Fertile ground for climate policy

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This post is taken from Carlo Carraro’s Blog (published 26/12/14)

At the end of 2014, it is time to take stock. We are at the heart of one of the most active and decisive periods of the history of climate science and policy. After years of stagnation in action on climate, something is happening. 2015 will be a decisive year for the decisions that governments will have to take, without delay, to control greenhouse gas emissions. It will be a year of important events, the last being the December 2015 COP in Paris, to which the research world has responded by preparing the ground with a large number of studies.

This year the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC was finally completed and made public in its entirety. The research is clear on climate change, its impacts, and possible actions to address them. Given the extent of the results, which are unequivocal in indicating the dangers to which we are headed, in recent months we have seen the world of climate policy moving as well. Europe came first with its 2030 Climate and Energy Policy Framework and shortly after, the two major world emitters, the United States and China, released theirbilateral emission control agreement. There was also the Climate Summit in New York, where significant financial commitments to invest in technologies and adequate infrastructure to reduce our emissions were made. COP20 in Lima ended in recent days, constituting the last major step before the decisive COP21 in Paris.

In this context, and in the wake of what is contained in the fifth IPCC Report, research on climate change and the necessary climate policies has, in recent months, pressed the accelerator towards providing as much knowledge and solid evaluation as possible to policymakers who are working on the Paris agreement.

Four recent major reports provide useful tools not only to understand what climate change will mean for our socio-economic systems, but especially to improve the management of time and resources with regard to climate policy.

The World Bank report ‘Turn Down the Heat: confronting the new climate normal‘ highlights in particular the need to increase efforts in terms of adaptation to climate change. Even taking into account significant and urgent mitigation measures, we are certainly headed for an average temperature increase of 1.5 degrees in mid-century, with all the impacts that will result. As we move away from the possibility of a future within the 2°C increase in temperature (a goal which – as recently stated by Thomas Stocker in Introductory Lecture of the Italian Society for Climate Sciences – is still technically possible, but unfortunately politically and economically unrealistic), we must prepare for the impacts and risks of a world whose climate is rapidly changing.

As pointed out by the Fifth IPCC report, if we continue on the current trajectory, we will arrive at a temperature rise of about 4°C . More realistically, the actions that countries are currently undertaking place us on a trajectory of a growth of between 2.5°C and 3°C by the end of the century.

The World Bank report makes an interesting comparison of the impacts associated with a warming of 0.8°C, 2°C and 4°C, proving once again that the more we allow for climate change, the greater the risk to development and the greater the growth of poverty and inequality. Life in a world at + 0.8°C or 4°C is very different. In the latter case,unprecedented heat waves would hit different regions of the world to a differentiated extent, affecting 70-80% of the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and 55% of the territory of Europe-Central Asia covered by the report[1].

Along with the expected change in rainfall, agriculture will suffer greatly from a warming climate (even if limited to a +2°C increase), leading to a reduction of 30-70% in soybean yield in Brazil, and 50% in wheat in Brazil, Central America and the Caribbean. Water is mentioned mainly in terms of rising sea levels and flooding, but we should not forget the enormous value of the service offered by the oceans in terms of ecosystems and, by extension, economics. Take, for example, the value of coral in terms of coastal protection, tourism and hospitality to marine life. To preserve at least 10% of coral, the World Bank says, the average temperature should not exceed +1.5°C.

However, a +1.5°C temperature rise already belongs to the current greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Furthermore, two degrees, as mentioned, is probably unrealistic as a target at the end of the century, given the expected trajectory of future energy consumption. This is clear from a second major report, the World Energy Outlook 2014 by the International Energy Agency, which for the first time offers projections to 2040. Global energy demand is clearly increasing (up 37% in 2040, concentrated in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America), even though economic growth and population growth are characterized as less energy intensive than previously.

By 2040, the global energy mix will be split almost evenly between oil, coal, gas and low-carbon energy sources. For every barrel of oil that is no longer consumed in OECD countries, according to the report, two more barrels will be demanded by non-OECD countries. The growth trend of oil consumption, although slowing down, is not only problematic for the carbon intensity associated with its use, but also as a matter of energy security, due to dependence on a limited number of producers and the exposure of the market to the geopolitical balance. On the other hand, global trends in natural gas are encouraging, intended as a source of energy transition to a green economy, which by 2030 will become the main source in the energy mix OECD. The abundance of coal makes it difficult to curb the growth in demand (+15% in 2040), led by China, which will reach 50% of world consumption of the fuel, seeing it reduced after 2030.

The picture is clear and demonstrates the insufficient weight of low carbon sources. However, this picture can be improved by the climate and energy policies that will be put in place in the short term. Given the crucial role of developing countries in the growth of demand for energy, climate finance, one of the key issues of the COP20 talks in Lima, plays a key role in building greener growth through investments in innovation, technology transfer and energy efficiency, as well as adaptation to climate change.

Good news comes from a third major report, World Population and Human Capital in the 21st Century (IIASA), according to which world population will reach its peak (9.4 billion, compared to 7.3 today) by 2070. This is certainly among the factors that will help us slow the production of greenhouse gases.

Finally, the importance of a fourth recent report should be emphasised. The UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2014 examined how far we are from an emissions trajectory that would prevent the main risks of climate change in progress. The Fifth IPCC report, whose synthesis was approved by all the governments of the United Nations in September 2014, has shown that, to meet the target of two degrees, the peak of global emissions should be achieved by 2030 and emissions themselves should reach zero between 2070 and 2090. According to the findings so far, without urgent efforts to reduce emissions, it will not be possible to reach the peak so quickly. Further, the more action is delayed, the more it will be necessary to resort to negative emissions (removal of gases from the atmosphere) towards end of the century. Something for which we are hardly prepared.

According to the UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2014, which examines the realism of the commitments made by different countries (referring to the commitments to reduce emissions taken in Copenhagen – COP15, with reference to 2020), not only are these commitments insufficient to meet the target of two degrees, but those who are on the right track to meet the self-imposed targets are few in number[2] (this ‘obviously depends also on the fact that some targets are not ambitious…)

It is desirable that the national targets for reducing emissions that will form the basis of the new post-2020 agreement in Paris in 2015 should be more ambitious and effective. Furthermore, they should be supported by appropriate policies that allow states to respect them. Some have already been released during the negotiations in Lima, but the full picture will not be available until next spring when the emission gap in 2030 will be fully assessable. This gap, however, as UNEP demonstrates, is still bridgeable with the current available potential to reduce emissions (especially if already possible major improvements in energy efficiency are exploited).

Ambitious national commitments to mitigation, more space for adaptation and significant and concrete financial commitments – that is what emerges as necessary from the above reports. Not surprisingly, this corresponds to the key themes of the current negotiations. The climate sciences have matured enough to be able to clearly state the objectives to be pursued, as well as to suggest ways to pursue them in an efficient way and to provide adequate reasons to stimulate urgent action in their pursuit. While research continues to reduce uncertainties, it is up to the policy world to take action.

[1] Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, the Kyrgyz Republic, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, the Russian Federation, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

[2] Brazil, China, EU28, India, Russia

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