UN body’s report collates work of 851 scientists as it prepares to address ‘the world’s biggest challenge’
The IPCC believes its report provides good foundations for climate negotiations
Greenland’s east coast: the melting ice sheets meet the sea. This is but one example of the damage being done to the planet by humans in the form of global warming. Photograph: Andrew Testa/New York Times
Three years ago, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was under sustained attack, vilified by global warming sceptics and deniers for its methods, its conclusions and its recommendations on what should be done to deal with the challenge facing humanity.
But yesterday in Stockholm, the IPCC fought back with a convincing first instalment of its Fifth Assessment of climate change. The summary report it produced not only confirmed that global warming has started but concluded that we are the main culprits.
It is now much more certain that climate change is caused by human activities, notably burning oil, coal, peat and gas. This raises a fundamental question about whether fossil fuels have become “unburnable” if targets are to be met.
US secretary of state John Kerry said the report “builds on the most authoritative assessments of knowledge on climate change produced by scientists, who by profession are conservative because they must deal in what is observable, provable and reviewable by their peers”.
The 13,000-word summary for policymakers, debated line-by-line at an IPCC session that went on till 5am yesterday, is a distillation of the work of 851 scientists, drawing from 9,200 peer-reviewed papers, more than two-thirds published since the last assessment in 2007.
At its Stockholm session, which involved scientists and representatives of 105 governments, the IPCC only made “changes in clarity” to the summary.
Having steered the panel through a turbulent time, during which it was heavily criticised for such errors as a prediction that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2037, Indian chairman Dr Rajenda Pachauri was at pains yesterday to emphasise its transparency and openness. He said almost 60 per cent of the report’s authors “are new to the IPCC [and] bring fresh perspectives, new knowledge, to the process”. Drafts of the working group’s report also attracted 6,477 comments from 1,089 expert reviewers in 55 countries. This had “strengthened the IPCC immeasurably” and led to the production of a “very, very good report” which would be of use to “decision-makers, the scientific community and even average people on the street”, providing a “firm foundation” for UN climate negotiations.
These negotiations, ongoing since 1995, will resume in Warsaw in late November. Delegates from 195 countries will move to Lima in late-2014 before finally convening in Paris towards the end of 2015, with a view to reaching a “universal agreement” on climate change.
Michel Jarraud, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation, joint sponsors of the IPCC with the UN Environment Programme (Unep), said the latest report would be “essential” to negotiations with a view to a global climate agreement in 2015. Achim Steiner, executive director of Nairobi-based Unep, described it as the latest chapter in a “scientific journey of discovery”, saying there was no such thing as “perfect knowledge” and he paid tribute to the IPCC for having “retained its courage despite all the challenges”.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, in a video message from New York, also endorsed the report, saying the IPCC was “using the world’s best science to address the world’s biggest challenge” and that he would be hosting a climate summit for world leaders next September.
As for what could be done, Dr Pachauri had no hesitation yesterday in saying that putting a price on carbon would be “an extremely effective instrument” because it was only through the market that a rapid and large-scale response could be achieved in the short term.
However, the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme is practically moribund at this stage, despite convoluted attempts by the European Commission to rescue it, while the new Australian government has threatened to scrap a carbon trading scheme introduced by its predecessor.
On the bright side, California has just introduced carbon trading and even done a deal with China to collaborate on reducing emissions. Other progressive US states may soon follow and a bandwagon could develop in favour of “market mechanisms” to combat climate change.