Key Water Takeaways from the IPCC Summary for Policymakers
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a body of the United Nations (UN) responsible for the scientific assessment of climate change. In March of 2022, the panel released its Working Group II Sixth Assessment Report which will play a critical role in advancing knowledge on climate change and informing adaptation and mitigation policies on a global scale. Water& reviewed the report’s Summary for Policymakers (SPM). This article will provide the key takeaways from the report’s assessment of climate change’s related impacts, adaptation opportunities and limitations, potential for climate resilient development, and its relevance to UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Impacts, Risks, and What’s at Stake
Section SPM.B, Observed & Projected Impacts & Risks, reveals that climate change has already caused substantial and irreversible damage to freshwater, coastal, and open ocean marine ecosystems (SPM.B.1.2). Major damages and losses include mass mortality events in the ocean and loss of kelp forests (B.1.2). Impacts of hydrological changes from the retreating of glaciers and changes to Arctic ecosystems from thawing permafrost are even approaching irreversibility (B.1.2).
Human systems are being impacted by climate change with rising sea levels and increasingly heavy precipitation, increasing the damage and loss impacts from tropical cyclones. (B.1.1) Slow-onset processes such as ocean acidification and regional changes in precipitation have been attributed to climate change and continue to impact people, ecosystems, and infrastructure (B.1.1).
The report notes that, “roughly half of the world’s population currently experience severe water scarcity for at least some part of the year due to climatic and non-climatic drivers” (B.1.3) and moving forward, climate change combined with non-climatic drivers will increase human vulnerability and competition for Water resources (B.2.3). With approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people living in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change, (B.2) increased Water scarcity can be a major threat to many communities.
Risks to Water in the near term, mid and long-term are all present as climate change persists. Risks in the near term (2021-2040) include biodiversity loss in freshwater, coastal, and marine ecosystems (B.3.1). Mid to long term (2041-2100) risks include increases in flood damage, diminished Water availability for agriculture, and exacerbated challenges for Water management (B.4.2). In the mid-term, roughly a billion people are at risk from coastal-specific climate hazards; these risks can be an existential threat for some small islands and low-lying coasts and result in displacement (B.4.5). As multiple climate and non-climatic drivers interact, overall risks compound and cascade across sectors and regions (B.5) making climate change impacts increasingly complex.
Adaptation & its Challenges
Section SPM.C, Adaptation Measures & Enabling Conditions, covers effective adaptation to climate change and its limitations. The majority of all documented adaptation efforts are adaptation to Water-related risks and impacts (C.2.1). Adaptation efforts are currently unequally distributed across regions, with the largest gap existing among lower income populations, showing a need for improvement in adaptation efforts and their implementation. Current adaptation efforts often prioritize immediate and near-term risk reduction over transformational adaptation (C.1) which may lead to maladaptation.
Effective Ecosystem-based Adaptation helps reduce risks to people and ecosystems (C.2.5) by harnessing and managing ecosystems and their services to build resilience. Enhancing natural Water retention by restoring wetlands and rivers can reduce flood risks (C.2.1) and protecting coastal wetlands can in turn protect against coastal erosion and flooding (C.2.5).
Taking an integrated adaptation approach that involves collaboration across different sectors and scales of governance can help protect people and the planet. Sea level rise is a pressing, slow-onset issue that is regarded as a distinctive and severe adaptation challenge (C.2.8). Responses to sea level rise such as planned relocation are most effective when planned well in advance, align with sociocultural values, and involve inclusive community engagement processes (C.2.8)
Challenges to adaptation efforts include limitations and maladaptation. Inequity, poverty, and lack of climate literacy can pose as constraints that lead to limitations in adaptation (C.3.1). Some limitations are even more drastic such as limited availability of freshwater resources in some island communities (C.3.4). Some warm water coral reefs, coastal wetlands, and rainforests have already reached or surpassed these more severe adaptation limit points (C.3.3).
Adaptation efforts that focus on short-term gains and focus on risks in isolation can result in maladaptation (C.4.1). Hard defenses against flooding are one example of how maladaptation may manifest, decreasing resilience of ecosystems and potentially adversely impacting marginalized and vulnerable groups (C.4.3). Maladaptation can be avoided by employing, “flexible, multi-sectorial, inclusive and long-term planning and implementation of adaptation actions” (C.4).
The Potential for Climate Resilient Development
Section SPM.D, Climate Resilient Development, makes it clear that the need for worldwide climate resilient development is urgent (D.1). The IPCC describes climate resilient development as integrating, “adaptation measures and their enabling conditions with mitigation to advance sustainable development for all” (D.1). Equity plays a critical role in ensuring climate resilient development is inclusive and effectively reducing vulnerability (D.3.1).
Coastal cities and settlements play an important role in advancing climate resilient development (D.3.3). With almost 11% of the global population living in the Low Coastal Elevation Zone in 2020, and a projected increase beyond 1 billion people living in these areas by 2050, these people and ecosystems face escalating climate risks but also make key contributions to climate resilient development (D.3.3). These contributions come in the form of playing a vital role in economies, global supply chains, and cultural exchange (D.3.3).
Sustainable Development Goal Linkages & Other Water& Connections
The IPCC Summary for Policymakers Report makes several connections to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They note that, “inadequate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) reduces climate resilient development prospects” (Figure SPM.5) and highlight climate responses and adaptation options that hold the ability to reduce risk in relationship to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (Figure PM.4). The IPCC further draws the connection between climate change, Water, and the SDGs by highlighting how reduced Water security hinders efforts to meet SDGs (B.1.3).
Water& is committed to educating our audience on the interconnectedness between Water and climate issues. We are also committed to highlighting the important role Water plays in meeting every Sustainable Development Goal through our monthly Water& SDG series. Further education on the interconnectedness between Water and climate can be found through our article on the 13th UN Sustainable Development Goal on Climate Action and our article on the takeaways for Water from the COP26 Conference.
The report concludes with a clear and powerful message, “any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all” (SPM.D.5.3). Climate change impacts are already here and greater threats are imminent. Inclusive, just, and wide-scale action on climate change is needed immediately. Water& will continue to educate and advocate for policies that recognize the importance of taking strong actions to effectively adapt and promote climate resilient development while protecting and respecting Water.
IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Tignor, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.