Five reflections on last week’s UN climate change report
by Justin Adams, Managing Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Lands
In response to last week’s release of the UN’s IPCC report on the climate, which warned that “unprecedented” changes were needed to slow or stop global warming beyond 1.5°C pre-industrial period, it’s easy judging by the headlines and subsequent global response to perhaps give up or sink into despair. “Terrifying.” “Time to Wake Up.” “Final Call”. “Ten years to Act” were just some of the headlines. Could this report, as shocking as it is, actually be the much-needed catalyst for action we’ve all been waiting for? Letting the dust settle a little on this powerful series of findings endorsed by all the world’s governments, here are my top five reflections:
1. We now have a better understanding that every fraction of a degree counts
The report shows that every fraction of a degree of warming matters. Continued rising temperatures will exact a huge toll on people, natural ecosystems and the economy. The IPCC concludes the world will likely reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels as soon as 2030. It notes that 20-40 percent of the global population lives in regions that have already experienced warming of more than 1.5°C in at least one season.
The primary way to limit warming to less than 1.5°C is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and eventually reach net-zero emissions. According to the report, to limit warming to 1.5°C with “no or limited overshoot,” net global CO2 emissions need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by around 2050.
The report puts it this way: “By 2100, global sea-level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all would be lost with 2°C.”
However, here is the kicker. Even with the pledged emission cuts under the Paris Agreement, the world is nowhere near achieving the volume of necessary cuts. To do so, we would need “rapid and far-reaching transitions” across the entire global economy, including changes in the way we source and use energy, how we use land and grow food, and what types and quantities of food and materials we consume.
2. We have a better understanding of deep mitigation pathways. Existing national climate-change response plans don’t bring us close to 2°C pathways, let alone 1.5°C. Nature is the ‘Forgotten Solution.’
A series of reports that qualify and quantify the power of nature as a climate solution have also been released. The CLARA Alliance just released its report, suggesting that shifting from industrial crop and livestock production toward more ecological methods would make a major contribution towards reducing emissions, while also feeding people fairly and empowering the world’s smallholder farmers, particularly women. It points out that the 1.5 degree goal can be met without relying on planetary-scale land-use change like BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture Storage) for carbon removal.
Further huge emissions savings can be made if sections of society that enjoy high levels of meat consumption shifted to consuming fewer animal products, and to a more plant-based flexitarian diet. A “less and better” approach to food production would go a long way toward cutting emissions, the report says, while still feeding the world fairly. Taken together, ecosystem-based approaches and transformative changes in land and agriculture sectors could deliver 11 Gt CO2-eq per year in avoided emissions, and a further 10 Gt CO2-eq per year in carbon sequestered into the biosphere by 2050.
Furthermore, a study by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and a group of other organizations published last year found that natural climate solutions like these could deliver a third of the required mitigation by 2030 to restrict global warming to 2 degrees. The key is that these natural solutions are affordable, actionable and scalable today. They do not involve technologies still under development with unknown costs. A forthcoming assessment on land use in the USA is also expected to show enormous potential.
3. It’s one system
Protecting and increasing tropical forest cover is vital, since these regions cool the air and are key to generating regional rainfall that supports food production. Yet commodities like beef, soy, timber and palm oil are currently responsible for over half of tropical forest loss. What we eat and use matters. Soil leads the way as a carbon sink and is among the cheapest methods with the greatest potential. The IPCC found that by 2050, soil carbon sequestration could remove between two and five gigatons of CO2 a year, at a cost ranging from less than $0 to $100 per ton. It also helps us grow our food.
4. Action and Money Are Needed Now
We need to talk about how to shift capital. As mentioned above, one reading of scenarios presented in the report to stay below 1.5 C of warming shows that we only have until around 2030 to achieve net-zero emissions globally. That’s essentially tomorrow when we’re talking about the pace of change required in a complex, dynamic systems like energy, food and financial markets.
Most organizations working together now recognize that to stop or slow global warming, we will have to increase current levels of ambition. Natural climate solutions, which have long been overlooked by the international community, will have to play a much bigger role. In effect that means governments and companies must set specific targets for natural climate solutions in their commitments under Paris.
It also means a ramp-up in finance: right now, the land sector only receives around 3% of public climate funding. That will have to be targeted to leverage the scale of the private sector if the transition on land is to be successful.
5. This is no longer just an ‘environmental story’
Time’s up. It’s time to take action now or pay for it later – indeed, not much later if current climate trends are any indication. To get to 2 degrees Celsius or under, all these solutions require unprecedented efforts to cut fossil-fuel use in half in less than 15 years and eliminate their use almost entirely within 30 years. Long siloed, the conversation at least this month took on a new urgency. Climate change is no longer just a political story. The science is clear, the impacts too obvious, the potentially irreversible repercussions as well as deployable solutions imminent. Now it’s a business story, a legal story and, increasingly, a story about the potential contribution of both technology and nature working alongside each other.
The good news is that the future hasn’t already been set in stone. Climate change is an inescapable present and future reality, but the point of the IPCC report is that there is still a chance to seize the best-case scenario rather than surrender to the worst. This December, Poland hosts the next UN governmental meeting, and the UN Secretary General has asked global leaders to meet with him at a special summit in New York in September next year, citing alarm by the paralysis of world leaders on what he called the “defining issue” of our time. Grave threat, or unmissable opportunity for movement and funding? There is still time to decide, although the window is narrowing rapidly.