5 Takeaways From the U.N. Climate Change Report

In this Tuesday Aug, 16, 2005 file photo an iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland near the arctic circle. Scientists who are fine-tuning a landmark U.N. report on climate change are struggling to explain why global warming appears to have slowed down in the past 15 years even as greenhouse gas emissions keep rising. Leaked documents show there is widespread disagreement among governments over how to address the contentious issue in Sept. 23-26 stock-taking report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In this Tuesday Aug, 16, 2005 file photo an iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland near the arctic circle. (AP Photo/John McConnico, File)

April 14, 2014
Why has the U.S. been reluctant to address climate change? Watch Climate of Doubt, FRONTLINE’s exploration of the shift in public opinion.

In the push to curb global climate change, 2015 could be a make or break year. World leaders will meet in Paris next year hoping to finalize an ambitious new climate treaty aimed at slowing emissions and reversing rising temperatures.

Ahead of the summit, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been issuing a series of reports examining the scale of the challenge and potential risks ahead. The panel’s latest report, released Sunday, focuses on how governments can mitigate the problem. Here are five main takeaways:

1) Greenhouse gases are rising at “unprecedented levels”

How bad has the global rise in greenhouse gases become? Roughly half of all CO2 emissions stemming from human activity between 1750 through 2010 occurred during a 40-year stretch that began in 1970. The report’s authors further noted that greenhouse gas emissions, the primary driver of climate change, “were the highest in human history from 2000 to 2010.”

2) Steep cuts in emissions are needed fast

Most of the world’s nations have signed on to a pledge to keep temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Emissions will have to fall between 41 percent and 71 percent of 2010 levels by midcentury in order to hit that target, according to the IPCC report. By the end of the century, emissions will have to fall to near zero of 2010 levels.

Inaction could be costly. In March, a separate U.N. report looking at climate change’s long-term impact on human survival found that warming temperatures are likely to lead to a drop in food production, causing a rise in prices for basic staple and a heightened risk of disease for the poor and malnourished. Climate change could also fuel the chances for armed conflicts over dwindling resources, the report found.

3) We have the technology to meet the challenge

The report isn’t all bad news. Renewable energies such as wind, hydro and solar power have reached “a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale,” according to the report. Improved fuel efficiency standards, as well as tougher building codes have helped as well.

If leaders fail to act soon, however, the report warns that nations could be forced to turn to completely unproven technologies, such as techniques designed to pull carbon out of the air.

4) Curbing emissions will be cheaper than doing nothing in the long run

To be sure, staying below the target of 2 degrees Celsius won’t be cheap. The report estimates that confronting the problem would shave between 0.04 to 0.14 percentage points off of global economic growth each year. “So instead of growing by, say, 3 percent per year we’d be growing by 2.94 percent,” notes Vox. Conversely, doing nothing could leave nations nearly 5 percent poorer than they would have been by the end of the century had they done nothing at all, according to the study.

5) The politics won’t be easy

If Sunday’s U.N. report is any guide, arriving at an international consensus ahead of next year’s Paris summit will be a painstaking process. Political wrangling overtook the IPCC report at times, with Saudi Arabia objecting to language detailing how large emissions cuts may have to be, and developing countries objecting to charts in a 37-page executive summary showing where the world’s carbon emissions are coming from. Developing countries wanted the graphs to fall into one of two categories — developed or developing — while wealthier nations wanted more specific categories. As Karl Ritter of the Associated Press explained:

That reflects a nagging dispute in the U.N. talks, which are supposed to produce a global climate agreement next year. The U.S. and other industrialized nations want to scrap the binary rich-poor division, saying large emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India must adopt more stringent emissions cuts than poorer countries. The developing countries are worried it’s a way for rich countries to shirk their own responsibilities to cut emissions.

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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