UN Climate Change Report: Now Down to Action

Vancouver, Canada (GLOBE-Net) - In less than two weeks leaders from around the world will gather to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto climate-change treaty. They will come well prepared - fresh on the heels of a forceful scientific report that concluded there is "unequivocal" evidence of human-induced global warming which if left unchecked will lead to a host of unpleasant impacts that will change the world as we know it. The report, released last week by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was a synthesis of three others released earlier this year. But the Synthesis Report goes one step further: it integrates the wealth of information on climate change into a document explicitly targeted to policymakers. This "how to" guide will be the single most important document at the U.N. climate conference, in Bali next month. As such it warrants our close attention.

As the report notes, the science related to climate change is vast and complex. Over 3,000 experts around the world laboured to collect, assess and process the huge volume of information reported on in the first three parts of "Climate Change 2007" ("The physical science basis" - February 07; "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability" - April 07; and "Mitigation of Climate Change" - May 07).

This fourth and final part of "Climate Change 2007" is explicitly targeted to policymakers. It integrates the wealth of scientific information into a concise, policy oriented document intended to guide decision making, and its timing is critical.

As noted by Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, "What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future … this is a defining moment."

With refreshing clarity, the Synthesis Report sets out what needs to be done to deal with climate change.  There are two dimensions involved: Mitigation Strategies - measures to reduce the human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, which the scientific consensus clearly links to global warming; and Adaptation Strategies - measures to reduce the negative consequences of coping with inevitable changes in the earth’s climate.

Mitigation Strategies

With respect to mitigation strategies, the report suggests the economic potential exists for these to offset the projected growth of global emissions or the coming decades, or even to reduce emissions below current levels. However, while top-down and bottom-up studies are in line at the global level, there are considerable differences at the sectoral level.  No single technology can provide all of the mitigation potential in any sector, notes the report.

"The economic mitigation potential, which is generally greater than the market mitigation potential, can only be achieved when adequate policies are in place and barriers removed."

A key area of concern relates to energy investment. The report notes future energy infrastructure investment decisions, expected to exceed 20 trillion US$ between 2005 and 2030, will have long-term impacts on GHG emissions, because of the long life-times of energy plants and other infrastructure capital stock. The widespread diffusion of low-carbon technologies may take many decades, even if early investments in these technologies are made attractive.

"Initial estimates show that returning global energy related CO2 emissions to 2005 levels by 2030 would require a large shift in investment patterns, although the net additional investment required ranges from negligible to 5-10%."

In the presentation that accompanied the release of the Synthesis Report, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri noted that a wide variety of policies and instruments to create the incentives for mitigation action are available to governments . These include integrating climate policies in wider development policies, regulations and standards, taxes and charges, tradable permits, financial incentives, voluntary agreements, information instruments, and research, development and demonstration (RD&D).

Furthermore, he stressed, stabilization levels of global warming can be achieved by the deployment of technologies that are either currently available or expected to be commercialized in coming decades. An effective carbon-price signal would also help unleash significant mitigation potential in all sectors.

The single most important message with respect to mitigation strategies that emerges from the Synthesis Report is that such strategies are entirely within our capabilities. Moreover, there are many opportunities associated with climate change mitigation that not only could lead to the betterment of the human condition, but which also could generate significant economic and financial benefits.

Adaptation Strategies

With respect to the issue of adapting to inevitable impacts of climate change, the report notes that while societies have a long record of managing the impacts of weather and climate-related events, more extensive adaptation than what is currently occurring will be required. Furthermore, notes the report, these additional adaptation measures will be required regardless of the scale of mitigation initiatives that will undertaken over the next two to three decades.

In addition, there are barriers, limits and costs, which are not fully understood and which are compounded by social, economic and geopolitical realities extant in the world today.

"Moreover, vulnerability to climate change can be exacerbated by other stresses. These arise from, for example, current climate hazards, poverty and unequal access to resources, food insecurity, trends in economic globalisation, conflict and incidence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS."

The report lays out the bare facts about inevitable climate change impacts then defines in broad terms the adaptation strategies that must be pursued to deal with them. It also lays out the constraints and opportunities associated with these strategies.

For example, it is virtually certain we will experience warmer and more frequent hot days and nights, more periods of warm spells and heat waves, greater risks of drought, more intense tropical cyclone activity, and increased incidences of extreme high sea levels. Like it or not, these changes are going to happen and no amount of gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands will change that fact.

What can and must change, however, is how we respond to these challenges.

For example, anticipated climate change impacts for North America include the following:

  • Warming in western mountains will cause decreased snow pack, more winter flooding, reduced summer flows, which will exacerbate competition for already over-allocated water resources;

  • In the early decades of the century, moderate climate change is projected to increase aggregate yields of rain-fed agriculture by 5-20%, but with important variability among regions. Major challenges are projected for crops that are near the warm end of their suitable range or which depend on highly utilized water resources;

  • Cities that currently experience heat waves can expect to be further challenged by the increased number, intensity and duration of heat waves during the course of the century, with a high potential for adverse health impacts;

  • Coastal communities and habitats will be increasingly stressed by climate change impacts interacting with development and pollution.

  • The main biophysical effects expected in the Polar Regions will be reductions in thickness and extent of glaciers and ice sheets and sea ice, and changes in natural ecosystems with detrimental effects on many organisms including migratory birds, mammals and higher predators;

  • For human communities in the Arctic, impacts, particularly those resulting from changing snow and ice conditions, will be mixed, but detrimental impacts can be expected on infrastructure and traditional indigenous ways of life.

The key point here is that none of these impacts are beyond our adaptive capacities or our technological capabilities. They will take time to implement; they will cost money; and they will require significant changes in our lifestyles. But they are all do-able, and can be linked to the progressive implementation of mitigation strategies both at the national and the international level.

Elsewhere in the world climate-related impacts may be more severe - in some cases catastrophic. As noted in an earlier news article globally we are living far beyond our means and because of a failure to remedy relatively simple problems which have been tackled elsewhere, the well-being of billions of people in the developing world is at risk. 

The crisis is not just about climate change, extinction rates and hunger, but includes other problems driven by growing human numbers, the rising consumption of the rich and the desperation of the poor. Examples of some projected regional impacts. The challenges of climate change adaptation, particularly in the developing world, are complex and enormous. But the solutions are within our capabilities.

The Synthesis Report set out in a series of brief but comprehensive tables that point out the areas in which mitigation strategies must be formulated and implemented. Selected Examples of Key Sectoral Mitigation Technologies

With respect to agriculture, for example, adaptation strategies to deal with climate change will require adjustment of planting dates and crop varieties; crop relocation; improved land management such as erosion control and soil protection through tree planting; changes in agricultural R&D policies; institutional reform particularly regarding land tenure and land management reforms; training and capacity building; expanded crop insurance schemes; and financial incentives, such as subsidies and tax credits. The technological and financial constraints are significant, but there are opportunities also, such as access to new crop varieties and increased market-based revenues from ‘new’ agricultural products.

With respect to infrastructure and human settlements, particularly those in coastal zones, required adaptive strategies include population relocation; construction of seawalls and storm surge barriers; coastal dune reinforcements; land acquisition and creation of marshlands/wetlands as buffer against sea level rise and flooding; and protection of existing natural barriers. These will require changes to standards and regulations that integrate climate change considerations into building designs; changes in land use policies and building codes; expanded insurance schemes, and the removal of financial and technological barriers. Selected examples of planned adaptation by sector

It won’t be easy

The report makes clear the fact that neither adaptation nor mitigation alone can avoid all climate change impacts; however, they can complement each other and together can significantly reduce the risks of climate change.

"Unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt. The time at which such limits could be reached will vary between sectors and regions. Early mitigation actions would avoid further locking in carbon intensive infrastructure and reduce climate change and associated adaptation needs."

As UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon noted in his introduction of the report, we no longer have the time or the luxury to point fingers or to apportion blame. Now is the time to find common ground. And because the effects of climate change will affect all of humanity, only urgent action at the global level will suffice to deal with it.  "We are all in this together and we must work together to find solutions."

In the Synthesis Report the world’s scientists have spoken, clearly and with one voice. It is now incumbent on the world’s policy makers to do the same.

The Synthesis Report is available for download here.

For More Information: Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change

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