The latest assessment of climate change by the world's leading authority is out, and the news is not good. But will it change anything at the annual UN talks to negotiate a deal to slow down global warming, to be held in Poland in a few weeks' time?
IRIN spoke to some concerned people about the talks, and about the possible impact of the Fifth Assessment by Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the negotiations in Warsaw from 11 to 22 November.
Thomas Stocker, co-chair of the working group, pointed out at the release of the report that by 2011 people had already used up more than half of the budget of carbon they could emit to keep global temperatures from rising by two degrees Celsius - a level long described by scientists as catastrophic for mankind.
If warming continues at this rate, we could be facing the worst consequences of climate change as soon as in the next 20 or 30 years. The concept of a carbon budget was not new, but it was used for the first time by the IPCC to illustrate the seriousness of the situation. The other sobering statement from Stocker was that, in any case, the earth is headed for a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.
The IPCC has considered four scenarios, based on various levels of carbon dioxide emission by people, with projected levels ranging from 15 percent to 40 percent of emissions remaining in the atmosphere longer than 1,000 years, and warming up the atmosphere continuously.
Will these conclusions stir up things among negotiators at the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw?
Sven Harmeling, the Climate Change Advocacy Coordinator for the NGO, CARE International, says the concept of a "carbon budget" lays down clearly that one can not only talk about setting targets to reduce emissions for a specific year like 2050, which is often at the centre of the discussion. "If we leave it too late to start cutting emissions, the 'carbon budget' will be all but eaten up - meaning whatever carbon is left will barely last us more than a couple of decades. Those who say we still have time to consider our options are wrong. More than half of the carbon budget has already been used - and this is extremely alarming, because dramatically reducing emissions will not happen overnight."
Harmeling believes this should be "a very serious wake-up call", and "governments must focus on getting to peak emissions as soon as possible, and decline thereafter, no matter what the specifics of the carbon budget are. The sooner the full paradigm shift to low-emission development is triggered, the better."
Not a side issue anymore
Harjeet Singh, ActionAid's international coordinator for disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation, notes that discussions on the "carbon budget" at the UNFCCC negotiations until now have been "largely limited to 'side events’”, but with the IPCC underlining the issue, he believes it will "become a key element of official negotiations at Warsaw”.
“The report has once again underlined the urgency with which emissions reductions are required,” Singh says. “[The] Warsaw conference must result in ambitious targets by the developed world… and providing finance to developing countries to adopt a greener pathway and deal with climate impacts."
Richard Klein, a scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute, says, "The notion of a 'carbon budget' is a good way of illustrating the challenge ahead." Klein was also a lead author of the IPCC Special Report, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX). "Country delegates [in Warsaw], and anybody else interested in the outcome of the climate negotiations, will certainly take notice of this IPCC conclusion, but I doubt that the dynamics of the negotiations will suddenly change as a result of it," he says.
"The potential for increased transparency and accountability that the carbon budget affords may spur some countries to take a second look at their pledges, and encourage others to do the same," Klein added in an email to IRIN. "However, I think the carbon budget is a powerful communication tool to inform the public and other stakeholders of the 'emissions gap' (the difference between the total emission reductions that are needed and the total emission reductions pledged by all countries)."
Saleemul Huq, a scientist with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and one of the authors of the IPCC's forthcoming Working Group II report, which will deal with the impacts of climate change, says while the "carbon budget" is a "useful concept", it is likely to make a bigger impact at COP21, to be held in 2015.
In 2012 all the parties to the UNFCCC agreed to a three-year review process to see if the targets for reducing emissions to keep a global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius were adequate, and if the world was on track to reduce emissions enough to stem climate change.
The review process will report at COP21, and will inform the new deal to address climate change.