Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 14 April 2014

New IPCC report sheds light on climate crisis

The UN panel on climate change has just released new reports which show the need for mitigation actions overall and in various sectors


Modern man, his lifestyles and the products he produces and use are responsible for a lot of the increase in the stock of Greenhouse Gas emissions in the atmosphere which has driven global warming.

There’s been an explosive growth of Greenhouse Gas emissions in the past few decades. The situation doesn’t seem to be improving despite more awareness that the climate crisis threatens life as we know it.

These are some reflections upon reading the latest report of the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), launched yesterday in Berlin.

I took part in the week-long meetings where over a hundred governments met with scientists to read, amend and adopt the IPCC’s summary report on climate mitigation.

It was the third IPCC report in its Fifth Assessment series.  The first, on physical science aspects, was completed last September. The second, on adaptation, was adopted in late March in Yokohama.

This third report was quite contentious, as it dealt with mitigation, including such sensitive topics as how much to reduce emissions, how it can be done, and how much this would cost.

The meetings were intense, as participants grappled with how best to portray the complexities of so many aspects to one of the world’s most pressing problems, and the atmosphere was tense, as governments fought on ways to explain who and what were to blame for the crisis, and how to share the burden of reducing emissions in the future.

The facts in the 33-page Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) were stark indeed, including that:

  • Half of all carbon dioxide emissions from 1750 to 2010 occurred in the last 40 years.  Cumulative carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, cement production and flaring by 1970 (since 1750) reached 420 giga tonne but this had tripled to 1,300 giga tonne in 2010, showing the tremendous increase in the past 40 years.  (One giga tonne is equivalent to one billion tonne);
  • Greenhouse gas annual emission was about 39 giga tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2000, but this grew about 1 giga tonne per year to reach a high of 49 giga tonne by 2010;
  • Without additional mitigation action to reduce emissions, the concentration of Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, driven by growth in population and economic activities, is expected to jump from 430 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2011 to 450 ppm by 2030 and 750-1,300 ppm by 2100;
  • This growth of emissions and concentration of greenhouse gases is projected to raise the global mean surface temperature in 2100 by 3.7 to 4.8 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial levels.  (The present temperature is about 0.8 degree above pre-industrial levels; a rise by over 2 degree is considered disastrous while a 4 degree rise would be catastrophic);
  • To keep global warming below 2 degrees relative to pre-industrial levels, the concentration of Greenhouse gases should not exceed 450 ppm of CO2 equivalent.  To attain this concentration (and not higher), this implies global greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 should be 40-70 per cent below the 2010 level, and near zero or below in 2100;
  • Governments have to do more in mitigation action than what they have pledged so far (at Cancun in 2010) as those pledges, if implemented, would only keep global temperature rise below 3 degrees relative to pre-industrial levels, which would have catastrophic effects since a level of 2 degrees or above is already disastrous.  

The SPM is a summary report, negotiated among governments and scientists, that is meant to tell policy makers in a few pages what an “underlying report” details in more than a thousand pages.

While the scientists are responsible for the contents of the underlying report, they together with the governments are jointly responsible for the SPM, which is why the IPCC is seen as such a powerful body.  There is buy-in by the governments for a report that is science-based but tempered (or diluted, depending on how one looks at it) by the views of a wide range of governments with diverse and often different views.

During the week, there was a lot of tension between government delegates of developed and developing countries as they interacted with some of the scientists.

The developing countries had the suspicion that many developed-country delegations wanted to highlight the role of the former (or the better off among them) in recent emissions growth, and thus prepare the ground for shifting the share of action away from themselves and onto the emerging economies.

These developing countries tried to exclude or limit texts and graphs in the summary report that they believed would unfairly blame them for generating the climate crisis, as in their view it is the developed countries that are mainly to blame as they are responsible for most of the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The governments present in Berlin were quite aware that the IPCC report will have influence over the negotiations in the UN Climate Convention, which is expected to result in a new legal regime in 2015.

The week’s events led one to conclude that the summary report for policy makers emerging from the IPCC is influenced by both science and politics. There has been a politicisation of the process of report making.

One of the useful things in the report is that it also summarises in a few pages the actions that can be taken to reduce emission. It provides the advantages of taking actions in various sectors, but also points out the disadvantages, barriers and costs of doing so.

The report gives useful summaries of the possible ways to limit or reduce emissions in energy generation and use, industry, transport, buildings, infrastructure, agriculture, forests and land use, and their positive effects.  And it also points out the barriers to these actions, and their possible negative effects.

The summary report has however little to say that is either new or useful on the big issues of how the governments can cooperate and take actions to cut emissions.

What kinds of agreements and understandings can they consider, that is fair and effective? What are the key issues that they need to resolve and why is it so hard to get the solutions?

Those are difficult questions and answering them properly was perhaps too much a task for the scientists or not in their mandate.

All in all, the IPCC has produced a valuable set of reports, that should be seen as a state of the art on where we know stand vis-à-vis the climate situation, and the difficult choices to be made to tackle the crisis overall and in different sectors and areas.