IPCC set to issue governments with tough climate change warning

The world must prepare for a strong message on climate change as leaders meet in Stockholm to finalise report

Leaders will meet in Stockholm this week to discuss final changes to the IPCC (Pic: Flickr / edward stojakovic)

By Ed King

Governments will assess the UN’s latest climate science report this week amid fears the world is running out of time to address the issue.

The latest study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is likely to suggest the release of half a trillion tonnes of carbon from fossil fuels in the coming decades will warm the planet to dangerous levels.

Today, envoys from 195 states kick off a four-day summit run by the IPCC in Stockholm, to examine the findings of the UN body’s latest report, named AR5.

“It is extremely likely that human activities have caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature since the 1950s,” a June draft of the report says.

It is also likely to suggest sea levels could rise as high as 3ft by 2100, predict the Arctic could face ice-free summers and warn that oceans are acidifying.

In the past century the planet has warmed by 0.8C, while this year the concentration of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit the 400 parts per million for the first time in human history.

Delegates will have to collectively approve the 30-page Summary for Policymakers before the study is published on Friday, ending several years of work by 840 authors, and thousands more reviewers.

A vital time

Writing in the Guardian, former World Bank Chief Economist Lord Stern, who analysed the costs of a warming world for the UK government in 2006, says AR5 will demonstrate how collective dithering has left nations facing a tough challenge.

“It will also underline the fact that delay is making things much worse, both because the ratchet effect of emissions is causing a rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases and because we are locking in our dependence on the fossil fuels that cause the problem,” he says.

“Current action is much too weak to reduce emissions by enough to avoid a significant probability of the global average temperature rising by more than 2C above its pre-industrial level by the end of this century.”

The IPCC has published four reports since its inception in 1988. The first in 1990 involved 97 authors – this time 840 have chipped in.

The 2013 vintage is likely to be the strongest of the collection, with scientists maintaining they are now 95-100% certain that humans have caused the majority of climate change since the 1950s.

Envoys will be expected to work through the politically crucial summary line by line, a laborious process that draws to the surface tensions over what addressing climate change will mean for different countries.

In 2007, the USA, China and Saudi Arabia were blamed for making the most objections.

Difficult issues

This time round, the debate over how much carbon dioxide the world can afford to spew into the atmosphere is likely to prove controversial, as are theories over why a long term trend of warming has slowed over the past 15 years.

Former IPCC chief Bob Watson told RTCC it is vital this issue is tackled head on, otherwise climate doubters would claim a cover up.

“The deniers are saying we’ve obviously got the theory wrong, because greenhouse gases are still increasing – which they are, at a rapid rate – so why isn’t the temperature responding?”, he said.

“Therefore, the IPCC must address difficult issues like this, absolutely.”

Drafts of the report suggest the warming slowdown could be attributed to variability in the overall climate system, cooling effects from volcanic eruptions, and a decline in solar activity.

Leaked documents seen by the AP news agency reveals the USA has called for scientists to add a “leading hypothesis” that the decline is linked to the absorption of heat in the oceans.

Germany has called for the slowdown reference to be deleted, arguing that 10-15 years is too short a span to be concerned about, given climate impacts are usually analysed over longer periods.

Belgium has concerns over graphs using 1998 as a start date, given it was a particularly warm year, meaning any trajectory starting from there would look flat.

Future ambition

The political importance of AR5 is hard to overstate. In just over two years’ time, governments are scheduled to meet in Paris to agree a global emissions reduction deal.

A strong message from climate science is seen by many observers as critical if those negotiations, which are sluggish at best, will achieve an agreement ambitious enough to avert dangerous levels of warming.

Former UN climate chief Michael Zammit Cuatajar told RTCC he believes how world leaders respond to the report will be an “important determinant of ambition”.

The IPCC’s current chief Rajendra Pachauri told a recent conference call it would provide enough information to ensure “rational people” will see that action is needed.

UN climate talks this November in Warsaw will be looked at closely for an early sign of that commitment.

They are expected to deliver a framework for an emissions treaty, and assurances from rich nations on their future climate finance contributions.

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