Your guide to the IPCC: what it is, and why it’s so important

29 December 2021 | Aimee Tweedale

In recent years, climate change has finally become front-page news. If you’ve been keeping up, you’ve likely seen some stories about an organisation called the IPCC, and their attention-grabbing climate change reports. 

But what is the IPCC, who is part of it, and what can they tell us about global warming?

Keep on reading to learn more about IPCC reports and where they come from. Plus, find out when to expect the next IPCC climate change report in 2022. 

What is the IPCC and what does it do?

The IPCC is an international group of climate experts. It’s not a political organisation: it doesn’t tell governments what to do. But it makes sure that governments around the world have the information they need to act on climate change. 

What does IPCC stand for?

IPCC stands for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

When was the IPCC created, and why?

Back in the late 1980s, there was a growing concern about global warming and the impact it could have on the future of humanity. 

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) joined forces to create the IPCC in 1988. It’s a committee on climate change, formed by leading climate experts and scientists around the world. 

The aim of the IPCC is to review all the latest scientific research and give regular reports on climate change. The scientists in the IPCC present the most up-to-date findings on global warming in a non-technical way, so people without scientific knowledge can understand the situation. This helps governments and organisations around the world decide how to act. 

How many countries are in the IPCC?

The IPCC is made up of experts from 195 countries around the world. Thousands of experts contribute to the work of the IPCC.

Is the IPCC part of the UN?

No, the IPCC is an independent organisation. Its creation was endorsed by the United Nations (UN), but it isn’t a part of the UN. 

What is the function of the IPCC?

The IPCC makes sure that governments and policy-makers around the world have the most up-to-date scientific information about climate change.

They do this by constantly reviewing all of the latest research into global warming. Every 6-7 years, the IPCC presents its latest findings in a report, known as the Assessment Report. This report explains the science behind climate change in a non-technical way, so that people who aren’t experts in science can understand it. 

The Assessment Report not only breaks down the latest climate science, but also possible outcomes for the future, and ways to limit the impacts of climate change. 

Sometimes, the IPCC also publishes a Special Report in between Assessment Reports. Special Reports take a look at a particular topic in closer detail. 

What are the IPCC working groups?

The IPCC is a massive organisation, made up of 3 working groups. Each one tackles slightly different priorities. 

  1. Working Group I focuses on the physical science of climate change. That means they cover the research that relates to things like the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, temperature changes, and sea levels.
  2. Working Group II looks at impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. They work out all the possible effects of climate change, both on nature and on society, and how prepared we are for those effects.
  3. Working Group III is all about mitigation. The scientists in this group look closely at what might be done to lessen or slow down the impact of climate change. 

There’s also a Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. This group develops ways of measuring greenhouse gas emissions and removals. 

What does the IPCC report on?

IPCC Assessment Reports take stock of all the latest research in climate science. They give a summary of all the latest discoveries and theories about what’s causing climate change, what effects it will have, and what can be done to fight it. 

This includes information like:

  • The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere
  • Oceans and sea levels
  • The average temperature of the Earth’s surface
  • The potential impacts of climate change on nature
  • The potential impacts of climate change on societies and economies
  • Ideas for limiting greenhouse gas emissions

The IPCC has published 5 Assessment Reports so far, in 1990, 1996, 2001, 2007, and 2014. 

The IPCC is currently in its 6th assessment cycle. That means that it’s working towards publishing the 6th Assessment Report. Working Group I has already published its contribution to the report. The rest of it will come in instalments, with the final part due in September 2022. 

The IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report: code red for humanity

impact climate change

The IPCC’s environmental report is always published in parts. Each working group presents their section of the report, then there’s a Synthesis Report, which summarises all the key points. Working Group I published its part of the 6th Assessment Report back in summer 2021.

This first part of the report was the most powerful message from the IPCC so far. It warned that human activity is definitely causing the climate crisis, and that we’re running out of time to address it. 

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, called the report a code red for humanity. He said, “If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as today's report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”

3 key findings of the IPCC report so far

So what did the first part of the 6th Assessment Report tell us?

  1. Humans are the cause of climate change. The report says "it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land".
  2. The planet is heating up, fast. The latest science tells us that the Earth’s surface was on average 1.09°C warmer in 2011-2020 than it was between 1850-1900. The past 5 years have been the hottest on record since 1850. 
  3. This is already causing sea level rise and extreme weather events. As our glaciers melt, the recent rate of sea levels rising has accelerated. The report also states that it’s “virtually certain” that extreme heatwaves have become more frequent and intense since the 1950s.

What does this IPCC report mean for the UK’s climate policy?

The IPCC report confirms that the UK’s target to reach net zero emissions by 2050 is hugely important. The report shows that greenhouse gases are the cause of global warming, and so to limit it, we need to stop these toxic emissions. 

The Climate Change Committee, which advises the UK government, also says that the IPCC report shows that if we reach net zero emissions globally, we could reverse future temperature increases. Basically, if all the countries that signed the Paris Agreement stick to their net zero targets, we have a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. 

Find out more about global net zero targets in our guide to this year’s climate change conference, COP26.

What can you do about climate change?

The climate crisis is the challenge of a lifetime, and we’re all in it together. To fight it, we need major action from governments and organisations everywhere. But we also need smaller, everyday changes from the likes of all of us. 

If you’d like to find out what you can do, why not check out some of our guides to carbon-cutting and eco-friendly living:

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