New IPCC head says open climate ‘toolbox’ to keep 1.5°C goal alive

Chair of UN climate science panel says an iconic goal to limit global warming is slipping away - and governments must take rapid action.

Amid a spate of heatwaves in the northern hemisphere, the World Meteorological Organization said on Thursday that the "month of July is on track to be the hottest July and the hottest month on record". Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Rising global temperatures are on track to far exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming - but governments still have an unopened “toolbox” of policies that can keep that goal alive, the new chair of the UN’s panel of climate scientists said.

Jim Skea, a Scottish scientist elected on Wednesday to lead the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in coming years, said existing government plans would lead to warming “closer to 3 degrees than 1.5” above pre-industrial times.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement set goals of keeping global warming to well below 2°C (3.6°F), while “pursuing efforts” for 1.5°C (2.7°F) to limit worsening impacts from heatwaves, floods, droughts, storms and higher sea levels.

“If governments chose to put in place the kind of rapid and deep (emissions) cuts that we have said are necessary, who knows, maybe 1.5 will be possible,” Skea told Context, after he won a vote by UN member states at an IPCC meeting in Nairobi.

But there is no time to lose, emphasised the professor of sustainable energy at Imperial College London.

“With the wrong decisions it could be very difficult to impossible to limit warming to 1.5°C,” he added in an interview. “Every week, every month, every year of inaction just makes it more difficult.”

Skea, an IPCC veteran aged 69, said governments have many ways to cut planet-heating emissions at their disposal. “It’s as if someone is setting out to do a job: they have got the toolbox with them, now they need to get the tools out the box,” he said.

Climate action isn’t all about long-term lines on graphs and scientific abstractions: remember the real people aspect.

Jim Skea, chairperson, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Those tools include ever-bigger investments in renewable energies such as solar and wind power, moving money away from climate-warming fossil fuels.

And there are many less exploited tools, such as investments in energy efficiency - for everything from buildings to industry - and help for small-scale farmers to reduce emissions, he said.

Hottest July

Amid a spate of heatwaves in the northern hemisphere, the World Meteorological Organization said on Thursday that the “month of July is on track to be the hottest July and the hottest month on record”.

Skea - who beat Brazilian scientist Thelma Krug in a runoff for the position of IPCC chair in a 90-69 vote - also said he would work for greater diversity within the IPCC’s pool of scientific authors.

His election extends an unbroken run of male leaders since the IPCC was set up in 1988.

A 2019 study, for instance, found that only 30 per cent of IPCC authors were women.

“It should be 50-50,” Skea said. But “there are so many governments that - quite frankly - say ‘in general we are really supportive of gender diversity’ and then they come up with male nominations,” he added.

Only 11 per cent of authors in the last round of IPCC reports were from Africa, despite its extreme vulnerability to climate change, Soipan Tuya, cabinet secretary of Kenya’s climate change ministry, told IPCC delegates in Nairobi.

Skea said there had been progress in recruiting authors from around the world - noting that a 2019 IPCC report about climate change and land, for instance, had more authors from developing nations than developed nations.

He also said he is encouraging governments to nominate more young scientists as authors to the IPCC. It won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in synthesising, assessing and communicating global scientific findings on climate change.

‘Just transition’

Skea also said that the next round of IPCC climate reports should examine the difficulties of a “just transition” to a greener future that can involve wrenching social and economic changes.

“Climate action isn’t all about long-term lines on graphs and scientific abstractions: remember the real people aspect,” he said.

People affected by the shift to a lower-carbon world often feel left out or disadvantaged, ranging from Indigenous peoples in Brazil opposed to wind turbines on their land to French “yellow vests” protesters against higher fuel taxes.

It remains unclear when the next IPCC flagship science report will be published, Skea said. The final instalment of the sixth blockbuster review came out in March this year.

The year 2028 - which would be in time for a new set of reports to help a global assessment of climate action under the Paris Agreement - “is looking quite challenging”, Skea noted.

The new IPCC chair also said the world will need to develop more ways to capture carbon dioxide emissions to slow warming. Policies range from planting more trees, which soak up carbon as they grow, to capturing emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“We are not seeing a lot of progress at the moment - even carbon capture and storage with fossil fuels is not proceeding that quickly,” he said. But, he added, such technologies “are not excuses not to cut emissions”.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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