Why you should bother to read the IPCC synthesis report

UN science panel’s final report this year will indicate how serious governments take the threat of climate change

Governments will need to radically slash energy emissions if they want to avoid warming of +2C (Pic: Flickr)

Governments will need to radically slash energy emissions if they want to avoid warming of +2C (Pic: Flickr)

By Richard Black

You may think that you’ve been here before.

In a capital city somewhere in a country beyond our own, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meets to finalise a report summarising the state of knowledge on climate change.

This Synthesis Report is the fourth and final element of the fifth Assessment Report in the IPCC’s 26-year existence. That’s a lot of final weeks and a lot of reports.

To add to the feeling of déjà vu, deliberations are taking place in Copenhagen – and we all know what happened there five years ago.

So the obvious question for the slightly jaded observer is: why should I bother?

And if you view the Synthesis Report (due out on Sunday) as merely the latest IPCC offering, maybe the answer is: you shouldn’t bother.

After all, we know the headline figures from the three Working Group reports that came out in SeptemberMarch and April respectively:

  • ‘unequivocal’ evidence of climate change in every part of the world
  • greater than 95% likelihood that human agency is the dominant cause
  • if greenhouse gas emissions continue rising at current rates, average projected global temperature 2.6-4.8C warmer by the end of the century, and sea level at least half a metre higher
  • progressively greater risk of damaging and irreversible impacts as emissions continue
  • projected impacts on crop yields, water availability, coastal flooding, disease, extreme weather, species extinctions…
  • capacity to adapt progressively constrained
  • the internationally agreed 2C target within reach at marginal cost if governments act together
  • costs of combatting climate change rising with delay.

And we know that the Synthesis Report, although it might do some synthesising, isn’t going to change them.

But the importance of this week’s report doesn’t lie in the building blocks. It lies in the style of the edifice that delegates build with those blocks, and in the timing of its construction.

Paris calling

Governments are, of course, aware that at the end of next year, at the UN climate summit in Paris, they face decision time.

Do they fulfil the pledge they made in 2011, to conclude a new global agreement on cutting emissions with some kind of legal character? Or do they walk away?

If they do want a new global agreement, what will it look like?

At this stage in the Assessment Report, government delegates can’t revisit earlier conclusions.

But they can ask for certain earlier conclusions to be inserted into or eliminated from the draft Synthesis Report, and they can draw existing strands together into a coherent narrative – provided they gain agreement also from the squad of expert academics who put the draft together.

So there’s a lot to play for – a lot of jockeying.

Above all, we are almost certain this week to see governments hotly debating what to say about the elephant in the room, the central fact that everyone tacitly acknowledges but few whisper openly: that if the computer model projections are right, keeping global warming below 2C, the internationally agreed target, basically means ending fossil fuel use well before today’s children start drawing their pensions.

Unwrapping the elephant

The IPCC reports already contain the conclusion that this is an essential component of a solution. But it’s partially concealed in two layers of jargon.

One is the ‘carbon budget’ – the maximum total amount of CO2 that can be put into the atmosphere before the 2C target disappears in the rear-view mirror. (Short-hand; at current rates, we’ll use it up in about 25 years.)

The other lies in the scenarios that researchers use to model the future and explore implications of various choices. (Short-hand; unless emissions peak within a decade or two and begin swiftly declining towards zero, 2C is very unlikely.)

With the single exception of power plants and industrial plants fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS), ending fossil fuel use is an essential part of the prescription.

Swapping in natural gas for coal and oil fits into the picture as a bridging technology; but not far beyond mid-century.

Deciding whether to say this bluntly in Sunday’s IPCC report isn’t a case of fiddling with the findings.

The findings are there; it’s a case of deciding how openly to package them, given that politicians will find these words quoted at them time after time between now and the Paris summit.

The form of words they eventually choose will give some indication of the balance of views across the international community.

Clearly, some governments would prefer that the conclusions that researchers have put before them are flawed, and perhaps believe they are flawed.

Some perhaps acknowledge the conclusions, but believe eliminating fossil fuel use is such an absurd target that they’d prefer to see climate change progress and let future generations deal with the consequences.

(This speaks to the debate currently alive within the UK Conservative Party, for example.)

Some governments evidently want to embrace the target openly, particularly those that are already on a path to zero carbon before mid-Century; and others, one presumes, are just reluctant to be this explicit for fear of scaring the horses.

So this is the significance of the week ahead. Now tell me – if you thought it looked boring and meaningless at the top of this page – does it still look that way?

Richard Black is director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. This article first appeared on the ECIU website.

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