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'Unprecedented' moves needed as UN report warns of faster than expected climate change effects

In a landmark report released today, the organisation said that time is running out to avert disaster.

Image: John Giles/PA Images

Updated Oct 8th 2018, 8:14 PM

AVOIDING GLOBAL CLIMATE chaos will require a major transformation of society and the world economy that is “unprecedented in scale”, the United Nations has warned.

In a landmark report released today, the organisation also said that time is running out to avert disaster.

Earth’s surface has warmed one degree Celsius – enough to lift oceans and unleash a crescendo of deadly storms, floods and droughts – and is on track toward an unlivable 3 degree or 4 degree rise.

At current levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the world could pass the 1.5 Celsius marker as early as 2030, and no later than mid-century, the Intergovernmental Panel for ClimateChange (IPCC) reported with “high confidence”.

“The next few years are probably the most important in human history,” Debra Roberts, head of the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department in Durban, South Africa, and an IPCC co-chair, told AFP.

A Summary for Policymakers of the 400-page tome underscores how quickly global warming has outstripped humanity’s attempt to tame it, and outlines options for avoiding the worst ravages of a climate-addled future.

“We have done our job, we have now passed on the message,” Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy and an IPCC co-chair, said at a press conference.

“Now it is over to governments — it’s their responsibility to act on it.”

Ireland

Reacting to the report, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten TD said it painted a “stark” picture about what would happen if politicians did not listen.

“As a government we are fully committed to placing Ireland on the trajectory to deliver the deep emissions reductions needed. This week at EU Council, Ireland will be calling for increased ambition, of at least 40% improvements and as far as technically possible beyond that, in the level of CO2 emissions for new cars and vans under vehicle emissions standards,” Naughten said. 

The minister said that the government is directing almost €30 billion under the National Development Plan to transition to a “low-carbon and climate-resilient society”.

Among the targets are an aggregate reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of at least 80% compared to 1990 levels by 2050.

Paris Agreement

Before the Paris Agreement was written in 2015, nearly a decade of scientific research rested on the assumption that 2 Celsius was the guardrail for a climate-safe world.

The IPCC report, however, shows that global warming impacts have come sooner and hit harder than predicted. 

“Things that scientists have been saying would happen further in the future are happening now,” Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, told AFP.

To have at least a 50/50 chance of staying under the 1.5C cap without overshooting the mark, the world must become “carbon neutral” by 2050, according to the report. 

“That means every tonne of CO2 we put into the atmosphere will have to be balanced by a tonne of CO2 taken out,” said lead coordinating author Myles Allen, head of the University of Oxford’s Climate Research Programme.

Drawing from more than 6,000 recent scientific studies, the report laid out four pathways to that goal.

Biofuels

The most ambitious would see a radical drawdown in energy consumption coupled with a rapid shift away from fossil fuels and a swift decline in CO2 emissions starting in 2020.

It would also avoid an “overshoot” of the 1.5C threshold.

A contrasting “pay later” scenario compensates for a high-consumption lifestyles and continued use of fossil fuels with a temporary breaching of the 1.5C ceiling. 

It depends heavily on the use of biofuels. But the scheme would need to plant an area twice the size of India in biofuel crops, and assumes that some 1,200 billion tonnes of CO2 – 30 years’ worth of emissions at current rates – can be safely locked away underground.

“Is it fair for the next generation to pay to take the CO2 out of the atmosphere that we are now putting into it?”, asked Allen. ”We have to start having that debate.”

The stakes are especially high for small island states, developing nations in the tropics, and countries with densely-populated delta regions already suffering from rising seas. 

“We have only the slimmest of opportunities remaining to avoid unthinkable damage to the climate system that supports life as we know it,” said Amjad Abdulla, chief negotiator at UN climate talks for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

Limiting global warming to 1.5 Celsius comes with a hefty price tag: some €2.1 trillion of investments in the global energy system every year between 2016 and 2035, or about 2.5% of world GDP. 

‘Silver bullet’

That amount, however, must be weighed against the even steeper cost of inaction, the report says.

The path to a climate-safe world has become a tightrope, and will require an unprecedented marshalling of human ingenuity, the authors said.

“The problem isn’t going to be solved with a silver bullet,” Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, told AFP. 

“We need a hail of silver bullets.”

The IPCC report was timed to feed into the December UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, where world leaders will be under pressure to ramp up national carbon-cutting pledges which – even if fulfilled – would yield a ’3 Celsius world’.

Naughten will lead the Irish delegation at the summit and says the aim of the meeting is to build on the Paris Agreement.

“At COP 24 we are aiming to complete the rulebook for the Paris Agreement to put in place a transparent and robust system to drive the highest ambition by all parties to the agreement,” Naughten said today.

“Ireland and the EU have already made commitments for 2030 which are amongst the most ambitious of all Parties to the Agreement. It is clear however that we will need to scale up our ambition over time, informed by a clear scientific assessment of the impacts, challenges and opportunities presented by climate change which the IPCC’s Report confirms.”

 © – AFP 2018 

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