IPCC 1.5 Degree Special Report


THE Paris Agreement on climate change as approved at the summit in December 2015 had set a goal of holding temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees C” and to “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” Till Paris, the global goal had been set at 2 degrees C, but the new wording reflecting higher ambition than hitherto, particularly the push for a 1.5 degree limit, had been agreed upon at Paris in response to huge pressure from small island developing states (SIDS) who perceived an existential threat even at 2 degrees C, besides least developed countries (LDC) and some others facing special vulnerabilities. Many including these columns had even then questioned the merits of this elevated ambition, especially in view of the low and inadequate emission reduction commitments made by developed countries even for the 2 degree goal, which itself looked increasingly unattainable according to scientific assessments. (We shall return to this point later in the article.) Nevertheless, in pursuit of this new thrust, the Paris Conference had called upon the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) to study the possible impacts of such a target and the mitigation (i.e., greenhouse gases reduction) pathways required to achieve it. The Panel had met in Incheon, South Korea, over the past week, and released its Special Report over the weekend.

As one has come to expect from the IPCC, the Special Report (SR 1.5) elaborates on this with customary meticulous detail, with qualifying notes about the degree of certainty of each of the predictions and conclusions reached. As is well known, the IPCC does not undertake any research by itself, but relies on published and peer-reviewed research by scholars, which are put together by a set of authors based on consensus. The Synthesis Report summarising the main findings are then approved after inputs from reviewers and, importantly, after meetings of government representatives. SR 1.5 was written by 91 authors and 133 contributing authors, along with review editors from 40 countries, citing over 6,000 scientific references with more than 42,000 expert and government review comments. The Report is therefore as authoritative as it gets, and represents the broadest scientific consensus at the present time.

Most comments on the Report so far have responded to it as one more in an increasingly alarming series of scientific studies that reveal the rapid and dangerous progress of changes to the climate, associated impacts in different spheres, and the urgency with which actions need to be taken to reduce emissions. IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report had been released between September 2013 and end-2014, and SR 1.5 is mostly an extension of the main findings with perhaps higher confidence levels in some findings. The world could do with such periodic updates and wake-up calls, more so since so many national governments particularly in developed countries have been so lethargic in reducing emissions to the requisite extent. Most commentators, however, have missed the specificities of the 1.5 degree emphasis of the Report, the additional steps required to meet the more ambitious goal, and what these would call for in terms of technological, economic and societal changes. Even fewer have discussed the questions arising from this stepped-up goal, especially the feasibility of attaining it, and implications for the global emissions control architecture and for India in particular. Here is an initial attempt at doing so.

SR 1.5 goes into considerable detail as to the lower impacts that temperature rise of 1.5 degrees C would be compared to those at 2 degrees C. Of course, even at the reduced temperature rise, the projected impacts are horrifying and should send shivers down the spine of all but the most bigoted, flat-earth type climate deniers.

The already perceptible trends of extended heat waves and higher summer temperatures in tropical regions such as India, and warmer winter nights at higher latitudes, will intensify albeit at slightly lower levels than at 2 degrees C.  More frequent and more intense high-volume rainfall will also be seen, and is noticeable including in this country. Serious impact on agriculture will continue to be felt, although again less than at 2 degrees rise. More worrying is that, even at 1.5 degrees, although mean sea level rise will be about 0.1 metre less than at 2 degrees, multi-metre rise in sea levels will continue till well into the next century and beyond, and likely to persist for hundreds of thousands of years, for various reasons including melting of Arctic ice and the Greenland ice sheet. Thus, although impacts on islands and coastal areas will be less due to slower rise of sea-levels, the long term impacts even at 1.5 degrees are of great concern.

Without minimising the importance of these findings, which have been uncovered and published as required by the mandate from the Paris Summit, it should come as no surprise that the findings are but an elaboration of the expectation at Paris itself and reflected in the phrase cited above that a lowered temperature rise goal “would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” This in itself is not rocket science! Indeed, capping temperature rise at the present level would enable even lower impacts than at 1.5 degrees rise!

So let’s get real. The world is already about 1 degree C warmer than in pre-industrial times, and SR 1.5 projects that temperature rise is likely to cross 1.5 degrees sometime between 2022 and 2030 if emissions continue at present levels. However, these are global average surface temperatures, and some regions such as the Arctic, are likely to witness much higher temperature rise, perhaps even three to four times as much!

But the really important take-away from SR 1.5 is that a 1.5 degree rise is already almost upon us. Indeed so is 2 degrees C. Drastic emission reductions, far more than the current commitments under the Paris Agreement, are required urgently if not immediately, to avert even the latter.

But the really important take-away from SR 1.5 is that a 1.5 degree rise is already almost upon us, as indeed is even 2 degrees C is unless drastic steps are taken urgently if not immediately, above the current emissions reduction commitments made under the Paris Agreement (PA). SR 1.5 reiterates that “pathways reflecting these (current mitigation commitments) would not limit global warming to 1.5°C, even if supplemented by very challenging increases in the scale and ambition of emissions reductions after 2030 (emphasis added).” In other words, while time keeps passing even as emissions reduction proceeds at current snail’s pace, seeking to cut back steeply on emissions later would be akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. As one scientist had put it after the Paris Agreement, 1.5 degrees is “already in the rear-view mirror!”

SR 1.5 also makes it clear that there is very little of the carbon budget left to be able to restrict temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

SR 1.5 also amplifies the stark reality that the 1.5 degree goal would in any case not be possible without active steps towards carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere. The Report states that such pathways would also call for large-scale diversion of crop and pasture land for afforestation and energy plantations, posing multiple social and economic problems. Even put together with steps to arrest deforestation and actions to increase forest cover, these measures for CDR would not be adequate. Additional and aggressive CDR measures would be necessary especially through “BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage), direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), enhanced weathering and ocean alkalinisation. These differ widely in terms of maturity, potentials, costs (and) risks.” As the detailed SR 1.5 Report and previous IPCC Assessment Reports spell out, none of these technologies have been demonstrated at scale nor have their viability been evaluated at commercial levels. It has been estimated that such technologies, if at all, would become available only after 2030 or so, too late to restrict temperature rise to 2 degrees C, leave alone 1.5. In other words, nobody at present knows if these technologies will even work! Apart from these, the 1.5 goal would call for other “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems… and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors… and a significant upscaling of investments in (various) options.”

Given current levels of mitigation actions, most governments have committed to and seem prepared to take, which can be termed incremental rather than socially transformative measures as implied above, it appears highly unrealistic to expect national governments the world over to suddenly change character and take on the drastic shift in pace and trajectory that a pathway to a 1.5 degree limit to temperature rise calls for.

Should not the immediate focus be on first putting in place national mitigation targets in keeping with the original and operative 2 degree goal, and then shifting gears to the 1.5 degree target if at all feasible? A leap of faith towards a patently wishful goal may only serve to divert attention from the pressing tasks on hand, and lead to further slippages than is already evident. The 1.5 goal, seemingly supplanting the 2 degree target, may be a classic example of the best being the enemy of the good.

The current low level of ambition, and extremely slow pace of collectively moving towards fixing fair and equitable national emission reduction targets adequate for meeting the 2 degree goal, is the bigger problem. At Paris, it was agreed that there would be a so-called global stock-take in 2022 where the adequacy of current efforts would be assessed and national targets suitably adjusted upwards.

If anything, the findings of SR 1.5 should be taken as the clearest signal yet that this stock-take should be advanced to a very early date, and revised national targets ensuring timely achievement of the 2 degree goal be adopted at the earliest.  

What should really concern everyone, is the confirmation implicit in SR 1.5 of what had been warned by a few scientists especially from India, including in these columns, ever since the “higher ambition” 1.5 degree aspiration had been written into the PA text. If the 1.5 degree goal is to be seriously pursued with the urgency it demands, it will result in unfair and unbearable pressure on India and similar developing countries. This is due to the highly inequitable architecture of the Paris Agreement, and needs some explanation.

The UNFCCC principles, enshrined in the earlier Kyoto Protocol which the Paris Agreement supersedes, calls for equity between nations in sharing the burden of mitigating climate change through a mechanism that takes into account the historical or past emissions of all countries in keeping with the accepted legal-ethical tenet of “polluter pays.” Developed countries are the main cause of the problem, since they are responsible for around 75 percent of the cumulative emissions put in the atmosphere since the industrial era. However, due to clever manipulation by the US backed by their European and other allies, and non-existent or weak resistance by India and other leading developing countries, the Paris Agreement totally omits mention or accounting of past emissions and instead focuses exclusively on future emissions. In fact, the US openly hailed this provision of Paris Agreement as a major victory of an explicit US foreign policy objective!

Due to the same combination of US manipulation and misplaced alliance-building by India in particular, the island nations and LDCs fell prey and added weight to the schema that focused only on future emissions and ignored the past. Paris Agreement institutionally frames an emissions control architecture that de facto supplants the UNFCCC and Kyoto  Protocol’s dichotomy between developed and developing countries with a new three-category classification of nations viz., developed, emerging economies and LDCs, Small Island nations etc. Paris Agreement has all of them making voluntary emission reduction commitments, the developed countries  making absolute cuts, the emerging countries reducing emissions growth rates looking for early peaking, and LDCs and others doing whatever they can. At Paris, the developed countries led by the US, the world’s second largest emitter which has since then withdrawn from Paris Agreement, had made miserably low emission reduction commitments, and the EU and other developed countries had emulated the race to the bottom and reduced their earlier commitments too, effectively leaving India, China and other emerging economies to carry the baby.

SR 1.5 shows that there is very little of the carbon budget left to be able to restrict temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. The carbon budget is a measure of the cumulative emissions since the industrial era to enable limiting temperature rise to a particular level (2 degrees or 1.5 degrees) with a specified degree of certainty (50 percent or 67 percent). So, without getting too technical, SR 1.5 estimates the remaining carbon budget at 420 billion tons (giga tons or Gt) of CO2 (carbon dioxide). If we assume that around two-thirds of this would be emitted by emerging economies such as India and other developing countries,  that leaves only 280 Gt to be shared by all these countries including China from now till 2100! Back of envelope estimates would then show India being left with just about 20 to 30 years at current emission levels. This will put enormous, maybe even intolerable, pressure on India while it seeks to address its poverty burden and development deficit.

Starting with Copenhagen, India had committed to reduce the growth rate of its emissions, not because it accepted responsibility for the problem of climate change, but as a mark of its commitment to its solution. But the above trajectory, called for by the 1.5 degree goal, would test this commitment to the extreme, and act as a powerful disincentive.

India, and the world, should wake up to the true import of the 1.5 goal and of SR 1.5

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