Equilibrium & Sustainability

The Hill’s Sustainability Report: UN climate report: Apocalypse maybe?

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Today is Monday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

There’s nothing like the smell of methane in the morning.

A new U.N. climate report has prompted apocalyptic headlines across the media, leaving politicians and activists alike deliberating about whether we have reached the point of no return.

Barring drastic emissions reductions, the report indicated that “limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.” But famous climate activist Greta Thunberg, had a much more measured response to the report. 

“It doesn’t tell us what to do,” Thunberg tweeted. “It is up to us to be brave and take decisions based on the scientific evidence provided in these reports. We can still avoid the worst consequences, but not if we continue like today, and not without treating the crisis like a crisis.”

Perhaps the difference between this report and its previous rendition, published 10 years ago, lies not just in the data points. Today, the authors are talking to a world that’s listening and eager to receive such information. And as Thunberg noted, the report suggests a clear path forward — if policymakers are willing to take it.

Today we will once again take the full issue to dig deeper into this new report, released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Monday morning. 

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

We are on a knife’s edge of emissions

The IPCC’s climate report unveils an alarming trend of warming even in the best-case scenario. But it also offers an opportunity to stop such growth in its tracks — suggesting that governments and businesses aiming to thrive in a future economy need to adopt emissions reductions plans sooner rather than later.

“This report is a reality check,” IPCC Working Group I co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte said in a news release. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climatewhich is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.”

Hold on … what is this report? Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis” is the product of Working Group I of the IPCC, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations established by the World Meteorological Organization. All 195 member states of the IPCC approved the report’s findings on Friday.

The report concludes that an increase in greenhouse gas concentrations since about 1750 is “unequivocally caused by human activities.” Each of the past four decades has been “successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850,” the report’s summary stated.

The authors determined that global surface temperature was 1.09 degrees Celsius higher in 2011-2020 than it was between 1850-1900. In total, they found that human-caused global surface temperature increase within that time was about 1.07 degrees, because other human drivers, such as aerosol use, may have caused a slight cooling.

Under all future scenarios, surface temperatures would increase. The report found that even if emissions drop dramatically, the global surface temperature is expected to increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the near-term (2021-2040) and 1.6 degrees in the mid-term (2041-2060), relative to 1850-1900.

What happens after that — as today’s children reach middle age — depends a great deal on what we do now. If emissions continue as is, surface temperatures could increase up to 4.4 degrees Celsius, which would be very bad.

If we make drastic cuts and begin drawing additional carbon down from the atmosphere, there is the prospect of reversing that warming, and ending the century — when today’s children are old — on a planet just 0.3 Celsius warmer than today, or 1.4 degrees higher than 1850-1900.

But it is not just about temperature,” the authors warned. Climate change has also been intensifying the global water cycle, meaning extreme weather events — like the one that recently flooded Germany — “are projected to intensify by about 7% for each 1°C of global warming.”

Projections were particularly dire for the Arctic, which the authors predicted could be “practically sea ice free in September at least once before 2050.”

Long-term sea level rise is likely to continue “for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean warming and ice sheet melt,” the authors wrote. These levels could remain elevated for thousands of years. 

Meanwhile, the report found that the higher emissions go, the less effective the land and water get at storing carbon.

What can be done? The main solution the authors proposed was anthropogenic carbon dioxide removal, which includes human practices or technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — compensating for residual emissions in the effort to reach net-zero.

But most importantly and immediately, countries need to cut emissions as fast as possible.

BETTER TECHNOLOGY FOR BETTER PREDICTIONS

One main difference between Monday’s findings and past reports is that the scientists who authored the contributing studies have access to better tools.

In addition to generating more precise projections for the future, scientists have also created an accessible new tool — called the Interactive Atlas — that will allow policymakers and members of the public “to really interact with the material that’s out there about climate change,” National Center for Atmospheric Research staff scientist and study author Linda Mearns told Equilibrium.

Regional emphasis: The Interactive Atlas tool allows users to look at whatever part of the world sparks their interest and overlay that region with various weather variables, times and seasons.

“One of the main things about the [IPCC] report is that it has a much stronger regional emphasis than any other report before,” Mearns said. “That’s the level of information that people are interested in and that we need for adaptation and mitigation plans.”

Users can customize the climate impact drivers that are important to them — generating maps of future fire weather, for example, which she said could be helpful in the emerging era of wildfire synchronicity.

“The fire seasons are lengthening,” Mearns said, noting that the U.S. and Australia can no longer depend on swapping equipment, as their fire seasons now overlap.

“We’re visual beings,” Mearns said, expressing confidence that the technology’s accessibility  will influence policymakers.

“You look at these maps, like the fire weather map, and you see that most regions of the world have a medium or high confidence that there will be increased fire weather in the future,” she said.

A technological shift: Mearns, who has been involved with this report since 1990, recognized an “amazing technological change” that has occurred, as well as an “evolution of science” that has made scientists better communicators.

She was pleased to report that the Working Group I authors crafted the current report with Working Group II in mind, as the latter — which focuses on socioeconomic vulnerability — will be publishing its follow-up study in February.

“Certainly, the goal of the report is not to just scare people,” Mearns said. “The goal is to inform people about the status of what we know about climate change,” so that policymakers can make better decisions.

WORLD LEADERS NAVIGATE A NARROW PATH TO SAFETY

​​The IPCC report’s call for “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in emissions comes out against a backdrop of a global order in which every sector — particularly electric utilities and transportation — remains deeply reliant on coal and other fossil fuels.

Changing this will require a complex, urgent work of international diplomacy between rich and poor nations.

The coal conundrum: “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels,” António Guterres, secretary-general of the U.N., said in a statement addressed to a world struggling with how to phase those fuels out. 

That’s easier said than done. The Group of 20 meeting of the world’s largest economies in July failed to agree on an end-date for coal development, as we reported. 

In its dissent at the time, India highlighted a key fault line that risks blowing up future negotiations: Developing countries feel they are being asked to turn away from the cheapest forms of energy by wealthy countries whose per-capita emissions remain far higher than the global average, as we reported.

A question of credibility: India’s was a political point, not a scientific one. And despite fears that political concerns would water down the science in the latest report, that didn’t happen. 

An attempt by the carbon-dependent Saudi government — which tried to defang a 2018 climate report, according to Bloomberg Green — to replace “carbon emissions” with “greenhouse gas emissions” was defeated, the Financial Times reported.

But in the end, rapidly implementing the cuts implied by the report’s conclusions will come down to politics, Bloomberg Green said.

One particularly sensitive question: Whether wealthy nations can come through with $100 billion a year in financing for green adaptation in poorer countries — a number that has been repeatedly promised but never delivered.

Similarly, Bloomberg noted, national governments need a shared compact on rules to govern emissions trading, “to ensure those moving faster towards cuts are rewarded for doing so.”

Little room for error: The report also narrows the range of actions available to the world’s wealthiest countries in the Group of Seven, which committed in June to keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.S. alone still gets 81 percent of its energy from coal, oil and natural gas, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

For business, risk and opportunity

Squaring that June promise with the urgent timeline suggested by the latest IPCC report would suggest a rapid transformation of their economies and regulatory structures — with sweeping implications for American business.

“Stay calm and carry on”: That’s the lesson for business, according to Chris Snyder, the head of the investor unit at the international consulting firm Guidehouse. 

The IPCC report means “dire risks,” Snyder told Equilibrium. “But we shouldn’t forget about opportunities for new technologies and investment.”

Transition and physical risk: The IPCC report is a further goad to businesses to accelerate what many are already doing, Snyder said. 

It pushes them to take a critical look at where they’re putting their assets and how vulnerable their supply chains are to a world of rising and unavoidable climate change — or what climate economists call physical risk.

Companies could also face transition risk: If they don’t adapt to a low carbon framework, they could either be left behind or made to adopt one — either by activist shareholders, a rise in the cost of carbon or strong government intervention, Snyder said. 

Opportunity does exist, in innovative forms of risk analysis and supply chain management, in modeling and mapping, and also in “anything related to the decarbonization of the economy,” Snyder added. “Anything to get emissions out of the economy.”

Pay now or pay later: Policymakers learned a similar lesson in 2006, when noted British climate economist Nicholas Stern estimated that 1 percent of annual global gross domestic product should go to preventing climate change, Snyder said.

That would have been $5 trillion that year, and the dollar amount required has continued to increase. Stern raised it to 2 percent of the global GDP in 2008 ($12 trillion), to reflect faster than expected climate change — and Snyder believes effective action now would require an even higher share of GDP. 

But the principle remains the same, Snyder said. Stern’s point, he argued, is that the money was an investment: “Pay now, or pay a much larger penalty later.”

Takeaway: So it may be a silver lining, Snyder said, that so much capital is being mobilized in this effort.

“Now solar power competes electron for electron with fossil fuels and other incumbent technologies,” he said, noting that this puts technologies like green hydrogen within reach for decarbonizing difficult sectors such as glass, steel and concrete.

“The investment queue is stunning,” he said, “and it continues to grow.”

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Tuesday.
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