Richard J.T. Klein is a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute and a coordinating lead author in the IPCC’s Working Group II. The views expressed here are strictly his own.
A major barrier to climate action today is the fear that it will harm the economy. Many European countries are already struggling, and policy-makers, business leaders and consumers worry that strict climate policies will make things worse. The climate can wait, they think.
The problem is that it can’t, as has been reinforced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment report, released on 27 September in Stockholm. The IPCC does not have a political agenda, nor does it recommend any particular course of action. Its mandate is to provide scientifically robust, reliable information to guide decision-makers – and it does so with great care and deliberation.
The first part of the IPCC’s report in Stockholm, was produced by 259 scientists and reviewed by more than 1,000 outsiders. “I know of no report that has been scrutinized so carefully”, said Thomas Stocker, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I. This is important to remember when reading the stark messages in the report:
- Warming of the climate system is “unequivocal”, and many of the observed changes since the 1950s are “unprecedented over decades to millennia”.
- It is “extremely likely” that human influence “has been the dominant cause” of warming, and human influence has also been detected in changes in the global water cycle, reductions in snow and ice, global mean sea level rise, and changes in some climate extremes.
- By 2100, global surface warming compared with 1850-1900 is “likely” to exceed 1.5°C, except under a mitigation scenario more ambitious than ever before envisioned in an IPCC report. It is also “more likely than not” to exceed 2°C under a scenario akin to what we used to consider ambitious.
- The annual mean Arctic sea ice shrank by 3.5-4.1% per decade in 1979-2012, and the summer sea ice minimum, by 9.4-13.6%. It is “very likely” that Arctic sea ice will continue to shrink, and under business as usual, the Arctic is likely to be “nearly ice-free” in September before mid-century.
None of this is a surprise. The IPCC only reviews published studies; the scientific evidence has been building up for years – as have the news reports. Yet even in Europe, where we take a certain pride in being ecologically conscious, action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been painfully slow.
That third bullet point above is critically important. The only scenario that avoids a more than 50% chance of exceeding 2°C of warming is RCP 2.6, which requires emissions to peak by 2020, and decline to “negative” emissions by 2100 – actually sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Under business as usual (RCP 8.5), warming is “about as likely as not” to exceed 4°C – a dangerous future that the World Bank warns “must be avoided”.
‘Business as usual’ does not apply just to public policy. It is, in fact, primarily about business – about the global economy, what we buy and sell, what resources we exploit, what we invest in (or not). Every good and service has a carbon footprint, and all those footprints add up.
Consumer demand for greener products is driving businesses to take action, but not fast enough. Yet as companies from Apple to IKEA have shown, success requires not just responding to demand, but creating it. Some are already driving demand for sustainable goods and services; we need more.
Businesses also need to focus less on short-term gains, which are often pursued at the expense of long-term investments in resource efficiency and overall sustainability. We know this is difficult in the face of investor and shareholder pressure, but some companies have proven it can be done.
Lastly, but importantly, businesses need to understand their own exposure to climate risks. In a global economy, climate impacts can have repercussions thousands of kilometres away – we saw it with the Bangkok floods in 2011, and again with Hurricane Sandy last year.
Every company needs to examine its supply chains and operations, identify the risks, and address them. And there again, businesses will have a choice: they can break ties with their most vulnerable contractors and suppliers, or they can work with them to build resilience.
Choice, in fact, may be the most important word in the IPCC’s new report. We know the science. We know the enormous difference between the outcomes of low- and high-emission pathways. What happens next is in our collective hands.