On October 6th, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its much anticipated report on the implications of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping global average temperature increases to 1.5 °C. This IPCC Report was commissioned by the Parties to the Paris Agreement because when they agreed to the 1.5 °C goal, only limited analysis on 1.5 °C had been done by the scientific community, and none by the IPCC. Until then, the IPCC’s scenarios had been based on 2 °C and higher, pointing to the increasingly disastrous consequences of these higher temperature scenarios. It is through this higher temperature scenario work that it gradually became clear that 2 °C was not an adequate goal to ensure a stable climate.
The 1.5 °C Report offers a first opportunity for Parties to the Paris Agreement to assess how their current “Nationally Determined Commitments” (NDCs) and their national efforts (such as the Pan Canadian Framework) stack up against the 1.5 °C goal they all accepted in Paris in 2015. In this post, I will offer highlights of the key conclusions of the IPCC Report (http://www.ipcc.ch) and consider its implications for Canada.
What the IPCC Report Says
The report starts by providing important context for the consideration of the 1.5 °C goal. It points out that the Earth is already experiencing over 1 degree of warming, will reach 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2050 at the current rate of increase ( ~0.2 °C per decade). It also points out that global average temperature increases are not distributed evenly. They tend to be higher over land than over oceans, higher inland, and higher in polar regions. Regions at disproportionately higher risk from the effects of climate change include northern regions, inland dryland regions, small-island developing states at risk from sea level rise, and least developed countries because they lack resilience. Many of these regions are already experiencing significant impacts and losses from crop failures, erosion, storm damage, water shortage, and loss of biodiversity.
The Report offers the following key conclusions on its assessment of the 1.5°C goal:
- Impacts on health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, and human security will be less for 1.5 °C than for 2 °C, and the global economy will be harmed less by climate change impacts at 1.5°C than at 2°C.
- Unless we are prepared to rely on risky, expensive, and/or unproven removal technologies to meet the 1.5°C goal, global emissions have to decline by about 45% by 2030, and reach net zero around 2050.
- In addition to reducing CO2, we need deep reductions in emissions of methane and black carbon.
- Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems. These systems’ transitions are unprecedented at a global scale, but are doable. They imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide range of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options. Carbon pricing is an important part of this effort, but much more that a price on carbon is needed.
- The lower the emissions are by 2030, the more likely it is that the challenge in limiting global warming to 1.5°C after 2030 will be manageable.
- There are many synergies between 1.5 °C pathways and the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals, but there are also significant risks of trade-offs, particularly with respect to large scale efforts to enhance sinks and other efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
What the IPCC Report Means for Canada
First, I think it is important to recognize that the IPCC Report would have important implications for Canada even if we decided not to change our GHG emission reduction targets or increase our domestic effort to decarbonize. I say that because the Report makes it clear that regardless of our actions, somehow preserving the status quo is a practical impossibility. Even if we don’t decarbonize, the world around us will change in significant ways. If we don’t act, and in the process discourage others from acting, climate change will accelerate, causing economic, social and environmental hardship for all.
Even if we were to free ride, meaning we decided not to act on climate change while other countries do act, we would lose export markets for the GHG intensive products we currently rely on for our economic wellbeing. Even in that scenario, we would need to transition our economy, something that will not happen without domestic markets for the solutions to climate change. Domestic markets for these products and services in turn depend on investor friendly policy and regulatory environment for decarbonization solutions.
The basic message in the report is that GHG emissions come at a high cost in terms of human health, future economic growth, human security, and our ability to meet our basic needs of food and water. The cost at 1.5 °C may be manageable, but the cost increases significantly if temperatures are allowed to go higher, and may quickly become unmanageable. The time delay between emissions and impacts means that by the time we know for sure the impacts will be unmanageable, it will be too late to prevent them from becoming unmanageable.
It is clear that a significant part of the global community is committed to the transition that is needed, though we are at a critical time to ensure the global action will be at the scale needed to avoid worst-case scenarios. The transition is well under way in many countries. A key message from the IPCC is that it needs to be accelerated, and that there are global economic (among many other) advantages to accelerating the transition. All Parties to the Paris Agreement will be challenged, starting in Poland this December, to increase their targets, and to match the more ambitious targets with more ambitious action at home and internationally. This means that industries dependent on fossil fuels and other sources of significant GHG emissions are increasingly at high risk of becoming unprofitable. It also means that there are huge economic opportunities for those who find ways to accelerate the decarbonization of societies around the world.
For Canada, the message of the IPCC Report, therefore, is that we need to decarbonize from a domestic consumption perspective, and we need to prepare for export markets drying up for our fossil fuel based (and other GHG intensive) products. We should, over the next year, set new targets for 2030 and 2050 that are in line with the IPCC report and with our commitment under the Paris Agreement to make a fair contribution to the global effort to keep global temperature increases to 1.5 °C. We should increase our domestic efforts to decarbonize in line with our revised targets. We should continue to diversify our economy by supporting industries that are part of the solution, and stop investing public resources or otherwise subsidizing industries that are not part of the solution. Finally, we should make every effort to ensure the transition of our society from a fossil fuel based one to a carbon neutral one is fair. A priority in this regard is to ensure a transition of the workforces that are currently working in sectors that we will lose (such as the production of fossil fuels), and to help other sectors to thrive through the transition (by doing everything we can to support a shift to carbon neutral agriculture, manufacturing, and buildings, for example).
As importantly, the IPCC report means that we have to change the nature of the discourse on climate change in Canada. We have to change from trying to protect the status quo to accepting the need for the transition. Rather than continue to fight or delay the inevitable, we need to ensure that the transition that we need to make is fair, and that we thrive economically and socially through the transition. This is not accomplished by trying to hang on to what “we have” for as long as possible, and then face the collapse of our economy along with the collapse of the climate system. Rather, it is accomplished by taking seriously both the climate threat and the challenges and opportunities associated with the transition that is now so clearly inevitable.
Priority Actions for Canada
The following are priority actions the IPCC Report demands of Canada:
- We need to update our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement by 2020 in light of the findings in the IPCC Report.
- We need to significantly accelerate the electrification of transportation and heating and any other significant uses of energy, and develop our own manufacturing capacity along the way (such as leading on the manufacture on electric vehicles, and on innovative approaches to carbon neutral buildings).
- We need to make the production of electricity itself carbon neutral, by completing the shift to renewables, through investment in production capacity along with storage, demand management, and smart grid approaches. We are well on our way on this front in many provinces, but do need to accelerate this effort, especially if the electrification of transportation and heating is to accelerate decarbonization.
- We need to continue to improve the efficient use of energy, particularly in buildings, transportation and energy intensive industries.
- We need to stop subsidizing and otherwise supporting the exploration and use of fossil fuels, and shift that support to industries and technologies that are part of the solution
- We need to prepare for the phase out of fossil fuels by diversifying our economy around the solutions to climate change.
- We need to protect and enhance our carbon sinks in a manner that supports biodiversity, indigenous cultures, and food production.
- We need to transition our food production and diets to low-carbon or carbon neutral food sources.
Continuing to fight this inevitable transition will exhaust us as a country, and leave us ill prepared for the challenges ahead. It is time to put our energy into embracing the transition, and thriving through it. Swimming upstream in the hope that the current will weaken (when we know better) is not the way to avoid the waterfall downstream. It is time instead to stand up and get out of the water while we still can make it to shore, and before we are swept downstream by the growing current. Perhaps, in the process, we will learn that living on dry land is not so bad after-all.
Professor, Schulich School of Law