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Dire implications of new climate report test panel’s capacity for consensus

Differences among participating governments have meant that a lot of the synthesis report’s actual synthesizing was left to the audience.

The slide that says it all: Despite all that's been said and done about global warming in recent years, emissions of greenhouse gases including methane, nitrous oxide and various fluorinated compounds actually rose faster in the first decade of the 21st century than in the last three of the 19th century.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Most reporters who have written about Sunday’s global-warming update from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seem to agree that it was the loudest, or the sternest, or the scariest warning in a series stretching back to 1990.

Which may explain why something funny happened on the way to the printers, and why a terse summary of the new document is so hard to come by.

As Neela Banerjee wrote in the Los Angeles Times (her piece also ran on the front page of the Strib), the “synthesis report” concluding the IPCC’s work for this cycle includes the strongest findings yet that global warming is already having significant negative effects on planetary health, and that the opportunities for meaningful remedial action are dwindling fast.

But IPCC reports are consensus documents, with critical portions subject to line-by-line review and approval, and this time around some irreconcilable differences have meant that a lot of the actual synthesizing was left to the audience:

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In crafting the report, a key summary of findings that would have made it easier to understand was cut because the governments that sign off on the document could not agree on what should be included. That raises questions about whether they can agree on something much more complex, such as reductions in pollution.

Rather than attempt a fresh synthesis of my own, I’m opting to use today’s space for excerpts from the best of the coverage I’ve found, with links for your further exploration. And I welcome any additional nominations  in the Comments section below.

Justin Gillis, writing in The New York Times, focused first on  the report’s findings in regard to social suffering and civil  upheaval:

The gathering risks of climate change are so profound that they could stall or even reverse generations of progress against poverty and hunger if greenhouse emissions continue at a runaway pace.

Failure to reduce emissions, the group of scientists and other experts found, could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year.

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On the policy options, Gillis observed that

If governments are to meet their own stated goal of limiting the warming of the planet to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, above the preindustrial level, they must restrict emissions from additional fossil-fuel burning to about 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide, the panel said. At current growth rates, that budget is likely to be exhausted in something like 30 years, possibly less.

Yet energy companies have booked coal and petroleum reserves equal to several times that amount, and they are spending some $600 billion a year to find more. Utilities and oil companies continue to build coal-fired power plants and refineries, and governments are spending another $600 billion or so directly subsidizing the consumption of fossil fuels.

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By contrast, the report found, less than $400 billion a year is being spent around the world to reduce emissions or otherwise cope with climate change. That is a small fraction of the revenue spent on fossil fuels — it is less, for example, than the revenue of a single American oil company, ExxonMobil.

Writing in The Guardian, Damian Carrington focused on the implications of IPCC findings about how energy use and electric-power generation will have to change:

Two-thirds of all the emissions permissible if dangerous climate change is to be avoided have already been pumped into the atmosphere, the IPCC found. The lowest cost route to stopping dangerous warming would be for emissions to peak by 2020 – an extremely challenging goal – and then fall to zero later this century.

The report calculates that to prevent dangerous climate change, investment in low-carbon electricity and energy efficiency will have to rise by several hundred billion dollars a year before 2030. But it also found that delaying significant emission cuts to 2030 puts up the cost of reducing carbon dioxide by almost 50%, partly because dirty power stations would have to be closed early.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) – the nascent technology which aims to bury CO2 underground – is deemed extremely important by the IPPC. It estimates that the cost of the big emissions cuts required would more than double without CCS.

Linking CCS to the burning of wood and other plant fuels would reduce atmospheric CO2 levels because the carbon they contain is sucked from the air as they grow. But Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, an IPCC co-chair, said the  report also states “very honestly and fairly” that there are risks to this approach, such as conflicts with food security.

Looking to the role that would need to be played by non-fossil fuels, if the overall rise in global temperature is to be held to 2 degrees C, Pete Spotts at The Christian Science Monitor notes that

By 2050, renewable sources, including bioenergy, plus nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage, collectively would need to grow from 30 percent today in a world with 7.2 billion people to 80 percent in a world with 9.6 billion to help provide the emissions reductions needed to stay on the 2-degree path.

Nuclear energy faces stiff political resistance in many countries, as well as stiff economic competition from natural gas. Carbon capture and storage, which would extract carbon dioxide from power-plant emissions and pump the CO2 into rock formations deep underground, faces its own set of issues.

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The IPCC acknowledges that as currently understood, there are biological and geological limits to wholesale use of carbon capture and storage around the world. And it’s difficult to estimate how much impact it could have on emissions over the course of a century.

Over at Vox, Brad Plumer weighed in the IPCC assumption notion that a lot of carbon dioxide can be taken back out of the atmosphere, not just captured at the emission source:

Back in its 2007 report on preventing climate change, the IPCC suggested that the world’s emissions would have to peak in 2015 if we wanted to prevent 2°C or more of global warming.

That’s obviously not going to happen — 2015 is next year, and emissions are expected to keep rising. So why does the IPCC think we still have a chance this time around?

The panel is putting its hopes in technologies that allow us to pull carbon out of the atmosphere toward the end of the century. What if, for instance, we grew trees that sucked carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Then we burned those trees for fuel. But instead of letting the carbon dioxide from those trees go back into the atmosphere when we burned it, we captured the emissions and pumped them underground? Voilà: That whole process would, in theory, be “carbon-negative.”

The problem? The IPCC concedes that the availability of these techniques is “uncertain” and the technology is currently “limited.” So the panel is putting a lot of hope in an unproven concept to help limit global warming and stay below the 2°C target.

Over at The Washington Post, Joby Warrick and Chris Mooney focused on findings about how we got into this fix, perhaps for the benefit of any genuine doubters still in the audience, and what that says about the difficulty of getting back out:

In late 2013, when the first report of this round of the IPCC’s work came out, skeptics trained their attention on the contention that in recent years the rate of global warming has seemingly “paused” or slowed down. But the latest document is fairly dismissive of that idea, acknowledging that, while the rate of warming in the past 15 years has indeed been somewhat smaller than the rate since 1951, “trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends.”

Concentrations of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide  gas are 40 percent higher than in pre-industrial times, a level “unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years,” the report states.

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Most of the excess heat is absorbed by the ocean, muting the effects. Yet, climate change is having profound impacts on “natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” the panel concluded. It cited rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, warmer air and ocean temperatures, melting glaciers and vanishing sea ice. And because of the long amount of time that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, some impacts are locked in, perhaps for centuries to come.

Elizabeth Shogren, writing up her “five takeaways” at National Geographic, took on efforts by IPCC leaders to underscore purportedly hopeful findings that there’s still time to solve this problem, addressing their “signs of hope” this way:

They’re small compared with the task. At Copenhagen in 2009, while the negotiators were failing to agree on measures to stop climate change, they did at least agree on a target: The global average temperature should not be allowed to rise more than 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial levels.

To keep warming below 2°C, according to the new IPCC report, the world will have to cut greenhouse gas emissions between 40 and 70 percent by 2050 — and then keep cutting until they’re essentially zero by 2100. Coal and natural gas would need to be phased out for electricity use, unless technologies are developed to capture and store the carbon dioxide they emit.

The report says transforming the global energy industry will be affordable — at a cost of about 0.06 percent of global consumption growth per year — if actions are taken soon. There’s no consensus on what type of agreement might accomplish that, except that it’s not likely to be a legally binding treaty that commits each country to specific emissions cuts.

And looking at the arc from the Copenhagen summit five years ago to next year’s session in Paris, The Conversation blog at Science 2.0 notes that:

An effective response requires action across all major countries, not just the developed world. The international community now needs to build on – and go further than – the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, which was a paradigm shift that stimulated emissions-reduction pledges to 2020 from a wide range of countries – including China and India.

China now emits more CO2 per capita than the EU, while India’s per capita emissions are still less than 40% of the world average – what works for one won’t be necessarily be appropriate for the other, yet action by both is critical.

The 2015 Paris summit is therefore an important moment, but it will not be able – and is not intended – to provide the final answer. The summit will make more progress if it focuses on near-term operational targets, such as achieving a peak in global emissions by a certain date rather than triggering a damaging row over how the small budget of future cumulative CO2 emissions consistent with a 2°C target should be shared among nations.

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On further reflection,  I guess I do have a summary-of-synthesis to offer: The available evidence would seem to indicate strongly that we are screwed.

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Home page for the IPCC synthesis report and related materials is here.