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The IPCC’s Climate Solutions Report

Climate change—two simple words that are so innocuous, yet when combined are so dangerous that they might yet be carved on civilization’s gravestone:

Human Civilization.

Much loved.

Died from a sudden attack of climate change.

A great pity: the best was yet to come.

Every five to seven years, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues a doctor’s report on progress of the disease called climate change, which currently afflicts human civilization. The report is huge, and in keeping with doctors’ handwriting, hard to read. My thoughts here are based on the 33-page Summary from Working Group III, on ‘mitigation,’ (i.e. solutions, in plain English) with a few references to the full 1200-page report. (See http://mitigation2014.org).

The Guardian journalist Leo Hickman has summarized all three new IPCC reports, representing the work of goodness knows how many thousand scientists, into one 140-character tweet:

Climate change is real. We are to blame. It will get worse if we fail to act. The solutions are available and affordable. But time is short.[i]

#1. It’s a vast report

The 1,200 page Working Group III report has been produced by 1,250 international experts, based on 300 baseline scenarios and 900 mitigation scenarios, collected through an open call to integrated modeling teams around the world; and the Summary has been approved by 194 governments. So it represents a LOT of work. So if it’s a conspiracy, as most Republicans in the U.S. believe, it’s a really, really good one for that many people and governments to have been part of it without letting on.

#2. Averting catastrophe is super-cheap and eminently affordable, but only if we act now

The bottom line, after integrating the data from 900 mitigation scenarios, is that acting to ensure that Earth’s temperature does not increase by more than 2°C—provided we do it now—will reduce the annual growth of consumption by a mere 0.06%, from 2.3% to 2.24% a year. And that is not counting the economic benefits of avoiding a climate catastrophe, estimated as having a net present value of $615 to $803 trillion, or the positive benefits that flow from eliminating air pollution. In Florida, for instance, a recent University of Florida study found that the rise in extreme weather caused by climate change could cost the state up to $345 billion by the end of the century.

#3. We are speeding up our rate of emissions, not slowing down

Almost half of the carbon released since 1750 has come in the last 40 years. The 2008 financial crash made only the tiniest blip in the relentlessly upward curve of increasing emissions, which grew by 2.2% a year from 2000 to 2010. We are currently pumping out 49 gigatonnes of CO2e every year. Of this, fossil fuels contribute 65%, land-use change and deforestation 11%, and methane 16%. The scenarios presented in the Summary show that if we don't make any explicit mitigation efforts, we are heading for emissions that will be disastrously high.

#4. 2°C or 1.5°C?

The central thrust of the report is based on the supposed consensus that we need to aim to keep the temperature rise below 2°C. Of the 900 mitigation scenarios, only a limited number explored scenarios that are likely to get the temperature increase to back below + 1.5°C by 2100, and no studies have compared and integrated the scenarios, which is kind of troubling.

In a major paper last year, a team led by NASA climate scientist James Hansen made it clear that we cannot afford to go anywhere near 2°C. If we do hit 2°C, his team wrote, feedback mechanisms will kick in which will make it impossible to stop the temperature from rising to 3°C. 2°C is “far into the dangerous range”, they wrote. It will be “foolhardy”… will have “consequences that can be described as disastrous”… and will cause “major dislocations for civilization.”[ii] Also, if the warming exceeds 1.6°C, up to 31% of Earth’s species will be committed to extinction.[iii]

#5. We need a “massive shift” to renewable energy

Renewable energy includes solar, wind and others. The report includes nuclear—but it notes that nuclear has been declining, and comes with a big list of barriers and risks. The report includes carbon capture and sequestration from coal-fired power—but it notes that carbon capture has yet to be done for a large-scale commercial power plant. It also includes using carbon capture from bioenergy, creating negative emissions—but it notes that this too carries many challenges and risks.

#6. A solar future?

The good news is that the technical potential of renewable energy is reported as being at least 2.6 times as large as the total primary energy demand of the whole world. To meet the goals, solar will need to increase its 2011 global capacity 50–360 times by 2030-2050, and a recent study shows that the past diffusion of technologies such as solar has been generally more rapid than models have projected.

Solar PV gets remarkably little attention. It is bundled in with other renewables. The Energy Chapter includes no specific studies on solar potential, and the data is referenced is old—a problem inherent in assembling such a huge report, through the time needed to assemble and peer-review it. The report’s authors state for instance that “even the (solar) technologies that are more technically mature have not all reached a state of economic competitiveness.” For solar PV, this is fortunately no longer so in countries and regions which combine high solar radiance with a high price of electricity.

To give an idea of context that is not in the report, the IEA’s latest solar report shows that globally in 2013 solar PV contributed 160 TWh to the total global electricity demand of 18,400 TWh, producing 0.86% of the global supply.[iv] Solar PV capacity has doubled just since 2011, and grid parity will reach the majority of the world’s nations between now and 2020, triggering a veritable solar tsunami. A 50-fold increase from today’s total, which is easily conceivable, would see solar producing 43% of the world’s current electricity, and perhaps 30% of its future electricity.

#6. Natural gas

The report’s authors view natural gas as a bridge fuel, provided it replaces current coal-fired power with combined cycle plants and combined heat and power (district heat), and provided the associated fugitive methane emissions are low, which current evidence indicates they are not. It states that by 2050, the world will need to be using less gas than we do today, so—as Climate Progress points out— “the world is already using more natural gas than it can safely afford to be using in just 36 years.” My personal view is that a lock-in to natural gas could cause a dangerous amplification of risk, not a reduction, and that BC’s drive to natural gas is a perfect example of “lock-in” that disregards the climate science.

#7. Most of the IPCC’s higher emissions scenarios are recipes for disaster

The chart below summarizes the impact of the various scenarios that the report references: only those in the blue stripe at the very bottom, labeled RCP 2.6, have a chance of avoiding a 2°C increase. The rest are recipes for disaster.

Most of the lower end scenarios are based on emissions overshooting and then declining, postponing the deeper reductions until later. Most models cannot reach the nearterm reductions that are needed to avoid overshoot.

These scenarios also rely on a variety of CO2 removal technologies in the second half of the century, many of which have “diverse risk profiles.” Longterm mitigation scenarios focus on largescale afforestation, which is doable, and bioenergy coupled with carbon capture, which has been critiqued as doing more harm than good.

Such change will require a tripling or quadrupling of the world’s lowcarbon energy supply by 2050, including renewables, nuclear, and fossil energy with carbon dioxide capture and storage. Many models cannot reach 430 ppm to 480 ppm CO2e by 2100 if the full suite of lowcarbon technologies is not available.

With regard to nuclear, the study shows that quadrupling the lowcarbon share over 2030–2050 would require the construction of 29 to 107 new nuclear plants a year. The lower estimate corresponds to the rate of nuclear power installations in the 1980s; the higher estimate is ‘historically unprecedented.’

In Conclusion

It seems that market realities are going to overtake some of the report’s findings, especially in the fast-moving fields of solar PV, electric vehicles and battery technologies. The optimism which this can generate is balanced, however, by the continuing reality that as fast as renewable energy accelerates, the global demand for energy continues to grow, driven by both population and economic growth, and that our global use of fossil fuels is rising, not falling.

The report brings us the good news that in theory, we can do this with almost no negative economic impact, provided we act really soon. That should give governments confidence to proceed, instead of being held hostage by the erroneous belief that acting to save the climate will destroy the economy.

As Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, says, “The high-speed mitigation train will leave very soon, and all of the global community will have to be on board.”

Will Canada be on board? Will British Columbia be on board? Not on their current form. The leaders of both levels of governments are looking the other way, towards Smaug’s enchanting jewels of grander and ever more exciting fossil fuel projects—fracking for natural gas, liquefied natural gas, increased coal exports, increased tar-sands production, new pipelines.

It is up to us, then, to continue to work to awaken them to the dangers, and to the incredible opportunities of a clean energy economy.


{C}{C}{C}[ii]{C}{C}{C} Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature. James Hansen et al. PLOS One, December 2013. http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0081648


{C}{C}{C}[iii]{C}{C}{C} Climate change could one-fourth of the Earth's species to be headed for extinction by 2050. The Nature Conservancy. http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/urgentissues/global-warming-climate-change/threats-impacts/wildlife-at-risk.xml#sthash.BARbu6u9.dpuf