Tackling climate change is no longer simply about cutting greenhouse gas emissions: flood defences, heat resilient crops and weather warning systems are set to take centre stage.
That’s the message from scientists fresh from an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in Geneva last week.
The UN science body has started work on a new and potentially devastating report on ways to avoid warming the earth to more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – and the consequences of failure.
Due in September 2018, it will set the political tenor for global talks on climate change through to 2020, by which time the new Paris Agreement on climate change is slated to become operational.
Critically, it will underpin a UN-led review the same year into how countries are delivering on the Paris deal, and perhaps offer the basis for those national goals to be increased.
Record temperatures in 2016 have raised the urgency of the study, acknowledged Katherine Mach, a climate scientist with the Carnegie Institution and Stanford University who attended the Geneva gathering.
“With the hot year we feel 1.5C is coming down the barrel… it’s a world we’re going to have to adapt to and this will help us,” she told Climate Home.
“The sense in general was you can’t think about adaptation and mitigation separately and you can’t think about them separately from sustainable development.”
The study’s findings could be painful for the UN’s climate body, still glowing from corralling 195 countries into the Paris deal last December.
Article 2 of the UN climate body’s founding document specifically speaks of preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
The trouble is it’s effectively too late for that, said Chris Field, co-chair of the IPCC’s last major study and a colleague of Mach’s at the Carnegie Institution and Stanford University.
“We are seeing real damage – in the context of Article 2 we have already seen dangerous anthropogenic interference,” he said.
“Now we face a challenge that has profound political and technical implications…we need to find the right mix of adaptation and mitigation.”
Still, it’s worth noting that some critics think the report will be wasted given the fast pace of warming.
“It deflects attention from important and practical research into this illusion that 1.5C is viable. I just don’t see how it will be constructive,” said Mike Hulme, professor of climate and culture at King’s College London.
— Climate Home News (@ClimateHome) August 24, 2016
Split into six chapters and likely to be around 250 pages long, the 1.5C report will be useful to guide government policy in a world where some climate impacts are now inevitable.
A background document on the report authored by IPCC vice chair Thelma Krug lists 11 ‘substantive challenges’ it’s expected to address, indicating an extensive remit.
These include adaptation needs to cope with 1.5C, implications for loss and damage, costs of tougher carbon cuts and the feasibility of negative emissions technology and other forms of geoengineering.
Thelma Krug outlines some of the key questions the IPCC's 1.5C report will be expected to tackle: pic.twitter.com/lnLaSaWtQF
— Climate Home News (@ClimateHome) August 24, 2016
Krug’s note suggests it’s also likely to assess the implications of a variety of emission pathways, and in particular their impacts on sustainable development, poverty eradication and food security.
So for example, planned ‘overshoot scenarios’ will draw in research on impacts of warming above 1.5C on coral reefs, sea levels, sea ice and indigenous peoples among others.
Given the short timescale – research needs to be filed by late 2017 to be included in the literature review – it won’t be comprehensive, but the aim is to offer a sense of the challenge.
1.5C acquired huge significance among climate campaigners at last December’s UN climate summit, but few in Paris could articulate exactly what warming to that level would mean.
The tougher 1.5C limit was, said UNFCCC official Florin Vladu in a presentation at the Geneva meeting “less a scientific question of feasibility, but rather as a moral imperative of necessity.”
That’s a critical observation. Most research has focused on 2C of warming, a historic guardrail governments agreed to avoid at the 2010 Cancun climate talks.
“My impression is a lot of what the report needs to do is provide a setting in which readers understand features of what’s known and what is not known,” said Field.
What is known is that despite the Paris deal, hundreds of power plants using the most carbon-intensive type of fuel – coal – are still being built around the world.
A necessary focus on various energy pathways will, hopes Field, offer governments a “more tangible picture of risks and strong inducement of the kinds of technology available.”
“It’s easy and a little lazy to be downbeat about the process. The world has a lot of options… a lot of decisions will be made… if we make the right ones a lot is possible,” said Myles Allen, a climate scientist at Oxford University who was also at the meeting.
“One of big themes in the meeting last week was that responding to climate change is not all about costs… yes climate change poses real risks and for some people very serious risks… but responding to it can be a way to be a better world,” said Mach.
Allen said the report should establish exactly what the world is locked into in terms of emissions growth. He for one is not convinced that smashing the 1.5C target is inevitable.
“Drawing out the distinction between committed emissions and warming is important and if we can clarify that and make it clear what implications of investment are that will be very helpful,” he said.
One study by the Oxford Martin School in March warned that no fossil fuel power plants could be built after 2017 for the world to have a good chance of avoiding 2C warming.
“A big caveat in that [Martin School] paper was assuming we don’t retire some [plants] before the end of their lives or develop CO2 removal or find ways of compensating for emissions,” said Allen.
As Krug’s scoping document suggested, CO2 removal and geoengineering will feature in the report but it’s not clear how prominent these issues will be.
Plans to plant, burn and store the CO2 from vast quantities of energy crops (known as BECCS) are well-publicised but highly contentious, and the focus of campaigns by some green groups at recent UN climate talks.
Another participant in Geneva told Climate Home an outline of the report indicated there will be no chapter or sub-section that deals with BECCS explicitly.
“In 50 years we will have developed a better way of capturing CO2 instead of getting a tree and burning it. It is remarkably unimaginative,” added Allen.