Although evidence of the cumulative effects of climate change, including in the Arctic, has been appearing for decades now, a new study [pdf] by international specialists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), under the aegis of the United Nations World Meteorological Association (WMO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released in Incheon, South Korea, this week suggests that the planet has less than two decades to ensure that global temperatures do not rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Without drastic actions, including higher carbon taxes, the paper argued, the negative effects on weather patterns could lead to draughts, food shortages and rises in poverty levels by 2030. The Arctic Ocean, which this week recorded its minimum ice extent for the year, (tying with 2008 and 2010 for the sixth-lowest minimum levels in forty years), was included in the report as a region which would be especially susceptible to climate change trends. For example, it was noted that sudden sea level rises could be triggered by the rapid disintegration of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets.
The UN report concluded that net emissions of carbon dioxide on a global scale would need to be reduced forty percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and ideally reach a ‘net zero’ stage by about the middle of this century to keep warming levels under the 1.5ºC threshold. However, these results would require a considerable number of economic and political commitments. Rises in carbon dioxide emission taxes, with the report suggesting that by 2030 the range would need to be between US$135 to $5500 per ton of CO2 emissions, would be a hard sell in many countries, including the United States.
The Trump administration has made little secret of its disdain for anti-global warming policies and its support for US fossil fuel and coal industries, and is in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change which may take place by 2020. Another large state, Brazil, may also withdraw from the accord should far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro win the runoff vote scheduled in late October and follow through on his promise to leave the agreement.
The Arctic as a whole, as well as specific sub-regions, were cited not only as areas of specific risk of environmental damage caused by climate change but also parts of the world which would specifically benefit from international attempts to keep global temperature levels below the 1.5ºC limit. The Arctic was noted as experiencing warming trends two to three times greater than the international average.
However, the document suggested that the possibility of a completely ice-free Arctic in the summer months drops substantially with a 1.5 degree maximum limit. Specifically, the findings suggested that the Arctic Ocean would be free of sea ice in summer only once per century if the lower target was achieved, as opposed to potentially once per decade if a two-degree threshold was maintained.
As well, the instability of the Greenland Ice Sheet would also become more pronounced within a scenario of a two-degree jump in global temperatures. The potential damage to the Arctic’s ecosystems, as well as to the livelihoods of indigenous populations in the region, were also discussed in the study.
One early conclusion in the wake of the IPCC report’s release is that the Arctic cannot be seen as a peripheral region, or one disconnected from other parts of the world, as the effects of climate change become more glaringly apparent.