Report collates five years of research in climate science and policy and presents a clear roadmap to a livable future — political will is the only barrier
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Synthesis Report (SYR) on March 20, 2023. It summarises the findings of six reports released during its Sixth Assessment Cycle — the 1.5 C report of 2018, the Special Reports on Land and Oceans of 2019, and the three Assessment Reports published between 2021 and 2022.
The SYR is presented in the wake of major global upheavals brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent global energy crisis.
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It also follows notable deliberations at the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate in Egypt last year, where a loss and damage fund for climate victims was written into existence, and discourse on issues such as fossil fuel phasedown and global financial system reform, was elevated.
Here are six key messages from Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the SYR.
Human activities have ‘unequivocally’ caused global warming, says the IPCC, with global net anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions clocking in at 59 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e), 54 per cent higher than the level in 1990.
This has warmed the land and oceans by 1.1°C as observed for the period of 2011-2020, compared with the period 1850-1900. Contributions have varied by country and income group, with around 35 per cent of the global population living in countries emitting more than 9 tCO2e per capita, while 41 per cent live in countries emitting less than 3 tCO2e.
Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) announced by countries till October 2021 make it likely that warming will exceed 1.5°C during the 21st century and make it harder to limit warming below 2°C.
With every increment of global warming, climatic extremes will become more widespread and pronounced. The CO2 absorption capacity of land and ocean sinks is likely to decrease, ocean acidification is likely to increase, and compound heatwaves and droughts are projected to become more frequent.
There may be some irreversible changes in the climate system when tipping points are reached, such as the loss of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. Adaptation options may reach their reach their limits of feasibility, leading to greater losses and damages.
It is estimated that from the beginning of 2020, we were left with about 500 GtCO2 of the carbon budget for a 50 per cent likelihood of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. This is likely to be depleted if the annual CO2 emissions between 2020 and 2030 stayed, on average, at the same level as 2019, says the report.
To achieve the 1.5°C goal with a 50 per cent likelihood, we need rapid and deep and, in most cases, immediate GHG emissions reductions in all sectors this decade.
GHG emissions must be cut by 43 per cent by 2030 compared to 2019 levels, and CO2 emissions must be cut by 48 per cent. This must be accompanied by reaching global net zero CO2 emissions in the early 2050s.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies can be deployed to reduce temperatures in case 1.5°C is overshot, but they come with “feasibility and sustainability concerns, and social and environmental risks” when deployed at large scales.
We need deep systemic changes across all economic sectors to reduce emissions on a sustained basis. Some of these include widespread electrification, diversifying energy generation to include more wind, solar, and small-scale hydropower, deploying more battery-powered electric vehicles, and conserving and restoring forests while also reducing tropical deforestation.
The good news is that feasible, effective, and low-cost options for mitigation and adaptation are already available, with some differences across systems and regions.
“Several mitigation options, notably solar energy, wind energy, electrification of urban systems, urban green infrastructure, energy efficiency, demand-side management, improved forest- and crop/grassland management, and reduced food waste and loss, are technically viable, are becoming increasingly cost effective and are generally supported by the public,” says the report.
Equity is central to climate resilient development. “Adaptation and mitigation actions, that prioritise equity, social justice, climate justice, rights-based approaches, and inclusivity, lead to more sustainable outcomes, reduce trade-offs, support transformative change and advance climate resilient development,” the report highlights.
High income groups contribute disproportionately to emissions, and thereby have the highest potential for emissions reduction. Developing countries need technology development, transfer, capacity building and financing to ‘leapfrog’ to low-emissions systems and reap the co-benefits.
This can be enabled by political commitment. Particularly for sectoral mitigation, regulatory instruments driven by governments can support deep emissions reductions; carbon pricing instruments on the other hand, which are market-based, have been less effective.
The report concludes with the crucial statement that “there is sufficient global capital to close the global investment gaps”. We need to overcome the barriers to redirect capital to climate action.
The report emphasises that accelerated financial support for developing countries from developed countries is a critical enabler, with a greater focus needed on public grant-based finance.
The SPM is a document prepared by IPCC scientific and technical experts in discussion with government representatives. As a result, the messages included in it are those considered politically palatable for all. The main text of the six underlying reports presents a more vast set of recommendations based on evidence and research.
The review process of the SPM last week began on an unequal footing. Developing country representatives had to push for greater focus on issues like equity, losses and damages, and climate finance, observers of the process told Down to Earth, which extended the time of the negotiations. Their efforts were somewhat rewarded, as successive drafts of the document presented these priorities in strengthened form.
And a delegation from a major fossil-fuel producing country pushed for greater focus on untested CO2 removal technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) — which in the context of the energy sector, is viewed as crutch to prolong the life and viability of fossil fuel operations.
Negotiations on the issue led to the inclusion of an elaborate footnote which states that the “implementation of CCS currently faces technological, economic, institutional, ecological, environmental and socio-cultural barriers,” and that currently, “global rates of CCS deployment are far below those in modelled pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C to 2°C”.
Yet, despite the political nature of the SPM, it provides an overview of where our global climate system is at, and the broad policy-relevant measures that need to be taken to avert the worst of the crisis.
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