IPCC Reports Quick Action Can Avert Worst Climate Impacts

BANGKOK, Thailand, May 4, 2007 (ENS) Catastropic global warming can be avoided without excessive economic cost but the world must begin to act at once, a UN climate change panel representing 2,500 international scientists said today.

The world community could slow and then reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases over the next several decades by utilizing cost-effective policies and current and emerging technologies, says the new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC.

"If we continue to do what we are doing now, we are in deep trouble," said Ogunlade Davidson of Sierra Leone, who served as co-chair of the IPCC Working Group that produced the report with Bert Metz from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

"This report is all about solutions to climate change," Davidson said.

Co-chairs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Working Group at climate talks in Bangkok. From left: Bert Metz, Ogunlade Davidson. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Based on the most up-to-date, peer-reviewed literature on emissions modeling, economics, policies and technologies, the report shows how governments, industry and the general public could together reduce the energy and carbon intensity of the global economy even with growing incomes and population levels.

"Measures to reduce emissions can, in the main, be achieved at starkly low costs especially when compared with the costs of inaction," said Executive Director Achim Steiner of the UN Environment Programme, which, together with the World Meteorological Organization, established the IPCC.

"Indeed some, such as reducing emissions by 30 percent from buildings by 2020, actually contribute positively to GDP," Steiner said.

"It is now up to governments to introduce the mechanisms and incentives to unleash the ingenuity and creativity of the financial and technological markets in order to realize these economic, social and environmental gains," he said.

According to "Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change," without additional action by governments the emissions from the basket of six greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol will rise by 25 to 90 percent by 2030 compared to 2000.

The six gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, PFCs and HFCs.

There is "high agreement," based on "much evidence" that global greenhouse gas emissions have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70 percent between 1970 and 2004, the report states.

Still, by adopting stronger climate change policies governments could slow and reverse these emissions trends and ultimately stabilize the level of greenhouse gases remaining in the atmosphere.

The suggested changes range from simple measures like more efficient electrical appliances and reforestation to well known solutions such as generating electricity from solar, geothermal, tidal and wave energy.

But they also include advanced nuclear power, which emits litle carbon but has waste disposal and safety issues, and the storing of carbon dioxide underground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, an undeveloped technology.

The IPCC concludes that global greenhouse gas levels should peak by 2015 and then fall to 50 to 85 percent of 2000 levels by 2050.

This could limit global mean temperature increases to 2 to 2.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the point generally viewed as the threshold at which some of the most extreme impacts of climate change will begin.

The report's Summary for Policymakers was finalized and adopted this week by representatives from 105 countries. The full set of underlying chapters, written by 168 authors, about 40 percent of whom are from developing and transition countries, and reviewed by hundreds of other experts, will be available shortly.

Government delegates go over the text of the IPCC report one line at a time to reach agreement. (Photo courtesy ENB)
Although the week-long process included a line-by-line approval from all governments at the meeting, the governments were not in complete agreement on all aspects of the report.

There were objections from China, which is about to take over from the United States as the world's single largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Chinese delegates argued that moves to cut emissions should be delayed so as to avoid limiting its economic development. Yet, a draft of the final report contains references to strict emissions targets, which they had opposed earlier.

The U.S. delegation wanted statements inserted in the report to the effect that the cost of current available technologies to reduce emissions "could be unacceptably high," and calling for a greater emphasis on "advanced technologies," many aimed at extending the use of coal.


Dr. Harlan Watson heads the U.S. delegation to the IPCC meeting in Bangkok. (Photo courtesy U.S. State Department)
The United States has attempted to steer the group towards voluntary climate change actions and away from mandatory solutions such as the Kyoto Protocol, adopted by Europe and Japan.

U.S. environmental groups were critical of the American approach.

"It's especially troubling that the Bush administration was seeking last-minute changes to play down the report's conclusion that quick, affordable action can limit the worst effects of global warming," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "Rather than embrace the report's window of opportunity message, the Bush administration tried to shut the window and draw the shades."

"We have a window of opportunity, but it won't stay open forever," said Steve Cochran, national climate campaign director at the American nonprofit group Environmental Defense. "Anyone pushing for delay is pushing for higher costs and longer odds."

"There is much good news here and even reason for optimism if we listen and heed the call to action," said National Audubon Society President John Flicker. "The U.S. can start filling the scientists' prescription by rapidly adopting emissions caps, renewable electricity standards, energy conservation measures, and improving fuel efficiency."

"The report makes it clear that voluntary measures have had no effect - these cannot be take 'em or leave 'em approaches. The world's best scientists are telling us that it will take serious changes backed by the force of law if we want to minimize the risk to people and wildlife," Flicker said.

"Every poll confirms that the American public is clamoring for solutions to this grave threat," he said. "The clock is ticking and the White House has failed to lead the way. Now it's up to Congress to set the course that science prescribes to lead us away from the threats of global warming and toward a brighter energy future."

The report addresses ways of reducing emissions from key sectors such as the energy supply sector, buildings, transport, and land use.

The IPCC concludes that no single economically and technologically feasible solution would on its own be enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector. Instead, governments would need to promote a range of options.

For example, they could encourage natural gas over more carbon-intensive fossil fuels as well as mature renewable energy technologies such as large hydro, biomass combustion and geothermal.

The Mahanagdong geothermal power plant in the Philippines. Utilitizing steam from beneath the Earth's surface, geothermal power produces no greenhouse gases. (Photo courtesy MidAmerican Energy)
Other renewable sources include solar assisted air conditioning, wave power and nanotechnology solar cells, although they all still require more technological or commercial development.

Yet another option could be carbon capture and storage technology. This involves capturing carbon dioxide before it can be emitted into the atmosphere, transporting it to a secure location, and isolating it from the atmosphere, for example by storing it in a geological formation.

Irrespective of climate change, over $20 trillion is expected to be invested in upgrading global energy infrastructure from now until 2030. The additional cost for altering these investments in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would range from negligible to an increase of five to 10 percent.


This structure in France across the Rance River near its mouth at the Gulf of Malmo houses the world's largest tidal power plant, using tide variations of up to 13 meters. (Photo courtesy Yves Lafon)
Governments can play a major role in motivating the private sector to invest in innovative technologies by providing companies with "incentives that are clear, predictable, long term and robust," the IPCC said.

Government policies can be counterproductive, the report states. Direct and indirect subsidies for fossil fuel use and agriculture remain common practice, although those for coal have declined over the past decade in many OECD and in some developing countries. In addition, government funding for many energy research programs declined after the 1970s oil shocks and have remained at these lower levels.

There are many ways that public policy can promote the development, deployment and diffusion of new technologies.

The IPCC finds that governments are successfully using a wide range of policies and measures that address climate change, including regulations and standards, taxes and charges, tradable permits, voluntary agreements, subsidies, financial incentives, research and development programs, and information instruments.

"The most effective policy mix will vary from country to country," the experts said. "If integrated with other government policies, climate change policies can contribute to sustainable development practices in both developed and developing countries."

power plan

China's coal-fired Shentou-2 power plant in Shanxi. China has abundant reserves of coal. (Photo courtesy Skoda Export)
For their policies to be effective, however, governments would need to pay special attention to identifying and removing barriers to innovation. These can include market prices that do not incorporate externalities such as pollution, misplaced incentives, vested interests, lack of effective regulatory agencies and imperfect information.

Because no one sector or technology can address the entire mitigation challenge, the best approach is to adopt a diversified portfolio of policies and to address all major sectors.

Some of the cheapest options for reducing emissions involve electricity savings in buildings, fuel savings in vehicles and increased soil carbon content in agriculture.

Because energy supply is the largest contributor to emissions, policies to promote a shift to less carbon-intensive energy sources are particularly effective.

Many economic models report the costs of reducing emissions in terms of losses in the Gross Domestic Product, GDP.

For example, the IPCC says, by the year 2030 the global average macro-economic cost of ensuring that greenhouse gas levels eventually stabilize in the range of 445 to 710 parts per million is estimated at from less than three percent to a gain of 0.6 percent.

"This translates into an annual reduction in the GDP growth rate of less than 0.12 percent to less than 0.06 percent. This small loss should be compared to projections that the global economy will likely expand dramatically over the next several decades," the report states.

power plant

The Independence coal-fired power plant in Arkansas is jointly owned by a group of nine municipal, coop, investor-owned, and deregulated power companies. (Photo courtesy Entergy Arkansas)
A carbon price reflecting the true cost of greenhouse gas emissions will provide signals to individual firms and households to cut emissions and stimulate the research and development of low-carbon technologies, the IPCC report concludes.

Emissions trading, or cap-and-trade, systems have been a subject of particular interest to researchers and policymakers alike.

The volume of allowed emissions the "cap" determines the carbon price and the environmental effectiveness of this instrument, while the distribution of trade allowances or permits can affect its cost effectiveness and competitiveness.

Uncertainty about the actual price of carbon makes it difficult to estimate the total cost of meeting emission reduction targets in this manner. The reverse holds true for carbon taxes - the costs are clearer but the reductions less so. Carbon prices can also be created by regulations, taxes and charges.

While a positive carbon price would by itself create signals for producers and consumers to invest in lower carbon products, technologies and processes, additional incentives related to direct government funding and regulations are also important.

Cap-and-trade systems, then, may offer an attractive, market-based approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions. But because the operational details are vital to the success or failure of such systems, governments would need to experiment and gain experience in order to build the most effective systems possible.

The "Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers" is online at: http://www.ipcc.ch/SPM040507.pdf