The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published a vital wake-up call to the world to take the urgent action to limit global warming to 1.5°C, and avoid huge and potentially irreversible damage. The Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has disparaged the report and on front page headlines on Tuesday trumpets miners over scientists. But the evidence is in and the expectations for our climate are dire.
A highly emotional final plenary of 195 countries in Incheon, Republic of Korea, last Saturday approved the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.
“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as loss of some ecosystems,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, as he launched the report.
This is the first time that the IPCC has explicitly examined the consequences of limiting emissions to such an extent. Previously the focus was more on 2°C, but the increasing accuracy of climate models and the recent damage caused by already-happening climate change have provoked it to take seriously the long-heard calls from Pacific Island states and other low-lying regions to avoid complacency and set the target at 1.5°.
Currently, the world average temperature is 1°C about preindustrial levels and already we are experiencing many more extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts, and unprecedented melting in polar regions, giving some impression of what a further 1°C rise could bring.
“The good news is that some of the kinds of actions that would be needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C are already underway around the world, but they would need to accelerate,” explained Valerie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I, at the launch.
“It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” added Debra Roberts, co-chair of Working Group II. “This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.
The report highlights the substantial advantages of limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C, or more: by 2100, we are 50 per cent more likely to save many of the habitats upon which pollinating insects depend, and without which humanity’s food supplies will plummet; corals would be 70-90 per cent lost rather than 99 per cent; global sea level rise would be 10cm lower; and the Arctic Ocean would be free of sea ice in summer just per century rather than at least once per decade.
Limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities, the report says
Global net human caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching “net zero” around 2050.
This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing carbon dioxide from the air.
“Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III.
Debra Roberts, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II added that the report “gives policymakers and practitioners the information they need to make decisions that tackle climate change while considering local context and people’s needs.
“The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” she emphasised. “Frankly, if we don’t act now, the future is scary.”
There were fears during the negotiations, that the text of the report would be watered down by the USA, Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries, but in the end, this did not transpire.
Refugees not mentioned, nor irreversible tipping points in the Arctic
Even though there is a hint of panic amidst the dry scientific text in the report, Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, called it “incredibly conservative” because it does not refer to the probable increase in climate change refugees or the probabilities of tipping points of the sort that would lead to an irreversible path of extreme warming, for example the melting of Arctic tundra which is already releasing vast quantities of climate-warming methane into the atmosphere.
Prepared under the scientific leadership of all three IPCC working groups: Working Group I (physical science of climate change); II (impacts, adaptation and vulnerability); and III (mitigation), the report will be a key scientific input into December’s Katowice Climate Change Conference in Poland, COP19, when the world’s governments review the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change.
What can we do?
A price on carbon is urgently required.
Allowing the global average temperature to temporarily exceed 1.5°C would involve substantial deployment of technologies and practices that remove CO2from the air to return global temperature to below 1.5°C by 2100.
These include returning carbon into the soil through an increase in organic growing; planting many more trees and conserving existing forests; construction techniques that sequester carbon dioxide in buildings and infrastructure; and currently non-commercialised technologies such as turning carbon dioxide produced from industrial activities into new commodities, or simply burying it safely underground.
Any costs must be balanced against the necessary and valuable benefits, the report says: “It would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being, making it easier to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,”, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III Priyardarshi Shukla said. The risk of food supply and hunger would be drastically reduced; there would be a concomitant decrease in refugees; and a reduction in damage to infrastructure and casualties especially in coastal regions.
The Russians and Europeans continue to chase fossil fuels; China wants to use IPCC report to “do something big” for climate
The principal challenge is persuading governments and fossil fuel companies to change course. Many countries are still pushing ahead with new exploration and exploitation for fossil fuel reserves, such as Russia and Norway in the Arctic, Britain’s push for fracking, and Germany’s ambition to remove its Hambach forest to access coal deposits.
China, though, in the past often referred to as the bête noire of greenhouse gas emitters, is seeking to change rapidly. Jiang Kejun of the country’s Energy Research Institute, and one of the authors said that he wants “to use this report to do something big in China”.
IPCC reaction in Australia
Greenpeace Australia Pacific head of campaigns, Jamie Hanson, said: “If this isn’t a wake-up call, nothing is.
“If Scott Morrison, Bill Shorten, and their state colleagues really give a stuff about our Pacific neighbours, or indeed about our low-lying coastal cities, which are in the firing line too, then they’ll get their acts together, and get us off fossil fuels. They’ll close our ageing coal fleet. They’ll make the necessary grid upgrades before flooding the market with abundant and cheap renewable energy. They’ll put in place incentives for folks to be buying solar, battery storage and electric cars.”
Australian Labor Party’s acting energy spokeswoman Penny Wong re-emphasised her party’s 45 per cent emissions reduction target and accused the Morrison government of having “absolved themselves from any responsibility in tackling climate change”.
Morrison himself parried the IPCC’s special report and told broadcaster Alan Jones that the report “does not provide recommendations to Australia or Australia’s program” but rather is “dealing with the global program”. He expressed confidence that the country will meet its target under the Paris Agreement of a 26-28 per cent cut in emissions by 2030.
Mark Wakeham, chief executive of Environment Victoria, said that “analysis shows Australia’s federal policies are leading to an alarming increase in pollution and are consistent with 3 to 4 degrees of warming. We are already seeing the impact of the current 1°C average rise in global temperatures. Eastern Australia is bracing for another horrific fire season following record heat and well below average rainfall. Our federal government is failing us.”
Oxfam Australia’s climate change adviser Dr Simon Bradshaw agreed: “This landmark report … reveals the extraordinary gap between Australia’s current commitments to tackling climate change and the scale and pace of action needed.
“For Australia, this means no new coal, a shift to 100 per cent renewable energy as soon as possible, and reaching zero emissions well before mid-century.”
He called upon Australia to join the Marshall Islands, Fiji, New Zealand and the UK in the Powering Past Coal alliance.
The IPCC report analyses where win-win strategies provide opportunities for great benefits in tackling the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the same time as tackling climate change.
These are particularly significant in the campaigns to end world hunger, poverty, provide universal clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy for all, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, and to protect life on land
It also examines four different scenarios. One of these is more or less business as usual, which sees a high overshoot of temperature increase. A relatively achievable no or low overshoot scenario requires a 41 per cent emissions reduction relative to 2010 by 2030; after an intermediary scenario, the most desirable and optimistic scenario paints a world of rising living standards for everyone brought about by social, business and technological innovations, especially in the global South, with rapid decarbonisation and afforestation; this requires a 58 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.
As the scenarios increase in emission reduction ambition, there is less and less need for reliance on unproven carbon capture and storage
To meet the 1.5 degree target, coal consumption would need to be cut by at least two thirds by 2030 and fall to almost zero in electricity production by 2050. Renewables would grow up to 85 per cent of electricity supply, with trends showing even higher potential. The report finds that the substantial improvement in solar, wind and electricity storage technologies could be a sign that a system transition has already started.
Natural climate solutions such as forest protection and reforestation have the potential to provide over a third of the cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed through 2030 for a 2 degree target, implying a high potential for 1.5 degrees too.
Peter Bakker, president and CEO at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a member of the Nature4Climate coalition, observed that: “If applied now, nature could help us capture over 30 per cent of the emission reductions needed. Stopping deforestation, protecting natural carbon sinks and restoring damaged habitats – these are not concepts. These are solutions we can and must roll out today.”
However, this “will require unprecedented funding and coordination. The private sector has a significant role to play in accelerating and financing these solutions. To help achieve the necessary impact, we’re working with key players in the business and NGO communities to mobilize investment in natural climate solutions”
“Will we get there in time? Nobody knows. It’s uncharted territory we’re heading into,” said Kaisa Kosonen, senior policy advisor at Greenpeace Nordic. “What matters now is that we decide to try and that we make it our absolute priority. Only then do we have a chance to protect ourselves from the devastating impacts that science says would start accelerating after 1.5 degrees.”
Global Warming of 1.5°Cis the first in a series of Special Reports to be produced in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Cycle. Next year the IPCC will release the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, and Climate Change and Land, which looks at how climate change affects land use.