‘Most important years in history’: Major UN report sounds last-minute climate alarm

The Proterina-3Evolution project, which brings together 14 partners based in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Corsica, Sardinia, Liguria and Tuscany, have received €6 million in funding, of which €5 million come from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). [Mark Robinson / Flickr]

Warming beyond 1.5C will unleash a frightening set of consequences and only a global transformation, beginning now, will avoid it, according to the latest report from scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). EURACTIV’s media partner Climate Home News reports.

In a major report released on Monday, the UN’s climate science body found limiting warming to 1.5C, compared to 2C, would spare a vast sweep of people and life on earth from devastating impacts.

To hold warming to this limit, the scientists said unequivocally that carbon pollution must fall to ‘net zero’ in around three decades: a huge and immediate transformation, for which governments have shown little inclination so far.

“The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” said Debra Roberts, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) research into the impacts of warming.

Net zero emissions feasible by 2050 if EU economy goes cross-sectoral, new report says

With the European Commission expected to present its mid-century climate plan in November, a report released on Thursday (27 September) shows net zero emissions can only be achieved by 2050 if member states develop more innovative, cross-sectoral, and ‘beyond business-as-usual’ scenarios.

The report from the IPCC is a compilation of existing scientific knowledge, distilled into a 33-page summary presented to governments. If and how policymakers respond to it will decide the future of vulnerable communities around the world.

“I have no doubt that historians will look back at these findings as one of the defining moments in the course of human affairs,” the lead climate negotiator for small island states Amjad Abdulla said. “I urge all civilised nations to take responsibility for it by dramatically increasing our efforts to cut the emissions responsible for the crisis.”

Abdulla is from the Maldives. It is estimated that half a billion people in countries like his rely on coral ecosystems for food and tourism. The difference between 1.5C and 2C is the difference between losing 70-90% of coral by 2100 and reefs disappearing completely, the report found.

Small island states were part of a coalition that forced the Paris Agreement to consider both a 1.5C and 2C target. Monday’s report is a response to that dual goal. Science had not clearly defined what would happen at each mark, nor what measures would be necessary to stay at 1.5C.

As the report was finalised, the UN secretary general’s special representative on sustainable energy Rachel Kyte praised those governments. “They had the sense of urgency and moral clarity,” she said, adding that they knew “the lives that would hang in the balance between 2[C] and 1.5[C]”.

At 2C, stresses on water supplies and agricultural land, as well as increased exposure to extreme heat and floods, will increase, risking poverty for hundreds of millions, the authors said.

Hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species would see their liveable habitat cut by more than half. Tropical storms will dump more rain from the Philippines to the Caribbean.

“Everybody heard of what happened to Dominica last year,” Ruenna Hayes, a delegate to the IPCC from St Kitts and Nevis, told Climate Home News. “I cannot describe the level of absolute alarm that this caused not only me personally, but everybody I know.”

Around 65 people died when Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island in September 2017, destroying much of it.

In laying out what needs to be done, the report described a transformed world that will have to be built before babies born today are middle aged. In that world 70-85% of electricity will be produced by renewables. There will be more nuclear power than today. Gas, burned with carbon capture technology, will still decline steeply to supply just 8% of power. Coal plants will be no more. Electric cars will dominate and 35-65% of all transport will be low- or no-emissions.

1 trillion dollars per year

To pay for this transformation, the world will have invested almost a trillion dollars a year, every year to 2050.

Our relationship to land will be transformed. To stabilise the climate, governments will have deployed vast programmes for sucking carbon from the air. That will include protecting forests and planting new ones. It will also include growing fuel to be burned, captured and buried beneath the earth. Farms will be the new oil fields. Food production will be squeezed. Profoundly difficult choices will be made between feeding the world and fuelling it.

The report is clear that this world is preferable to one that warms to 2C, but swerves judgement on the likelihood of bringing it into being. That will be for governments, citizens and businesses, not scientists, to decide.

During the next 12 months, two meetings will be held at which governments will be asked to confront the challenge in this report: this year’s UN climate talks in Poland and at a special summit held by UN secretary general Antonio Guterres in September 2019.

The report’s authors were non-committal about the prospects. Jim Skea, a co-chair at the IPCC, said: “Limiting warming to 1.5C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”

Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and a former lead author of the IPCC, said: “If this report doesn’t convince each and every nation that their prosperity and security requires making transformational scientific, technological, political, social and economic changes to reach this monumental goal of staving off some of the worst climate change impacts, then I don’t know what will.”

The scientist have offered a clear prescription: the only way to avoid breaching the 1.5C limit is for humanity to cut its CO2 emissions by 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach ‘net-zero’ by around 2050. But global emissions are currently increasing, not falling.

The EU, one of the most climate progressive of all major economies, aims for a cut of around 30% by 2030 compared to its own 2010 pollution and 77-94% by 2050. It is currently reviewing both targets and says this report will inform the decisions.

If the EU sets a carbon neutral goal for 2050 it will join a growing group of governments seemingly in line with a mid-century end to carbon – including California (2045)Sweden (2045)UK (2050 target under consideration) and New Zealand (2050).

EU environment ministers to target 1.5C temperature rise, hints leaked paper

EU environment ministers will refer to limiting global warming to 1.5C, when they meet on 9 October, a day after the release of the much-awaited, landmark IPCC report, according to draft conclusions seen by EURACTIV.com.

But a fundamental tenet of climate politics is that expectations on nations are defined by their development. If the richest, most progressive economies on earth set the bar at 2045-2050, where will China, India and Latin America end up? If the EU aims for 2050, the report concludes that Africa will need to have the same goal.

The question is not about technology. We have the tools we need. Renewable deployment would need to be six times faster than it is today, said Adnan Z. Amin, the director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency. That was “technically feasible and economically attractive”, he added.

Political headwinds

But just when the world needs to go faster, the political headwinds in some nations are growing. Brazil, home to the world’s largest rainforest, looks increasingly likely to elect the climate sceptic Jair Bolsonaro as president.

The world’s second-largest emitter – the US – immediately distanced itself from the report, issuing a statement that said its approval of the summary “should not be understood as US endorsement of all of the findings and key messages”. It said it still it intended to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

The summary was adopted by all governments at a closed-door meeting between officials and scientists in Incheon, South Korea that finished on Saturday. The US sought and was granted various changes to the text. Sources said the interventions mostly helped to refine the report. But they also tracked key US interests – for example, a mention of nuclear energy was included.

Sources told CHN that Saudi Arabia fought hard to amend a passage that said investment in fossil fuel extraction would need to fall by 60% between 2015 and 2050. The clause does not appear in the final summary.

But still, according to three sources, the country has lodged a disclaimer with the report, which will not be made public for months. One delegate said it rejected “a very long list of paragraphs in the underlying report and the [summary]”.

European Commission abandons plans to raise climate ambition

The European Commission has given up plans to ramp up Europe’s 40% emissions reduction goal for 2030 to 45%, according to German media. But the EU executive insists that a formal increase was never on the table.

Greenpeace EU climate and energy policy director Tara Connolly:

“This report is the scientific equivalent of a kick in the ass. It clearly exposes the inadequacy of Europe’s action on climate change, in a year when millions of Europeans have suffered tragic forest fires, deadly heatwaves and devastating drought. The world’s top climate scientists have spelled out how much worse it will be if we go over 1.5°C of warming, but they’ve also said we still have a chance.

“The good news is that Europe can play a major role in turning the tide on climate change,” Connolly said in a statement. “The first steps must be to radically increase 2030 climate targets and commit to a carbon-neutral Europe by 2040.”

Imke Lübbeke, Head of Climate & Energy, WWF European Policy Office:  

“The EU’s pledge to reduce emissions by at least 40% by 2030 is far from sufficient to meet IPCC’s scientific recommendations of a 1.5°C global warming limit. To achieve this 1.5°C pathway, the EU needs to aim for net-zero emissions by 2040. This will require ambitious action in every sector, but it is feasible and will bring huge benefits – to health, jobs and energy independence”.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible, necessary and urgent. The difference between possible and impossible is political will. […] The EU’s long-term climate strategy, to be published end November this year, needs to be based on the science of the IPCC report — and not on pressure from business lobbies who are trying to delay the inevitable. The findings make very clear how crucial time is in achieving this 1.5°C limit”.

Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU):

“The report shows that although 1.5C of warming will have serious consequences, the world will be a lot better off there than at higher levels of warming, with far less damage to nature and a lower risk of passing thresholds for irreversible impacts.

“Most importantly, it shows that the challenge of constraining climate change, of reaching net zero carbon emissions by mid-century, can be met. The challenge is formidable – but there plenty of evidence that shows it can done, and plenty that says it’s worthwhile.”

ClientEarth lawyer Jonathan Church:

“For the first time we have a clear picture that limiting warming to 1.5°C target is theoretically feasible. Achieving this target – fundamental to protecting communities, the environment and our economies – requires, first and foremost, drastic reductions in global carbon emissions.

“The report also finds that to meet this target, negative emissions technologies will need to be developed and implemented alongside very rapid reductions in emissions.

“Negative emissions technologies carry significant risks for communities and the natural world that are not yet fully understood and these risks will need to be very carefully managed. Lawmakers need to urgently consider how their impacts will be managed, and to develop and put in place a robust accounting framework that can properly monitor global reductions.

“We must also guard against the risk of moral hazard: the dangerous temptation to believe that emissions reductions may not be so urgent. We must always be clear that whatever comes of negative emissions technologies, cutting emissions – cheaper, easier and better understood – is more essential than ever.

“Right now, more research is needed to better understand these technologies before we can be confident to deploy them, particularly carbon capture and storage (CCS). There are also significant concerns regarding burning biomass, in terms of carbon emissions, deforestation, accounting and land use. The best proven negative emissions technology is trees, so urgently halting and reversing deforestation must be integral to climate action.

FERN, an NGO which centres on forests:

“The IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees has confirmed that Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is not needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, provided that global emissions decline ‘well before 2030.’ Given the multiple negative impacts of BECCS and other large-scale land-based mitigation approaches, Fern welcomes this finding. Fern also welcomes the recognition in the IPCC report of the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge in tackling climate change.

“These findings are echoed in a forthcoming report by the Climate, Land, Ambition & Rights Alliance (CLARA), which Fern is a member of. The CLARA report shows that low-risk solutions such as ecosystems restoration, particularly by upholding land rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, could deliver almost 10 Gt CO2/ year in carbon sequestered by 2050, resulting in 448 Gt CO2 in cumulative removals to 2100.

“CLARA's findings, however, show that the IPCC's focus on 'afforestation' is too narrow, and a broader range of natural climate solutions could provide the 'missing pathway' to the 1.5 degrees goal. Fern encourages policy makers to develop solutions for carbon dioxide removal that seriously address the link between three intersecting crises – climate change, biodiversity loss, and violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities – and to focus solutions on holistic approaches that tackle all three crises at once.”

  • 9 Oct. 2018: EU environment ministers meet in Luxembourg to agree the EU’s negotiating mandate for the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018.
  • 28 Nov. 2018: European Commission expected to release its draft long-term climate strategy for 2050
  • 2019: EU governments expected to agree on the EU’s final long-term strategy for 2050.


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