IPCC Report Demonstrates Disastrous Risks from Climate Change, Calls for Scaling Up Global Action

11 October 2018

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a long-awaited report on the expected impacts and trade-offs the international community will confront once global temperature increases reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as compared to two degrees. The report also highlighted the emission pathways to manage the risks and steer away from the most damaging outcomes. 

The report was made public following approval by all 195 governments at the IPCC’s 48th session, held from 1-6 October in Incheon, South Korea. 

Remaining at or under the 1.5 degree Celsius mark will require a global reduction in net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by around 2050, the report finds. If current practices continue, global temperature increases will hit 1.5 degrees Celsius as soon as 2040. 

“It is not impossible to limit global warming to 1.5°C, according to the new @IPCC_ch report. But it will require urgent, unprecedented & collective #ClimateAction in all areas. There is no time to waste,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said on Twitter this Sunday. 

The report was prepared on invitation from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in 2015. The decision followed the adoption of the Paris Agreement, through which parties agreed to work to limit global temperature increases to “well below” two degrees Celsius and seek not to surpass 1.5 degrees. 

The reference to the 1.5 degree Celsius limit stems from research and pressure from a grouping of small island developing states (SIDS), who are already facing increasing risks from a changing climate, and was first considered in the UNFCCC’s Cancún Agreements in 2010. 

The report, which includes a summary for policymakers, shines a light on what risks could be avoided with the 1.5 degree Celsius target relative to two degrees, and the types of changes that would be required to get there, focused on strengthening the global response to tackle climate change in the context of sustainable development and poverty reduction. The report brought together over 90 lead authors from 40 countries, drawing on more than 6000 scientific works. 

The findings have the potential to drive higher ambition efforts in international climate negotiations, underlining that current commitments made under the Paris Agreement do not equate to global temperature increases of below 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to a report issued by UN Environment last month, countries’ existing commitments under their nationally determined contributions would only yield one-third of the necessary cuts to emissions to stay within the two degree Celsius limit, with the agency calling the gap “alarmingly high.” 

The IPPC report will feed into discussions at the annual UN climate conference, taking place from 2-14 December in Katowice, Poland. The UNFCCC’s Twenty-Fourth Conference of the Parties (COP24) is meant to finalise the rulebook for the accord’s implementation in line with a previously agreed 2018 deadline and review progress since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 September 2018

The report will also be in the spotlight at the Talanoa Dialogue at COP24, which will inform the preparation of new or updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement ahead of the 2020 deadline, as well as the planned 2023 “global stocktake” to review how such domestic plans are supporting efforts to limit temperature increases. 

“Science alerts us to the gravity of the situation, but science also, and this special report in particular, helps us understand the solutions available to us,” said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC 48th Session of the IPCC, in his opening statement last week. 

“I believe the report could send us a clear signal for urgent global action to stop climate change,” said South Korean Minister of Environment Kim Eun-kyung in her welcoming speech at last week’s opening ceremony. 

“To hand over a better future to our next generation, it is imperative that we have a robust implementation framework for the Paris Agreement,” she said. “I hope the IPCC and the special report will serve as a strong platform on which the implementation framework could start to be built for the upcoming COP24.” 

Main findings 

The report warns that a warming of two degrees Celsius, compared to 1.5 degrees, would pose a higher risk to fisheries and the livelihoods that depend on them, increase flood risk, lower crop yields and nutritional content in tropical areas, and expose more people to extreme heat waves and susceptible to poverty. 

In numbers, the half-degree difference would add up to a five percent higher proportion of the global population exposed to climate-related water stress, with 410 million urban residents exposed to severe drought versus 356 million by 2100. 

There would already be a 10 centimetre difference in global sea level rise between the targets by 2100, the risks of which would impact millions of people, particularly those in small island developing states. The half-degree difference would also save coral reefs from being decimated, though it would not prevent all damage.   

“Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with two degrees Celsius would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health, and well-being, making it easier to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” said Priyardarshi Shukla, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III. 

These climate-related risks will endanger certain regions more than others, disproportionately affecting vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, where the threats posed to food security, water access, and extreme weather could further entrench poverty. 

The report estimates that the global economic costs of the damage of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming could reach US$54 trillion, swelling to US$69 trillion if the world continues to warm beyond two degrees Celsius. 

In particular, the report singles out low-income countries as the most exposed to adverse economic impacts, "projected to experience the largest impacts on economic growth due to climate change should global warming increase." 

The report also points to the complementarity between the pathways to staying below the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold and those to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where climate action can bring gains for health, poverty eradication, energy access, sustainable urbanisation, and food production.

Orchestrating a global response 

In order to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, the report calls for “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” requiring cross-sectoral transformation of the global economy. 

“The geographical and economic scales at which the required rates of change in the energy, land, urban, infrastructure, and industrial systems would need to take place, are larger, and have no documented historic precedent,” according to the report

An effective governance framework to enable a transition to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require action across multiple levels of government, the report says, involving raised climate public awareness and behavioural change, regional cooperation, steps to act on “climate-related trade barriers,” and international agreements including trade deals attuned to the SDGs. 

Other key elements highlighted by the report include ensuring accountability of non-state actors; multi-stakeholder partnerships; strengthened domestic institutional capabilities, particularly for developing countries; and improved climate monitoring mechanisms. 

The report weighed up policy actions including ending fossil fuel subsidies, enabling climate finance, and supporting technological innovation, and encouraged the linking of climate adaptation and mitigation to large-scale trends including global trade. 

The report also called for taxing carbon dioxide emissions or implementing a cap-and-trade scheme, a practice known as carbon pricing, estimating that an effective carbon price would range from US$135 to US$5500 per tonne of carbon emissions in 2030. According to the World Bank’s latest edition of its “State and Trends of Carbon Pricing” report, there were 51 carbon pricing initiatives either in place or forthcoming as of May 2018, some of which were at national and regional levels and others at sub-national level. 

It also encouraged shifting energy consumption. Reliance on coal as an electricity source would have to fall from nearly 40 percent today to between one and seven percent by 2050, while renewable energy such as wind and solar power would have to be scaled up to 67 percent from today’s 20 percent. 

Failure to reduce emissions sufficiently to meet the target would require retroactively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, consistent with the approach explained in the report as temporarily “overshooting,” and then working back down to the 1.5 degrees Celsius point. 

The authors note that certain carbon capture and storage technologies and other carbon scrubbing techniques, known as carbon dioxide removal, or CDR, are still experimental. Many of these techniques are also not yet commercially available at a sufficient scale. 

Political climate 

International cooperation to limit the effects of global temperature increases will require high levels of political engagement. However, experts say that political momentum will need to improve to achieve global action.

The report notes that technology-enabled economic growth and wealth creation has coincided with rising inequality and exclusion, with certain “regions locked in poverty traps that could fuel social and political tensions,” impacting the prospects for implementing pathways to 1.5 degrees Celsius and also for sustainable development.

“Whatever its potential long-term benefits, a transition to a 1.5 degrees Celsius world may suffer from a lack of broad political and public support, if it exacerbates existing short-term economic and social tensions, including unemployment, poverty, inequality, financial tensions, competitiveness issues, and the loss of economic value of carbon-intensive assets,” according to the report.

Last year, US President Donald Trump, who has questioned some aspects of climate science and promised to shore up the coal industry, pledged to withdraw the US, the world’s second largest economy and today the second largest GHG producer after China, from the Paris climate pact.

The first round of presidential elections in Brazil have seen the advancement of Jair Bolsonaro, who has equally promised in the event of his far-right party’s victory to withdraw the South American country from the accord. Brazil is not far behind the US, ranking as the number seven emitter globally. (For more on the Brazilian election, see related story, this edition) 

Both the US and Brazil added their voices to approving the report on Monday. However, bridging divergent views on how to present the scientific findings during the review process was reportedly challenging, keeping delegates working through the night on Friday.

Nobel economics prize recognises climate work

Also on Monday, hours after the release of the IPCC report, American economists William Nordhaus and Paul Romer were awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Studies.

Nordhaus has defended carbon pricing schemes as a core mechanism to fight climate change and developed a model to evaluate climate change costs, which acted as the basis for the UN report. Romer’s work has focused on the role that government policy can have in fostering technological innovation.

“There is basically no alternative to the market solution,” Nordhaus said Monday. 

“The policies are lagging very, very far — miles, miles, miles behind the science and what needs to be done,” Nordhaus said, according to the New York Times. “It’s hard to be optimistic. And we’re actually going backward in the United States with the disastrous policies of the Trump administration.”

The Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration suggested that the domestic economic harm from carbon emissions would amount to around US$7 per tonne by the end of the decade, previously estimated at US$50 per tonne under Obama-era models, according to the New York Times.

ICTSD reporting; “Trump Put a Low Cost on Carbon Emissions. Here’s Why It Matters,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 23 August 2018; “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN,” THE GUARDIAN, 8 October 2018; “Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 7 October 2018; “Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn,” CNN, 8 October 2018; “Report: we have just 12 years to limit devastating global warming,” VOX, 8 October 2018; “2018 Nobel in Economics Is Awarded to William Nordhaus and Paul Romer,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 8 October 2018.

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