UN climate scientists warn of escalating emissions, call for action

14 April 2014

The UN panel on climate change released findings from a new report on climate mitigation on Sunday, indicating that manmade greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have ballooned more quickly between the years 2000-2010 than in any of the three previous decades.

Should current policies continued unchanged, climate scientists predict with high confidence that global mean surface temperatures in 2100 will soar to between 3.7 to 4.8 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels.

"There is a clear message from science: to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual," said Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the working group responsible for writing the report.

In order to stabilise the situation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for large-scale emissions reductions from energy production and use, transport, buildings, industry, land use, and human settlements.

Based on the work of 235 contributing authors from 57 countries, as well as input from an additional 180 experts, the report stresses that technological measures and changes in behaviour are essential in order to stay below an internationally agreed two degree Celsius rise compared with pre-industrial levels.

The summary for policymakers says that countries will need to strive for a global reduction of emissions by 40 to 70 percent compared with 2010 by mid-century to make good on their warming pledge.

The findings are based on analysis of around 1200 scenarios drawn from scientific literature, generated by 31 modelling teams located across the globe. The scenarios test the economic, technological, and institutional needs of various mitigation pathways with different degrees of ambition, along with their ramifications.

Mitigation, together with adaptation, form part of Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Under this mechanism, 197 countries are in talks to seal a global climate action agreement next year in Paris, France.

Shifting to renewables, intensifying afforestation

The mitigation report identifies a proliferation of coal use in the global energy mix during the first decade of this century as one of the main factors exacerbating emissions growth. An urgent beefing up of renewables is called for, along with the warning that global emissions must move towards zero in the long term.

"The stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations at low levels requires a fundamental transformation of the energy supply system, including the long-term phase-out of unabated fossil fuel conversion technologies and their substitution by low-GHG alternatives," the report warns.

The UN panel underlines that a transition to a low-carbon economy will require significant changes in investment patterns. The authors tentatively predict that investment in renewables associated with the electricity supply sector will increase by US$147 billion, while financial flows to traditional fossil fuel energy sources will decline by around US$30 billion.

Recent estimates of global climate finance - funds provided to developing countries to help them stem and cope with the effects of climate change - are pitted at around US$343-385 billion a year, most of which goes towards mitigation. Of this, between US$35-49 billion in 2011 and 2012 constituted public flows, while international climate finance is valued between US$10-72 billion over the period 2008-2011.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Ednehofer said that the most immediate need is to end "the renaissance of fossil fuels, particularly coal for power generation in China, India, and elsewhere, that we have seen over the past decade or so."

"To solve that problem, we need to put a price on carbon, which reflects the emerging scarcity of disposal space for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," he continued.

Reducing energy consumption is also highlighted as an important step, helping to diversify the choice of low-carbon energy technologies.

On the other hand, the summary indicates that while carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies exist and are in operation today in the fossil fuel industry, they have not yet been applied to a large scale and barriers remain to full deployment. The summary continues by suggesting that harnessing CCS will require policy outlining short- and long-term responsibilities for storage, as well as offering economic incentives.

Slowing unsustainable tree harvests and enhancing afforestation is spotlighted by the IPCC report as another alternative measure to soak up GHG from the air.

Pricing climate mitigation

Counting the cost of climate mitigation, the report finds that ambitious action would reduce business-as-usual growth by around 0.06 percentage points a year, with other scenario cost-estimates varying. The authors caution, however, that these numbers do not take into account potential economic gains brought about by emissions reduction activity.

These economic losses are small when compared with the potential disastrous impacts of climate change, as well as rising economic wealth, the summary continues. Furthermore, acting quickly would reduce the costs of mitigation efforts, while delays will substantially increase cost and limit options.

The economics of mitigation - and adaptation - has been particularly rancorous in international climate negotiations. According to The New York Times, divisions on the subject were evident in the final stages of drafting the IPCC report, with some emerging economies insisting on stripping charts from the executive summary that might have prompted calls for augmented efforts from their camp. Rich countries also reportedly threw up red flags around stronger language on climate finance.

Speaking at the report's release, Edenhofer nevertheless reiterated its emphasis that climate mitigation would require substantial international cooperation.

"Climate change is a global commons problem," said Edenhofer. "International cooperation is key for achieving mitigation goals. Putting in place the international institutions needed for cooperation is a challenge in itself."

In a positive sign, certain high-level officials were quick to welcome the report's findings. "This report makes very clear we face an issue of global willpower, not capacity," said US Secretary of State John Kerry.

EU climate chief Connie Hedegaard similarly welcomed the release. "The report is clear: there really is no plan B for climate change," she said. "There is only a plan A: collective action to reduce emissions now."

Sunday's report is the final part of a climate trilogy by the international body. A report on the far-reaching impacts of climate change was published at the end of March, preceded by the first instalment in September 2013 which confirmed a 95 percent probability that rising emissions were primarily influenced by human activity. (See BioRes, 2 April 2014)

The trio represent the first climate update by the Nobel-prize winning panel since 2007, which was later slammed for overstating the impacts of climate change. A summary of the latest reports will be issued in October 2014, designed to serve as an objective guide for the ongoing international climate negotiations. A final full report of the mitigation section will be available on Wednesday.

ICTSD reporting; "UN climate study: still time to save the world," FINANCIAL TIMES, 13 April 2014, "Step up action to curb global warming, or risks rise - UN," REUTERS, 13 April 2014, "Climate Efforts Falling Short, U.N. Panel Says," THE NEW YORK TIMES, 13 April 2014.

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