A report that said nothing new, but should still set the direction for the future of the EU

The release of the IPCC special report on 1.5 C attracted – rightly – a lot of attention globally. Its message is admirably clear, now is the time to act and if we act now it is possible to limit warming to 1.5 C. This report, unlike standard IPCC reports, was commissioned specifically by the Paris Agreement to examine the consequences of global warming by 1.5C and the associated emissions pathways that could limit global warming at this level. It is thus a key element in the Paris Agreement’s goal to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”. The IPCC report outlines a number of possible scenarios and possibilities for future warming and mitigation with varying degrees of confidence. However, it is clear that we have a carbon emissions budget somewhere between 500-750 GtCO2 remaining if we want to avoid warming of 1.5C (for a 50-66% chance of staying below 1.5 C). Today, global emissions are roughly 40 GtCO2, so at current levels we would have 10-20 years left before hitting this temperature milestone. This means that we must move quickly to reduce emissions now, or face even more radical cuts in a few years.

The IPCC lays out a number of possible pathways for reducing emissions in order to meet the 1.5 degree goal. However, these pathways are illustrative, and are based on existing studies. This is natural, because the findings of the IPCC must by definition reflect the academic consensus as agreed by the authors and the governments of member states. But policy makers therefore need to remember that the emissions reductions pathways presented are not definitive, and a number of possibilities need to be considered creatively. These solutions can cover a wide range of possibilities to suit particular situations. What matters most, though, is that choices should be implemented without delay.

Many of the IPCC mitigation pathways rely on a combination of emissions reductions and negative emissions technologies such as BECCS (Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage) to reduce emissions by mid-century. Unfortunately, BECCS has a number of technological, practical and political challenges to overcome before it can be considered seriously as a viable option for large-scale negative emissions[1]. Other immediate options to meet the 1.5 degree goal exist, but they rely on rapid and ambitious emissions reductions and significantly enhancing other natural carbon sinks[2]. This highlights the very serious challenge that reaching net-zero emissions represents: it demands a fundamental change in approach across the economy, and notably a change in thinking regarding agriculture, land use and forestry, as IEEP has argued. 

The bulk of the IPCC report focuses on supply side energy solutions (not least because this has been the focus of respected academic literature). While this is a critical aspect of lowering emissions, it risks obscuring some of the major impacts that society can have through our consumption choices. Given the challenges involved in negative emissions at scale, and in rapid decarbonisation of supply, and the sheer scale of the reductions required, we also have to look at “demand side” solutions in our policy responses, such as building societies that induce less motorised travel, eats more sustainably, or consumes less wastefully. This is particularly important as these sorts of measures may also have very important roles to play in achieving other sustainable development goals.

One welcome aspect of the IPCC special report is its analysis of trade-offs and synergies between the different mitigation options and their links to the 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But it is also clear that a lot of more research and policy thinking is needed on the interaction of the 1.5 C scenarios and the implementation of the SDGs, and on how to enhance synergies. Some of the highlights of this analysis include confirming the positive interaction between a transition and transformations towards sustainable development and limiting warming at 1.5 C and the importance of social justice and equity as core aspects of climate-resilient development pathways. 

This should also be mirrored in the decisions to be made to address climate change. For example, for any decisions concerning large-scale use of BECCS there needs to be a critical reflection on how this would affect the people living in the areas that are planned to be transformed into ‘mitigation-forests’ or biomaterials to be used for energy and storage of carbon. But social justice and equity should also be at the forefront of the discussions at the upcoming COP24 and the continuous global climate negotiations. How would it even be possible to address a transboundary issue like climate change without having the collective good as a priority? 

The EU’s current short-term action and medium term goals such as the EU 2030 climate targets and Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the UNFCCC are clearly far from sufficient to reach the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement. The European Commission is currently in the process of developing a Long Term Emissions reduction strategy for the EU. Simultaneously there are discussions and decisions from the European Parliament and the European Council on what the EU’s position should be ahead of the COP24, taking place in December in Poland. The IPCC report serves as a warning that the discussion is still not nearly ambitious enough.

The IPCC 1.5 report, in a sense, said nothing new, and nothing we did not know before; but it presents it in a form that policymakers across the globe cannot honestly ignore. It demands an urgent response. We have solutions, knowledge and resources, but we need will, faith in each other and political courage. We cannot rely on any one technology or sector to decarbonise, or place too much faith in unproven negative emissions technologies; and we need serious policy reflection now on how to manage the land use and consumption implications of net zero emissions. For Europe, it is clear that the challenges cannot be met without a high level of strategic coordination and shared decision-making at EU level. As leaders prepare for the next European Parliament elections, the appointment of the next Commission, and the Sibiu European Council discussion on the future of the EU in May, the challenge of the 1.5 degree target should provide a clear frame for their thinking. If Sibiu, and the priorities set for the next few years, fail to take climate action and decarbonisation as the most important task facing Europe, it will have failed.

What is clear already now is that there is no option not to pay for climate change. The choice is between making investments now, and delivering a low-carbon future through a least-cost path; waking up to the scale of the problem later, when the cost of decarbonisation will be much greater, because of the mistaken investments we will have made in the meantime; or ignoring the problem altogether, and condemning ourselves, and future generations, to the sorts of damage the IPCC has just explained so clearly, endangering our own population, and inviting future migration crises on a massive scale. 

 

 

[1] FERN Briefing Note, Six problems with BECCS, https://fern.org/BECCSbriefing

[2] Carbon Brief, (13 April 2018), World can limit global warming to 1.5C ‘without BECCS’ , https://www.carbonbrief.org/world-can-limit-global-warming-to-onepointfive-without-beccs