This month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released the much anticipated special report, SR15. Drafted in response to an invitation from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) following the Paris Agreement in 2015, the report outlines the real-world impacts of average global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The message was stark and clear – rapidly decarbonise the global economy within the next decade or face far reaching consequences to human welfare.
The key messages in the report
Citing more than 6,000 scientific works, 91 authors juxtapose the effects of 1.5°C of global warming with those brought about by 2.0°C in an attempt to convey the severity of our situation and encourage more rapid uptake of mitigation attempts.
“By 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all would be lost with 2ºC.”
Source: Summary for Policy makers
The difference between 1.5 and 2°C of average warming is significant and striving for the 1.5°C scenario is essential for the continuation of our current global economic model. One example of the global effect of this warming is the threat to coral reefs. It is estimated by the WWF that 1 billion people depend on coral reefs for food, coastal defence and income, particularly in developing countries. If the global average temperature were to climb by 2°C, vast masses of coral reef will be subject to bleaching as a result of the increase in global surface temperature caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
The emissions trajectory required to avoid crossing the dangerous 1.5°C threshold mandates a reduction of approximately 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. We must then reach net zero emissions by 2050. Source: Summary for Policy makers
What are the key points of debate surrounding the report?
While IPCC Co-chair of Working Group III, Jim Skea believes that “Limiting warming to 1.5ºC is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” other contributors stress that without political will, reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is nigh-on impossible.
The IPCC SR15 reports has also received criticism for over relying on Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) in creating its models and pathways to 1.5°C. BECCS, is a greenhouse gas mitigation technology that achieves negative carbon emissions through planting trees to sequester atmospheric carbon, then burning this biomass to create fuel while capturing and storing any carbon which may enter the atmosphere during the burning process. Although a potentially promising addition to our energy system, BECCS technology is still in its infancy and some argue that basing energy policy on an untested technology will only serve to perpetuate our current fossil fuel model.
As an alternative, a study by Detlef P. van Vuuren et al in Nature Climate Change offers a more diverse approach relying on speedy electrification, investment in renewable energy sources, behavioural and dietary changes and reforestation. These models eliminate the need for BECCS whilst still reaching the 1.5°C target. Plus, they align with many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
What does this mean for companies?
The surest way to align your business strategy with a 1.5°C world is to set a Science Based Target (SBT). The Science Based Targets Initiative is a collaboration between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and one of the We Mean Business Coalition Commitments. SBTs provide companies with a clearly defined pathway to future-proof growth by specifying how much and how quickly they need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
A common criticism of the IPCC reports is their inaccessibility to a non-scientific audience. The Carbon Brief offers succinct and easily digestible summaries of the report with helpful insights from climate scientists and those with industry know how. Head to The Carbon Brief for more on this report.