OPINION: IPCC’s verdict means ‘no time to lose’
This week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us how the world is performing on climate mitigation – and what needs to happen next. Sam Bickersteth, CDKN Chief Executive, and Mairi Dupar, CDKN Global Public Affairs Coordinator, reflect on the IPCC’s messages and how they reinforce what CDKN has learned about climate compatible development.
The window of opportunity for avoiding climate catastrophe is closing fast
The latest report from the IPCC delivers sobering news. Greenhouse gas emissions are growing faster than ever before. At this rate, the world’s ‘carbon budget’ will be exhausted in just a few years – that’s the amount of greenhouse gases we can afford to emit and keep the global average temperature rise below relatively ‘safe’ levels of 2oC.
According to Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, human society is churning out 49 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases with equivalent warming power) every year. Last year, the IPCC’s volume on the physical science of climate change reported that a carbon budget of 800-1,000 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent was the most we could emit if we are more likely than not to stay within two degrees. And we have already ‘spent’ 500 gigatonnes – more than half of this amount. Emissions must drop extremely fast to stay within the remaining budget. If we keep emitting at present rates, the world is on track for average warming of 3.7 – 4.8oC by the end of the century.
Low carbon energy use must triple or quadruple
Most of the recent emissions surge has come from burning fossil fuels (especially coal) and industrial processes. Together, these count for more than three quarters of total world emissions. The IPCC calls for a tripling or quadrupling of low carbon energy use, to transform economies before it’s too late. And much of the new zero and low carbon investment must be in non-OECD countries where vital infrastructure development is still to be done. In these countries, what the IPCC calls high carbon ‘lock-in’ hasn’t occurred yet.
In other words, there is a chance to invest directly in zero and low carbon technologies to meet countries’ development needs: bypassing inefficient and polluting fossil fuel alternatives. We note that several developing countries have already spotted this silver lining, such as Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, which are all working hard to attract investment in clean technologies that will drive their future competitiveness.
The IPCC says that the cost of taking aggressive mitigation action now is affordable, too: ‘equivalent to a reduction in consumption growth over the 21st century by about 0.06 (0.04-0.14) percentage points per year’ – and that is before you even calculate the costs of failing to mitigate. The bill for cleaning up the damage from more severe climate impacts would be far greater. (The island states of the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable; the CARICOM region estimates that climate impacts will cost its economies 22% of GDP by 2050 under a business as usual scenario).
Tackling greenhouse gas emissions can have many benefits for human development and wellbeing
The report has some good news – taking action to reduce greenhouse emissions can have all kinds of benefits – not just for economic growth (as above) but also for many other facets of human development. The report catalogues options for reducing emissions and simultaneously improving air quality, reducing traffic congestion, improving public health, and other co-benefits. This reinforces what we have observed anecdotally through CDKN’s programme.
Often it is not the climate mitigation benefits that ‘sell’ a policy to politicians or the public, but the co-benefits. For instance, we have noted how a desire to reduce economic dependence on costly imported fossil fuels has been a driver for renewable energy throughout the Caribbean region. CDKN’s working paper on Drivers and Challenges for Climate Compatible Development has more such examples. CDKN’s Chairman Simon Maxwell outlines how attractive co-benefits to mitigation action can be instrumental to winning the political argument on climate change.
CDKN’s project partners in a learning programme on subnational climate compatible development provide another example. Chiang Mai, northern Thailand’s cultural heart, has become increasingly clogged with dirty traffic, which fills the roads and reduces the quality of life for residents as well as tarnishing the experience for the millions of annual visitors. A CDKN-backed initiative to promote green tourism found that traffic reduction in the city centre, particularly around the cultural monuments, and conversion to non-motorised transport, would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide a more pleasant visitor experience, and create green jobs for local people.
The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report as a whole has highlighted the increasing evidence base for innovative approaches – similar to CDKN’s experiences above – that pursue development and climate benefits simultaneously. Indeed, the IPCC makes a convincing case that climate mitigation actions shouldn’t be seen as a standalone, they can and should be integral to development and can improve our quality of life now as well as securing a safer future. The IPCC’s mitigation report stresses the possibility for climate policies to reflect multiple societal objectives, including poverty reduction, biodiversity conservation and cultural values, and says “distributional weights, which take account of the different value of money to different people, should be applied to monetary measures of benefits and harms.”
Good governance is needed to mitigate climate change — without adverse impacts
Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the IPCC’s assessment of Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation stressed the need for climate adaptation actions to be very site-specific. In this latest volume on Mitigation of Climate Change, we learn that mitigation measures need careful tailoring to their context, too. Climate mitigation isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and needs careful design, as well as ongoing monitoring, because of the spillover effects that it has for a society’s development.
Mitigation actions can risk undermining development and poverty reduction efforts and even working at cross-purposes to adaptation efforts, if they’re pursued headlong without careful assessment and management of the side effects. For example, a large scale renewable energy initiative such as a wind farm or a plantation for biofuel feedstock, could displace local livelihoods and access to resources, if designed the wrong way. Decision-makers will face tough choices on the uses of finite resources such as water and land, for their use among climate mitigation, adaptation and development needs.
The implications of the IPCC’s findings are that strong governance and institutions will be needed to establish what the trade-offs are, and manage the interests of all stakeholders across different levels of government, private sector and civil society – between mitigation and development benefits, between benefits for the short term and the long term. Knowledge exchange in support of creative, local solutions will be important for creating sustainable development pathways.
The global community must commit to far higher ambition in slashing emissions
At the international level, the IPCC will not be drawn on what the mitigation commitments by different countries should be – indeed, the IPCC’s requirement to be ‘policy relevant but not policy prescriptive’ precludes it from making such recommendations.
Its key messages leave obvious implications for the global political process, though: the IPCC has said categorically that the Cancun pledges for a safe climate future are insufficient, but could be the basis for something more ambitious. This is what, collectively, the 2015 Paris agreement must deliver. The report has profound implications for the UNFCCC process, and what public and private sectors must agree to pay for.
The IPCC’s Chairman, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, summed up the latest IPCC report with a simple analogy: “The report brings out the fact that the high speed mitigation train would need to leave the station very soon and all of global society would have to be on board.”