The assessment reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are often read as forecasting an overwhelmingly catastrophic future for the climate and the societies and environments that depend on it. This need not be. Yes, a business as usual approach to the climate crisis will lead to many large scale tragedies, but this should not overshadow the immense opportunities that science shows are still available for maximising the environmental and humanitarian outcomes into the future.
Since its formation in 1988 the IPCC has published 5 assessment reports (ARs), the most recent in 2014 and next in 2021, as well as various “special reports”. The contents of these reports are highly technical and wide-ranging, but the key themes are the strength of the evidence behind the reality of unprecedented rapid changes to our climate, the human caused (so-called ‘anthropogenic’) nature of these changes, and the uncountable dangers this poses to human and non-human life in the coming decades.
The sense of inevitable doom that such findings create is neither necessary or helpful. These predictions for the future do not represent “the future full-stop”, but rather the future if society carries on interacting with the climate in the same way it does now. Emphasising the consequences of inaction risks inciting fear and apathy. The opportunities the AR5 Synthesis Report presents for effective climate action can be summarized in three key points:
Cutting emissions by more and sooner will make environmental and development goals more achievable.
Policies made based on holistic cost-benefit evaluations will be more effective.
Considering social justice will allow for the maximization of sustainable development outcomes.
In the rest of the article these points will be examined in more detail
There are conditions under which the IPCC predicts that warming is unlikely to exceed 2 degrees.
When making predictions about the future, the IPCC considers various scenarios that differ in their patterns of energy use. This allows models to make different predictions about the climate of the future dependent on what level of emissions the future sees. In the scenario known as RCP2.6, “warming is unlikely to exceed 2°C” and is more likely than unlikely to remain under 1.5°C.
RCP2.6 represents the best case for limiting anthropogenic climate change. It requires a major transformation in climate policies and a start to concerted action in the next few years in all countries, both developing and developed. The predictions based on this scenario show that the message need not be one of imminent catastrophe. The conditions of RCP2.6 are ambitious but achievable. Although the climate will still change, harms will be dramatically reduced relative to high emissions levels. Making the right choices now will lead to large positive paybacks across climate, environment, economy, and health in the future.
We must meet this opportunity with urgency. Current estimates show that 25 more years of emissions at 2017 rates will lead to cumulative greenhouse gas (GHG) output sufficient to push us beyond 2°C of warming. Accelerated reductions in emissions are needed, and starting now will have the most powerful effects.
Cutting emissions WILL make things better
“Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce the costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term and contribute to climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development” - IPCC AR5 synthesis report
There are three key ways in which emissions can be cut: decarbonising the energy supply; using energy more efficiently; and using less energy. By taking action (via consumer pressure, lobbying legislators, voting, personal changes, etc) that lead to these three outcomes, meaningful improvements in climate/ environmental outcomes can be made.
Efficient use of energy involves increasing the percentage of energy used that goes into the task at hand (e.g. The electricity supplied to a light bulb is used up as both light and heat. More energy efficient lights produce the same amount of light, but less heat, meaning less total electricity is required).
Using less energy is perhaps self-explanatory at a personal level, but will involve large scale behavioral and organisational changes also.
Decarbonisation is the process of making the energy supply less GHG intensive such that each unit of energy produced results in less carbon emitted. This will involve using all available technologies to their full potential and not allowing fetishisation of specific solutions to distract from the important roles others can play. Under RCP2.6 the right combination of renewable energy sources, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage, including its use alongside bio-energy, makes the 2oC target achievable. You might notice that no groundbreaking wonder solutions are mentioned here. We are not reliant on these to improve the environment of the future. Rather, we must get our act together and implement the full range of technologies that are already available to us in a coordinated and timely manner.
The way in which the environment is managed is also important, as it can act as both a sink and a source for carbon dependent on conditions. “Save the rainforest” is prominent in the zeitgeist ,and yes, reducing deforestation is an important way in which the climate of the future can be improved. However, managing the environment in the best ways possible requires adaptive policies that take local factors into consideration, rather than a one size fits all approach that may lead to conflict and inefficiencies. Appreciating the context dependence of a given intervention's success is vital in all areas of climate action.
Acting sooner will make things better
The present is a time of unique opportunity for improving the environment and climate of the future. Never again will our actions have such a large positive effect, be they reductions in energy use, or changes to the energy supply.
The nature of the complex systems of the climate, environment, and economy mean that the more they are aloud to change, there more difficult they will be to bring back away from unhealthy extremes. By making decisive reductions in emissions now, we lessen the severity of cuts that will be required in the future to avoid a 2°C rise.Energy supply systems involve vast and expensive infrastructure which lasts for decades. Thus, every choice made in favour of zero/low carbon energy sources in the present helps to avoid being locked in to “dirty” technologies far into the future.
Optimising Decision making and Policy making will make things better
“Effective decision making requires analytical approaches for evaluating expected risks and benefits, recognizing the importance of governance, ethical dimensions, equity, value judgements, economic assessments and diverse perceptions and responses to risk and uncertainty.” - IPCC AR5 summary report, p18
Flexibility is an essential part of effective climate and environmental policy. What works well to reduce emission in one economic, social, and environmental context may be counter-productive in another. Therefore, it is essential policy makers are able to work alongside those with local knowledge to maximise the environmental outcomes in each situation, avoiding the inefficiencies of trying to enforce simplistic solutions across the board.
The effect of a given policy is dependent on the other policies that happen around it. Thus, by constructing portfolios of policies, rather than tackling specific problems in isolation, beneficial interactions can be exploited so as to better achieve desired outcomes.
Both Carbon Tax and “Cap and Trade” policies have been proposed as key ways in which lower emissions can be incentivised. Thus far they have had limited but positive impact. Refining the implementation of such policies can help better adapt them to the sector and the market in which they operate. Appropriately laid out, these measures have the potential to weaken the link between GHG emissions and GDP growth (as well as other measures of economic success). This decoupling of the economy from carbon emissions is a fundamental challenge in a program of sustainable development that aims to maximise the health of the environment as well as minimising poverty in the future.
A second opportunity to incentivise a reduction in carbon emissions comes through comprehensive labelling of products and services with relevant environmental impact information. Doing so would strengthen the connection in people's minds between their own actions/choices and environmental outcomes, helping to foster stronger intuitions of how to behave in environmentally positive ways. As consumers align their behaviours with their environmental values, pressure would be applied to the providers services/goods to make their products more sustainable.
The mere existence of effective climate mitigation technologies and strategies is of no use unless they are implemented on a sufficient scale. Thus, it is essential that structures are put in place which allow for their rapid spread and global implementation.
Those with power face incentives in the short term to seem like they are doing “something” and this has seen incremental introduction of pro-environmental policies over the last two decades. However, changes of this nature risk diverting attention from the large environmental benefits that could be achieved with more transformational changes. If we, as citizens, throw our support behind such transformational policies then it will be easier for leaders to embrace them, unlocking the doors to improved environmental outcomes in the future.
“The evidence suggests that outcomes seen as equitable can lead to more effective cooperation [between nations]”. Policies going forwards must take into account the fact that there are vast differences in historic GHG emissions, that these differences have led to differences in economic success, and that the countries that have seen this success are very often not the ones most at risk from the changing climate in the short and medium term. Countries and peoples left behind economically in the 20th century understandably want to embrace the economic advantages that fossil fuels brought other nations. The expansions they are currently undergoing make them key players in the global climate future. We are all responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, but to different extents, and policies which take this into account will be seen by those nations looking to catch up as more fair, and therefore will be more successful.
The AR5 was published in 2014 making it a somewhat dated document, but many of its messages are still relevant now. It shows both the risks that humanity and the environment face from climate change, and the opportunities for avoiding those risks and improving the environment of the future. Realising the full potential of the future may involve what seems like initially dramatic changes in some aspects of lifestyle but quality of life can be maintained where it is already high, and elsewhere improved. The transformation required is one of attitude. We must start embracing short-term changes to our society and the long-term benefits to the environment that these will bring. Every decision must include consideration of its impact on climate and the environment. Dragging our feet and doing the minimum whilst making vague excuses about the apparent insurmountability of the task ahead of us will no longer do. We’ve seen now that positive change is possible, it's time to start acting on that knowledge.
It would be easy to be overly positive about the 2°C target. Not only will that be exceeded in the absence of the relevant action, but even below that level dramatic changes in climate with its attendant harms will still be observed. The emphasis on the 2°C of warming relative to pre industrial (pre - 1880) levels is a result of an agreement by countries at the UN Framework convention on Climate Change, rather than a number that would protect against risks. However, the achievability of that goal should motivate sufficient action, which having proved itself possible, will lay the path for more ambitious goals to be set and then enthusiastically pursued.
Written by Louder Than The Storm Political Editor, MacGregor Cox.