John Lanchbery Principal Climate Change Advisor
Finally, we have it - after all the waiting and tit-for-tat teases from the various interests, the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published the summary of its report on climate science. And it’s pretty strong stuff.
The two page headline findings are as clear and concise as you are going to get for a complicated subject. Quite an achievement after a week of conference, science, questions and ultimate agreement that ended in the small hours of this morning (Friday). How they get these out on time is remarkable in itself. There’s more detail in the full summary report and next week, the full 2,000 page report will be available.
Even more clear, what US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said about the IPCC report this morning, “Climate change is real, it’s happening now, human beings are the cause of this transformation, and only action by human beings can save the world from its worst impacts ... If this isn’t an alarm bell, then I don’t know what one is.”
So what does it actually say? First, it is more certain than ever (95% sure) that climate change is due mainly to human activities. Since 1880, the average surface temperature of the Earth has risen by 0.85OC, more over the land than the sea and more at high latitudes. The air temperature rise over land north of 65oN is, for example, between 2.5 and 3 degrees. Each of the three most recent decades has been warmer than all previous decades, since 1850 – the last decade has seen a slowdown in the rate of increase, not a halting or even a reversal in global temperature increase, as some may have had you believe.
As a consequence, sea level rise has accelerated, rising nearly twice as fast in the last two decades than previously. Melting of both glaciers and ice sheets has, overall, been several times faster in the last decade than in the 1990s. The extent of Arctic sea ice in summer (the seasonal minimum is in September) has decreased markedly in recent years. The area covered by Arctic sea ice has shrunk in every decade since 1979. There is strong evidence that temperature extremes, such as warm days and heat waves, have become more common since the 1950s. The oceans are acidifying (by 26% so far) due to the rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. All of these changes are expected to increase, some at an increasing rate.
On our current emission pathways, average global temperatures will rise well beyond the universally agreed safe limit of two degrees by the end of the century. The IPCC gives a global carbon budget consistent with staying below two degrees. To have a good chance (greater than 66%) of doing so, cumulative carbon dioxide emissions need to be 800 Gtonnes. We’ve already used 541 Gt of this by 2011, so we’re well over halfway through our budget.
Not a great outlook, but neither should we despair. As Martin Harper says in his blog, together we can avoid dangerous climate change. We can, and we should – no, we must: we owe that to all the life, ours included, that makes the beauty and our home on this place we call Earth.
There’s a lot of noise from the climate sceptics at the moment, as no doubt you’ll have seen.
I’m confounded by the dismissal of science and hard information as we build and shape our views, activities and the world we live in. Of course, science rarely says things are exactly so – the world is just too complicated – yet we’re able to get pretty close to that. So we have to use the best information in the most sensible way. And we have to be prepared to shift our thinking, and our views and ways of doing things, as new information comes to light. That can be hard, if we have long held beliefs, or ways of doing things that have been successful and we’ve got used to.
Climate change is right in the middle of all this. It’s only 95% likely due to people on the planet, and it’s very inconvenient to our established ways of doing things. No wonder some sections of the media are having a field day in the run-up to the new IPCC report due in a few days’ time. Yet, the sceptics seem to be armed with facts, and do we climate change workers have to face a few uncomfortable truths about our views?
Actually no, there’s no substantial change – but yes, we must all be prepared to respond to information. I’m not going to refute all the cherry-picked data and half-truths you may have read recently. But there’s a useful guide by the Met Office, perhaps the most authoritative scientific body on climate change in the UK if not the world, you can leaf through here. It’s about what we have observed, and what we deduce from those observations.
Here’s one graph, showing what’s been happening to global temperature decade by decade
And another showing where each year falls in the series of hottest years, globally:
Enjoy the rest of the report and we’ll look forward to the big IPCC report. And hopefully quiet the sceptics, and get on with the real understanding, and action, that climate change demands of us.
Today’s controversial biofuels vote in the European Parliament leaves wildlife and our climate at risk from damaging biofuels production.
Melanie Coath - the RSPB's Senior Climate Change Policy Officer has been working on this issue and is disappointed at the outcome “Proposals to limit damaging biofuels in today’s vote fall far short of what is needed. As a result the biofuels industry will continue to receive billions of dollars of EU taxpayers money for deforestation, wildlife loss and climate pollution.”
RSPB campaigners have been urging UK Members of the European Parliament to put a stop to the pressures the EU are putting on natural resources and local communities in places like Kenya.
Some progress was made to limit this damage when MEPs agreed to cap the production of damaging biofuels and start accounting for their climate impacts from 2020. However, this outcome significantly waters down proposals put forward by the European Commission and does not deliver the robust measures urgently needed, and called for by environment and development NGOs including the RSPB.
Europe's biofuels industry is displacing food production in developing countries, forcing up food prices, and causing conversion of rainforests and grasslands to crops. This can cause massive damage to wildlife natural ecosystems while releasing huge amounts of carbon. This displacement is known as indirect land use change The RSPB and other NGOs have been calling for a cap of 5% biofuels in the transport energy mix, close to current production levels, thus halting further expansion.
Today’s outcome instead sees biofuels from food crops such as wheat capped at 6% of energy used in transport. This is an improvement on business as usual whereby EU countries are expected to deliver 10% of energy in transport from biofuels by 2020 but does not go far enough.
MEPs have also voted to count emissions from indirect land use change from 2020. However, this allows another 7 years of negative climate impacts from biofuels that were meant to be part of a climate solution.
Furthermore, both NGOs and industry have been left hanging as there was no clear mandate for the Parliament to negotiate the outcome with the Commission and Member States. This means that the whole process now goes to “second reading” which means more delay and uncertainty. The power now shifts to the Council of Ministers and the RSPB will be calling on the UK Government to step up and call for a swift end to damaging biofuels production.