The UN’s climate panel says that we can still mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, and at little cost
While the world might sometimes seem to be on an accelerating path towards dangerous climate change, there is still time enough to avoid the most catastrophic impacts, and at minimal disruption to the world economy, according to a new report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
For the first time, governments have a detailed roadmap for effective climate action – including a panoply of technological options along with their associated costs.
This new piece of work follows two earlier reports, the first released in Stockholm in September 2013, on the scientific basis for climate change concerns, and the second in Yokohama in March 2014 about impacts, adaptations and vulnerabilities.
While the first two set out the problems, in its latest report the IPCC says that mitigation can be affordable. In fact, rather than killing off the economy, a shift towards renewable energy would trim just 0.06 of a percentage point from projected annual economic growth.
“There are some steps we can take to resolve this issue, and in that sense … there are huge technological challenges but also modest hope,” says German economist Ottmar Edenhofer, who headed the IPCC team that drafted the new report.
Cutting carbon emissions from electricity production to near zero is a common feature of ambitious mitigation scenarios outlined by the IPCC. Energy supply and industry alone account for three-quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions. Using energy efficiency is also important, as is the elimination of subsidies for fossil fuels, estimated at $1.7tn worldwide. Slowing deforestation and planting forests can greatly contribute by reversing other significant emissions from land use.
A big change in the past decade has been the increased availability of cost-effective renewable energies such as solar and wind. The price of solar panels, for example, has fallen more than 75% just since 2008, says Jan Kowalzig, a senior adviser on climate change at Oxfam Germany. There’s an ever growing and comprehensive array of literature to back up the IPCC findings, and therefore much greater confidence today in drawing up low-carbon pathways.
If anything, the findings in the new IPCC mitigation report are conservative, says Kowalzig, because the cut-off date for contributory literature on renewable energies was in 2011. Development costs have since come down further. “So the actual picture is even better,” he says.
On the road to cutting carbon emissions, shale gas can be used as a bridge technology, but if there is an increase in the supply of conventional fossil fuels it will ultimately prove to be unhelpful, the report says. It consistently includes nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS) in its decarbonising scenarios, even while pointing out barriers and risks that preclude their immediate wide-spread deployment. Effective CCS technology is still some way off.
“Our core message – the first message – is that emissions are increasing, increasing and increasing further,” says Edenhofer. “We see quite clearly that if we stay on the current path, the global temperature will increase by 3.72C [by 2100].”
Governments have committed to limit temperature rises to a maximum 2C above pre-industrial levels, to avert the worst consequences of climate change such as more heatwaves, floods, droughts and rising sea levels. When exactly the world will cross this threshold is difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, the IPCC has identified 2030 as a point of no return, on current trajectories, for the 2C target, thus providing a 15-year window in which to take action.
The second message, says Edenhofer, is the need for a “broad portfolio of technologies,” with the focus on renewables such as wind and solar supplemented by sustainable agriculture and investments in nuclear and CCS where appropriate. The point is to provide a range of options with costs and associated emissions curves that can be substantiated by government policymakers.
Thirdly, action cannot be delayed, because the longer we wait, the more expensive and risky decarbonisation becomes.
Edenhofer says this last point on timeframes and costs has particular resonance for newly industrialising and developing countries that often believe climate policy delays economic growth. The IPCC calculation that drastic climate change adaptation would not hit economic growth significantly suggests this is not the case. And the potential crisis from the serious medium and long term effects of climate change could be significant.
Climate change economics
So, have the economics of climate change really changed that much? Critics such as Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg, a renowned opponent of strong mitigation action, don’t think so. While a full cost-benefit analysis using known technologies may be justified, in an interview with broadsheet newspaper The Australian, Lomborg faults the IPCC for assuming that “all countries of the world begin mitigation immediately, there is a single global carbon price, and all key technologies are available”.
The IPCC mitigation report is, indeed, based on a series of assumptions that include international coordinated action, as well as the introduction of a carbon pricing and the wide availability of certain technologies. Begin taking immediate aggressive action and the IPCC panel says by the year 2100 the world could once again see atmospheric carbon subside to 450 parts per million – a level linked to a tolerable rise in temperature of 2C.
But as Edenhofer pointed out in his press conference in Berlin, the options laid out by the panel are only a roadmap of scenarios linked to varying carbon budgets. When CCS is not available, for example, the need for measures such as afforestation and reforestation increase.
Similarly, there are options around carbon pricing. “The IPCC doesn’t say a global carbon price is the most appropriate measure,” argues Samantha Smith, head of the global climate and energy initiative at WWF International. “It talks about different ways to drive the transition [to lower emissions].”
Smith adds: “When you directly regulate – when you set renewable energy targets and say ‘coal plants need to be closed down’ – you are implying a very high price of carbon already. You don’t need a market to tell you that. You just need the ability to set targets and implement them.”
And while business can and must take action, the focus of the 1,200-page mitigation report lies in governments accepting the need for intervention.
“Business is not the main target of this report,” says Stephan Singer, director of global energy policy at WWF International. “There’s lots of helpful information in the underlying chapters on industries on various technologies … but it needs to be legislated.”
And China is one country where necessary measures are being made. Already the Chinese have passed groundbreaking energy efficiency measures, while also proceeding through direct regulation of their coal sector, says Li Shuo of Greenpeace China. Their actions – in the form of coal control measures in 12 provinces – total 655m tonnes of coal consumption reduction by 2017 and equate to Poland and France’s annual emissions added together.
The impetus, severe air pollution episodes bothering large parts of eastern China, present a tangible co-benefit of robust climate control measures that the IPCC did not factor into its report. Add to these co-benefits the economic case for installed wind and solar energy and suddenly “you change the whole idea of climate change from being a burden to being an opportunity”, Shuo says.
Such individual state action is most certainly needed. The real test, however, may come at the international level, where acceptance of the need for coordination remains lacking.
“Governments can still reject it,” says Jan Kowalzig of Oxfam Germany, “but now they would be acting against what science says is both economically viable and beneficial.”
Climate change impacts – the IPCC conclusions
The IPCC’s report on climate impacts, adaptations and vulnerabilities, issued in March 2014, says that profound climate effects are already being felt around the world, and are likely to get much worse.
The report predicts increased global hunger and higher food prices linked to shortages in climate-sensitive crops such as wheat and corn.
Although steps are being taken to adapt and build resilience to current and future climate stresses, the report argues that in many regions of the world, planning has been far short of what’s needed.
“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” argues the IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri.
Among the highlights of the report:
- Overall, the costs from the impacts of climate change are expected to outweigh the benefits. As much as 2% of global income could be lost as a result of warming of 2.5C. The IPCC says it is difficult to accurately assess costs for warming beyond 2.5C, but anticipates that many impacts become worse with more warming.
- Poor, marginalised and rural communities are likely to be hit hardest by climate impacts. For these vulnerable groups, climate change acts as a “risk multiplier” worsening existing social, economic, political and environmental stresses.
- There is no “one size fits all” solution for adaptation – approaches will need to be tailored to the stresses, vulnerabilities and resources that exist at the local and regional level.
- Mitigation action taken now can significantly reduce the risks that we will face at the end of the 21st century.
- The body of literature upon which the report draws more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, demonstrating the growth in research focused on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation.