The IPCC conference in Yokohama, Japan

31 March 2014 — There will be no person untouched by climate change, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has found. In Australia, this includes decreased agricultural production, increased loss of life and property through extreme weather events, and over $200 billion of property assets at risk due to sea level rise.

The Fifth Assessment Report of Working Group II released today [Tuesday] focuses on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability relating to climate change.

“Why should the world pay attention to this report?,” asked IPCC chairman Dr Rajendra Pachauri at the paper’s launch in Yokohama, Japan, which was broadcast live.

“I would like to emphasise in view of these impacts, nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”

While the paper strengthened evidence that climate change was occurring as a result of human activity, it was the increased evidence that climate change was already affecting natural and human systems that was key to the report.

“We live in a world that is already altered by climate change,” said Christopher Field, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II.

“Around the world, everywhere you look, there are impacts of climate change that have already occurred.”

One of the most profound changes already experienced was a dramatic decline in “two of the world’s most important food crops”: wheat and maize, which in the context of a growing global population was of major concern. Adaptation measures were crucial to ensuring global food supply, and avoiding displacement and conflict.

“The report is in and the message is clear: the impact of climate change on food is worse than previously estimated,” Oxfam’s Dr Simon Bradshaw said.

“Climate change will continue to hit crop harvests hard in the future, at the same time as demand for food is increasing. You don’t need to be a climate scientist to know that falling crop yields and rising demand does not add up to a food secure future on this planet.”

A map was released with the report, showing the effects of climate change already suffered around the globe, including physical systems, biological systems, and human and managed systems.

Mr Field said the central theme of the report was that climate change was a problem about managing risk.

“We need to think about reducing risk and building more resilient societies,” Mr Field said.

“We need to transform the realisation of the risk into a platform for action.”

Impacts for Australia

The report found eight key regional risks for the 21st century:

  • significant change in community composition and structure of coral reef systems in Australia
  • loss of montane ecosystems and some native species in Australia
  • increased frequency and intensity of flood damage to settlements and infrastructure
  • constraints on water resources in southern Australia
  • increased morbidity, mortality and infrastructure damages during heat waves
  • increased damages to ecosystems and settlements, economic losses and risks to human life from wildfires in most of southern Australia
  • increasing risks to coastal infrastructure and low-lying ecosystems in Australia and New Zealand from continuing sea level rise, with widespread damages towards the upper end of projected changes
  • significant reduction in agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin and far south-eastern and south-western Australia if scenarios of severe drying are realised

The built environment

Increased flooding, both in frequency and intensity, was expected for Australia, the report stated.

“Planning for sea-level rise has evolved considerably over the past two decades and shows a diversity of approaches, although its implementation remains piecemeal,” it stated.

Professor Barbara Norman, director of Canberra Urban and Regional Futures at the University of Canberra, said the report showed it was no longer business as usual for the built environment, and an adaptation strategy was crucial.

“There are major implications for the location of new development, redevelopment and infrastructure,” Professor Norman said. “Planning systems throughout Australia need to be revised to include the impacts of climate change.”

She said that while the location of new urban growth corridors and major infrastructure had long-term consequences, the Queensland, NSW and Victorian governments were removing climate change impacts as a consideration.

“Investment in adaptation research is essential to inform critical long-term housing and infrastructure investment decisions,” Professor Norman said.

“The lack of an adaptation strategy for Australia is making it very difficult for small local councils to implement a consistent and coordinated approach across Australia. We need an adaptation strategy for Australia agreed to by all levels of government in consultation with industry and affected communities.

“The extent of impacts may mean shifting from incremental change to transformational adaptation, for example, no development in high-risk areas.”

Dr Kathleen McInnes, a member of CSIRO’s sea level rise and coasts team, said that oceans would rise between 0.28-0.98 metres by 2100 across all emissions scenarios. She noted that this rise would not stop at 2100.

In Australia over $226 billion of assets, including 274,000 residential buildings and 8600 commercial buildings, would be affected by sea level rise of 1.1 metres.

Mitigation is crucial

While adaptation and resilience measures were becoming increasingly important, mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions was still crucial.

“The ability on human society to move to climate resilient pathways depends on extent to which we are prepared to mitigate greenhouse gas,” said Dr Pachauri.

The Climate Institute’s John Connor said that reducing carbon pollution would reduce the scale of climate change.

“Australia’s carbon pollution is expected to increase substantially in the years ahead if we don’t have clear limits and safeguards in place,” Mr Connor said.

Current government policy, however, was not up to the task.

“State and federal preparations for a more hostile climate is patchy, poorly coordinated, and not up to the scale and urgency of the task.”