Why timing is everything in battle to turn the tide on climate change crisis
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered the third volume of its fifth Assessment Report on climate change yesterday. It is focused on the causes of climate change and how to address them. We can now see the full picture of where, scientifically, we are on the issue.
The messages from the earlier reports are clear: climate change is happening, human influences are dominant, the impacts are evident and increasing and there are certain limits to adaptation.
The message from this report is also clear: to ensure climate stability, large-scale global reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases are required.
Carbon dioxide – or, more specifically, fossil carbon dioxide – is the main problem. The IPCC points to emissions of carbon dioxide as being central to a multigenerational global commitment based on the decisions and actions that we take now.
To date, global actions are not sufficient to meet this challenge. Neither are the future commitments. In fact, we are moving in the wrong direction. Over the past decade, the rate of emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) has increased.
If disproportionate and significant long-term climate impacts are to be avoided, this trend has to be reversed. The IPCC has identified that global emission reductions of the order of 40-70pc are needed by 2050, with near zero or negative emissions by the end of the century to ensure climate stability.
The costs are significant, but small in the context of the annual level of investments being made in the key areas of energy, transport and buildings. In combination, the costs are expected to reduce the expected global growth rate of 2-3pc by about 0.06pc annually. The costs are even smaller when the co-benefits such as clean air and energy security are factored in.
This will involve a major switch of investment into low carbon energy generation and supply and away from investment in fossil extraction. Increased investments in sustainable energy of up to 600pc are projected along with reductions in fossil investment of 300-400pc.
So what about agriculture? The report deals with the sector along with forestry and other land use. Baseline emissions of gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are projected to increase up to 2100, but this sector is projected to be 'net sink' for carbon dioxide before the end of the century. The reasons are complex, including various population and deforestation projections.
Land use and land management is central to some of the identified solutions, such as the use of biofuels with carbon capture and storage technologies. This has the potential to deliver negative emissions, which many of the models used see as being a part of the required global effort.
This is not an easy solution. There are issues and risks associated with the use of land for biofuels, such as potential loss of food production capacity, as well as sustainability issues for many biofuels. Climate change impacts on this sector and the stability of carbon in soils and biomass are also an issue.
The private sector is seen as a central player, both as a source of emissions and providing solutions. It will have to play its part and ways to enhance its positive contribution need to be advanced.
This is a global report but with local implications. The IPCC stresses that there are a suite of pathways to achieve climate policy goals and that these can and should be harmonised with national – and local – objectives and goals.
This report adds to the ongoing dialogue on climate change in the EU and here in Ireland. This is an important process in determining how effective actions on climate change can be combined with national and sectoral objectives.
There is no doubt that a global shift in energy generation, supply and use provides new opportunities for that sector. There are also increasing opportunities for other sectors. Players in Ireland can avail of these possibilities.
Dr Ottmar Edenhofer, the co-chair of Working Group III, said that the report provided "hope, modest hope". This perhaps best sums up the state of play on climate change right now.
DR FRANK MCGOVERN, HEAD OF CLIMATE CHANGE RESEARCH AT THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, LED IRELAND'S ENGAGEMENT WITH THE FINALISATION PROCESS FOR THE IPCC, WORKING GROUP III REPORT – ITS FIFTH ASSESSMENT REPORT – AT ITS PLENARY MEETING IN BERLIN, GERMANY, IN THE PAST WEEK