Right synthesis

Published : Nov 12, 2014 12:30 IST

WHEN the Fifth Assessment Report’s Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released in Copenhagen on November 2, it was recognised as the most important assessment of climate change and global warming published so far. The document will play a crucial role in the run-up to the 20th annual session of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to be held in Lim, Peru, in December.

The report is the outcome of the work of hundreds of scientists and of negotiations with governments around the world and takes a comprehensive look at all aspects of dealing with climate change. It addresses the fear that solutions will be unaffordable and says categorically that the answers are doable and affordable. Along with its positive tone, the report is firm in stating that carbon emissions are rising rapidly and that they are mainly from burning oil, coal and gas. It minces no words in stating that climate change will wreak “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on the world unless carbon emissions are cut severely. It links global poverty with global warming.

This “most comprehensive appraisal of climate change ever undertaken”, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it, comes at a crucial moment. In a little more than a year, the 21st COP to the 1992 UNFCCC will be meeting in Paris to work out a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change. Ban said: “With this new Synthesis Report, science has spoken yet again with much more clarity and greater certainty.” It clearly states that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the highest in known history; total carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement production have tripled since 1970; emissions from land use and forestry have risen by 40 per cent since 1970; two-thirds of all emissions allowed have already been released into the atmosphere; extreme weather events have increased and hydrological cycles have altered; global temperatures have gone up by 0.8 °C; oceans are warming and acidifying; and species of plant and animal life are being adversely affected by the changes.

The report lists the threats, including mass die-off of forests, melting of land ice, rapid rise in sea levels and subsequent coastal flooding, and heat waves that will destroy crops and people. It predicts that stresses on global food production will result in violent conflicts that will accompany food, water and fuel shortages. IPCC Chairman Dr Rajendra Pachauri said after the report’s release: “To avoid the chaos of runaway climate change, we know that we need to dramatically reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Like earlier reports, the Synthesis Report emphasised the economic outcomes of climate change. Ban said: “There is a myth which is shared unscientifically and uneconomically that climate action will cost heavily, but I am telling you that inaction of climate action will cost much, much more. Climate action and economic growth are two sides of just one coin.” The thinking is obvious: people are motivated by money and not by any other concern, hence linking dropping profits to environmental degradation will make businesses rethink their strategies. The fossil fuel industry will, however, not be pleased with the solutions on offer. The report says that 80 per cent of the world’s fuel needs will have to be from low-carbon sources by 2050 and that fossil fuels will have to be phased out by 2100 if global temperature levels are to be contained within a 2 °C rise. Ban urged investors to “reduce investments in coal- and fossil fuel-based economies and [invest] in renewable energy”.

Despite all this being known, very little climate change mitigation is being followed. Commenting on this, Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general and the head of the industry and environment programme at New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment, said: “The actions currently being taken by countries are not sufficient to limit temperature increase. Developed countries have failed to take the lead in resolving this evolving crisis. Instead of reducing emissions, developed countries have, in fact, increased their consumption-based emissions over the past 20 years.”

Crucially, this report shows a shift in the attitude of scientists and the authorities towards climate change. A small change in language makes all the difference between the 2007 IPCC report and the current one. The 2007 report hedged a bit when it said human influence (that is, burning fossil fuels) was “very likely” a primary cause of global warming. This report says “extremely likely” as it places the blame on fossil fuels being responsible for climate change.

Also, with this report, climate change campaigners can breathe easy. It says that global warming is “unequivocal” and that humanity’s role in it is “clear”. With its solid scientific backing, the report should silence climate sceptics and let the world get on with the business of making the planet liveable, a huge task in itself, as even Ban acknowledged when he said: “Even if emissions stopped tomorrow, we will be living with climate change for some time to come.”

Lyla Bavadam

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