Taking stock of progress on global change: What to expect from the UNEP Global Assessments Synthesis Report

Ahead of a crucial year for action towards climate and biodiversity commitments, we talk to Bob Watson about a forthcoming ‘synthesis of syntheses’ report that will provide a snapshot of the latest scientific findings and progress towards international agreements.

This article is part of the ISC’s new series, Transform21, which will explore the state of knowledge and action, five years on from the Paris Agreement and in a pivotal year for action on sustainable development.

In recent years a plethora of reports and assessments have all pointed to the dangerous effects of human influence on nature and the climate system, and made clear that the current development model is not sustainable. We urgently need action in order to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, and to address interrelated environmental, social and developmental challenges.

As we move closer to 2030, and to the new climate and biodiversity pledges to be adopted in 2021, a new report to be published by UNEP in the coming months aims to synthesize the latest findings related to climate change, biodiversity and development issues in one place. The Global Assessments Synthesis Report will take stock of recent assessments to ask what progress has been made, what still needs to change and what opportunities for action are available.

We caught up with Bob Watson, who’s leading the Scientific Advisory Group for the Report, to find out more.

You’re a lead author of the Global Assessments Synthesis Report that will come out in early 2021. What should we expect?

The report synthesizes most of the recent assessments from IPBES, the IPCC, the International Resource Panel Report, the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) Report, the Global Biodiversity Outlook Report (GBO) the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) and others.

We’ve examined all of these reports, and in a similar way to the IPBES and IPCC reports we ask what the state of the environment is, and what’s really happening to climate change, biodiversity, land degradation, air and water pollution. We talk about the drivers of change, and where we are with respect to the environmental conventions and meeting our international commitments, such as the Paris agreement and the Aichi biodiversity targets.

The report then identifies what transformations are needed, and what we mean by transformative change. The report stresses the need for major transformations of the economic and financing systems. We examine alternatives to using GDP as a measure of economic growth, and we discuss the issues of subsidies, incentives, and the circular economy. We also examine issues around multi-sectoral planning, individual and collective behaviour, human health, and inequality.

We discussed all of the various environmental issues together with the development issues to ask what the state of play is today and what could happen in the future. Importantly, we assess the myriad opportunities for change that are available to different actors, and set out key steps to transformation. We discuss the need to address the environmental issues together, to transform the economic and financial systems, and to address energy, food, water, health and cities. 

We very explicitly recommend certain actions, and go just half a step further than IPBES or IPCC in our recommendations. IPBES and IPCC are very careful to be policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive. Our report could be viewed to be a little bit more prescriptive.

Who is the report aimed at?

The report discusses what actions can be taken by national governments, international organizations, financial organizations, NGOs, the private sector, the media and individuals.

Key actors are executive bodies and governments, at the national level. We address issues of environmental policy, legislation, and funding, commitments under the Paris climate agreement, biodiversity conservation and restoration, air and water quality, human health and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The idea of the report is to look clearly at what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re going to get there, and so we use the SDGs as a major step to getting there. We also discuss many of the same issues for each of the other key actors.

What picture is unfolding on how we’re doing?

The report assesses what progress is being made to achieve the Paris climate goal of limiting changes in temperature to well below 2oC relative to pre-industrial levels, the biodiversity Aichi targets, WHO air quality standards, and the SDGs. We assess the degree to which we are currently not on path to achieve any of these targets, but also show that these targets can be achieved through a series of transformative changes.

The report was planned before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Has that affected your thinking, particularly given that a lot of countries are preparing economic recovery packages right now?  

We mention COVID, and we note that many governments are putting economic recovery packages together and that there’s an opportunity to do so more sustainably, but we would have been saying the same things with or without COVID. But COVID is making a lot of governments rethink how to address the  economic recovery. The idea of preventing these kind of pandemics in the future – not just responding to them – is high in people’s minds.

It is clear that we’re not on track to stay under 1.5°C. What now needs to happen to meet the ambition of the Paris agreement?

It’s very clear that we’re not on a pathway to a 1.5°C or even a 2°C world and therefore the pledges have to be significantly strengthened, by factors of 3 and 5, and much deeper emissions reductions have to be agreed on.

In a recent paper I co-authored – The Truth Behind the Climate Pledges – we assessed every one of the emissions pledges in the world and we pointed out that only a few countries in the world are taking actions that would give us a chance to be on a 1.5 to 2°C pathway, predominately the European Union and a few others. Most of the actions would put us on a pathway to well above 2°C, and based on the current pledges, it’s probable that emissions in 2030 would be very similar to emissions today.

To get on an optimised 1.5°C pathway, we would need to reduce emissions by about 50% by 2030 relative to today. To get on a pathway to 2°C, we would need to reduce  emissions in 2030 by about 25% relative to today. Obviously the more we do now, the easier it is to get there later. If we delay action, then we really have to do more in the future, including using negative emissions technologies.

The bottom line is that the pledges next year have to be significantly strengthened. There are lots of countries that have pledges that are definitely a step in the right direction. We need to encourage them, but many of those pledges will probably not be met. First, we have to at least achieve the current pledges and then strengthen them and implement them quickly. This is a crucial issue, not only for the Convention on Climate Change, but also the Convention on Biological Diversity. As IPBES clearly pointed out, while climate change is probably only the third major direct driver of biodiversity loss, land degradation and overexploitation are currently the most important, it’s not inconceivable that in the coming decades, climate change will be at least as important – or even more important – than the other drivers, so getting to grips with the emissions of greenhouse gases is absolutely crucial for both issues.

As you say, a lot of the assessments that have been released in recent years have had similar conclusions. The science is clear. Where should scientists now focus their efforts to help support action?

The scientific community has a major role to play. While there is a lot we know – enough to make our policies more sustainable, and to make better use of technology – there are still scientific uncertainties. We need to continue to develop really good regional models of climate change and regional projections, so that we can project what the impacts will be at the regional level – for example on agriculture, water resources, human health and biodiversity.

We need to think through the policies, technologies and practices that will be effective, cost-effective and socially acceptable for mitigating and adapting to climate change. With regards to biodiversity, we need to look at the effects of different pressures: we can’t just look at the effect of land degradation or climate change, for example. We need models that can simultaneously look at different drivers and their implications for the development challenges of food, water, energy security and human health. The better the understanding of the interactions between the drivers, among the environmental issues and with the development issues, the more efficiently governments can put in place evidence-based policies.

We need to continue to work on technology. For example, asking whether renewable solar energy could provide opportunity for effective desalination of water at an affordable price. Given that we are depleting our ground water everywhere in the world, and that we’re also going to have very large changes in precipitation and evaporation patterns all over the world, issues of water are going to be a real challenge. What policies do we need to put in place, such as water pricing policies? What technologies really help, all the way from collecting rainwater to desalinization?

We need to co-design our research, and our assessments, with the academic community and the users of knowledge, and where possible co-produce them. We have to communicate the results.

There still needs to be space for ‘blue sky’ or fundamental research, but equally, a very big space for societally relevant research that can address the big policy questions and the big needs for society, and ask what their questions are.

Multi- and transdisciplinary research is absolutely essential. For example, for looking at issues of biodiversity and even on the impacts of climate change indigenous knowledge and local knowledge can have a major role. We really need to make sure that we are working in an appropriate manner with indigenous peoples and local communities, on projects that are truly collaborative. If universities, governments and other researchers are working with indigenous people, it’s essential that indigenous people themselves really consent and get something out of the project too.

The challenge for scientists is whether the funding agencies, universities and journals are really structured for multi- and inter-disciplinary science. To move forward we need to think through the whole endeavour so that it’s appropriately structured for scientists and the kind of science we need.


Bob Watson

Currently leading the Scientific Advisory Group for the UNEP Global Assessments Synthesis Report. He is former Chair of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).


Heading photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash.

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