark report.

Global temperatures are likely to rise to at least 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2030, with extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and droughts becoming more frequent and more intense, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted in the report.

Without immediate, global cuts to CO2 emissions, warming could even reach 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century in the worst-case scenario, with heat extremes reaching “critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health”, the IPCC warned.

Leaders in the field of science and development were quick to call for world leaders to act on the scientific findings at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, UK, in November, to protect vulnerable communities most affected by climate change.

The stark report, approved by 195 member governments of the IPCC after two weeks of remote talks, pulled no punches in apportioning blame for climate change, stating: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”

Alarm bells

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the report as a “code red for humanity”.

Bioprotection portal ad 2

“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” he said in a statement, urging government leaders to make the COP26 talks a success.

Mohamed Adow, director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa, said: “Those of us living in Africa have been aware of the urgency of the climate crisis for many years. Lives and livelihoods have been shattered by overwhelming heat, rising seas and extreme weather.

“It is vital that governments heed the warning of the IPCC’s scientists and act with speed and boldness to make our world safer, cleaner and greener.”

It is critical that governments act now, according to Mathews Malata, interim leader of the Movement for Environmental Action in Malawi.

“It’s getting chaotic already, the heatwaves, sea rise, drought and floods all are recording an uptick in terms of intensity and we are the only generation that has that golden opportunity to do something about this,” he told SciDev.Net.

The report, known as the Sixth Assessment Report, comes after a year of severe weather events worldwide including wildfires and floods.

It is the first to provide detailed regional assessments of climate change, with the aim of informing risk assessment, adaptation and decision-making.

An interactive atlas allows people to delve into climate projections and emissions scenarios for different geographical regions and periods of time, drawing from a range of datasets.

For North Africa and the Middle East, as well as an accelerated increase in temperature, the report predicts an increase in extreme heatwaves, a decrease in extreme cold, and an increase in the rates of marine heatwaves.

Globally, continuing warming of the planet is expected to impact the hydrological cycle including variability in rainfall leading to more floods in some areas, and drought in others.

The report confirms previous predictions that sea levels will continue to rise, increasing the risk of floods in low-lying coastal areas. Rainfall is expected to increase in tropical regions of Africa but decrease in the North African region and Mediterranean basin, raising the risk there of droughts and forest fires.

Samir Tantawi, an Egypt-based climate change specialist for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said the regional findings must be taken seriously.

Fragile economies

“The economy of North Africa and the Middle East is expected to be affected by the loss of fertile land, infrastructure and other industrial projects,” he said.

Tantawi believes that it is the least developed countries which bear the costs of climate change and suffer most of its negative effects, whether because of their geographical location or their more fragile economies.


He points to the need for national development plans to move towards non-polluting sources in power generation, encouraging investment in green initiatives and emissions reduction.

Climatologist Ines Camilloni, professor at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and one of the main authors of the 2017-2018 IPCC report, said Latin America’s biggest emitters, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, must assume the greatest commitment with regard to emissions in the region.

But with the effects of climate change already being felt, it is also “essential to work hard on climate change adaption to minimise the negative consequences that it produces”, Camilloni told SciDev.Net.

At COP26, countries must “increase their ambitions” for CO2 reductions, he said, adding: “We are still far from the limit of 1.5 degrees [Celsius], established as essential not to exceed if we want to avoid continued irreversible impacts and greater risks, mainly on the most vulnerable populations.”

Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: “Every government should now be focused on the investments and innovation required to reach net zero emissions as quickly as possible. We know that these investments will drive sustainable improvements in growth, prosperity and living standards around the world.

“Richer countries have a duty to help poorer countries with the finance to make the investments which will help us all.”