Politicians you have been warned; IPCC Report spells out a potentially grim future

IPCC report points to grim future

The release of the IPCC 5th Assessment Synthesis Report this week is a stark reminder of the problems we face regarding climate change. But it’s not all doom and gloom; there is still time to do something about it. Affordable and feasible solutions are available. But will the report overcome political and economic obstacles that to date have failed to reduce emissions?

The report, which is the result of intensive scientific study carried out by 800 specialists, calls for the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels to be phased out by 2100. Failure to do so would result in climate change that will result in severe, pervasive and irreversible damage.

The purpose of the report is to brief policy makers worldwide in advance of the next treaty on climate change scheduled for 2015. It addresses observed changes and their causes; the risks and impacts of future climate change; future pathways; and adaption and mitigation.

Essentially the report restates that:

  • Global warming is unequivocal as is human influence on climate change
  • The warmest 30 year period in the last 1,400 years was from 1983 to 2012
  • We are already seeing ocean acidification, arctic ice melting, and reducing crop yields
  • Unless there is action, temperatures could rise to around 5 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures by the end of the century

The key points for policy makers include:

The report considers the options that are available to policy makers to mitigate climate change. These include limiting and prohibiting unrestricted emission of greenhouse gasses and removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.

To address the previously agreed target of less than 2 degrees C warming greenhouse gasses should be kept to 450 ppm or lower. As the current level is 430 ppm this is a huge challenge. It can only be achieved by large scale changes in the way we make use of energy and land.

We will need to improve energy efficiency considerably and rapidly, which includes at least tripling the amount of energy obtained from renewables, clean fossil energy, nuclear, and carbon capture by 2050.

While the cost of achieving this is variable, it can be funded by just a small fraction of projected economic growth. The IPCC estimated that the cost would be between 0.2 percent and 2 percent of the Global Domestic Product. However the goals that have already been pledged by individual countries by 2020 are inadequate; more substantial reductions will be needed if temperature changes are to be kept below 3 degrees C.

Reception

This is probably the most important report on climate change that the IPCC has published. The tone is one of a final warning, and so it is useful to look its impact on the global political stage.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that "Science has spoken; there is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side." He added that quick decisive action will be needed in order to ensure a better sustainable future, calling on investors to reduce their investment in fossil fuel and invest in renewable energy.

However, overall the political comment on the report seems to have been muted. There is little political motivation to make the wide scale changes that the report has demonstrated are necessary. Indeed, Poland and other eastern European countries have come out against the report in the last few days.

Worryingly, there is no indication that the forthcoming climate change conference will be any more successful than the 2009 Copenhagen meeting even though that was held against the backdrop of a collapsing world financial system.

One of the major challenges is that nations whose economies are dependent on cheap fossil fuels are unlikely to stop burning them. The major offenders include China, Russia and Australia, all of which have grown rapidly. While millions of people have been taken out of poverty, the global cost in terms of climate change is huge.

The pervading political attitude is that prosperous nations have already enjoyed their own industrial revolutions, so they don’t have the right to stop developing nations from doing the same. While there is little motivation in countries such as China for reducing emissions, other countries such as the US take this as an excuse not to take action to reduce their own emissions. Furthermore, the concerns of countries with the most immediate threat from increasing oceans levels, such as the Maldives, are essentially ignored.

With a global recession recently left behind, the political agenda remains obsessed with growth, and growth is sustained by cheap abundant energy. Even Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, has said "there’s never been a country that has developed with intermittent power."
Will the IPCC report make a difference or is the outlook as grim as the lack of political enthusiasm on controlling greenhouse emissions suggests? The scientists have completed their work, now it’s up to the politicians to take action.

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