The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues its most comprehensive assessment of climate change yet. And it isn’t hiding behind the science anymore -- with it’s unequivocal advice to governments: “Act now”.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of more than 830 scientists from 80 countries, has released its Synthesis Report summarising the work of three working group contributions to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report -- the most comprehensive assessment of climate change yet. It doesn’t hide behind the science, and makes clear arguments for action now to mitigate risks, keep costs down, and promote sustainable development.

The IPCC’s Synthesis Report does a sterling job in summarising the results of three Working Group Reports released over the past year that are the building blocks for its Fifth Assessment:

But what sets The Synthesis Report apart from the carefully positioned scientific analysis of the three Working Group reports is its unequivocal recommendation to governments to act now.  It’s well timed too.  It adds sombre evidence and clear recommendations to Ban Ki Moon’s New York Summit dialogue, and pragmatic guidance to the UNFCCC meeting in Lima, Peru this December which is a critical staging post in negotiations for a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol to be adopted next year in Paris.  

What’s new?

The Synthesis Report makes the point (see diagram) that 65% of the greenhouse gas emission budget compatible with a stable climate has already been used.   Emissions from fossil fuels need to fall to almost zero by the end of the century.  This comes at a time when carbon emissions mainly from burning coal, oil and gas are rising to record levels and are not yet falling.  One of the report co-authors, Dr Ottmar Edenhofer summarises the situation: “We have much more coal, oil and gas underground compared to the amount we can release into the atmosphere”.

However, analysis from Working Group Report 3 is used to make the point that the risk of runaway climate change can be prevented without seriously denting global economic growth.  Further, if that investment is not made, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC warns that more frequent and intense extreme weather, along with rising sea-levels and other impacts of a changing climate will add costs that “cannot even be quantified”.

The report lists a number of ways in which emissions can be lowered – noting that there are many solutions that allow for continued economic and human development.  It focuses policy responses on a higher price on greenhouse gas emissions (aka ‘a carbon price’) to drive investment in renewable energy.  It sees Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which removes greenhouse gas emissions directly from fossil fuel power stations or indeed directly from the atmosphere, as an extremely important technological solution to address the fact that our dependence on fossils fuels will continue for some time.

The need for urgency is underscored, and the report states that “delaying additional mitigation to 2030 will substantially increase the technological, economic, social and institutional challenges associated with limiting the warming over the 21st century to below 2oC”. 

While the report stops short of giving advice on the ethical dimensions of climate policy, it acknowledges that these are absolutely critical to address the aspirations of developing economies and the disproportionate impact climate change has on the global poor.

The response from business

IPCC’s key audience is the governments to which they report.  The message to them is clear.   As Ban Ki Moon said at the launch of the Synthesis Report: “Science has spoken.  There is no ambiguity in the message…. leaders must act.  Time is not on our side…. decisive action will build a better and sustainable future, while inaction will be costly”.

The IPCC has been perfectly diplomatic in its delivery.  Reports in the media (UK’s Guardian) suggest that final edits to the Report deleted criticism that politicians sometimes “engage in short-term thinking and are biased toward the status quo”.  That has not stopped individual Report co-authors from speaking out.  Professor Richard Tol from Sussex University is one:  “all evidence to date is that governments compete on who can think of the daftest climate policies”.  Lord Stern from the London School of Economics and author of the influential ‘Stern Report’ on climate economics welcomed the Synthesis Report noting that “the reality of climate change is undeniable, and cannot be simply wished away by politicians who lack the courage to confront scientific evidence”.  

While it’s all very well taking a pot-shot at politicians as they grapple with the complexities of climate policy, businesses have to figure out what to do in the absence of smart, consistent, clear and pragmatic policy.  We work with a growing number of businesses that aren’t waiting for regulation. 

They respond to the urgency by setting scientifically informed greenhouse gas emission reduction targets now, and meet those by investing in emission reducing and cost saving internal reductions; by switching to renewable energy; and, by using carbon offsetting to compensate for unavoidable emissions from non-energy sources (mainly transport & distribution).

They use market prices for carbon offsets and renewable energy instruments (such as RECS - renewable energy certificates, and REGOs - renewable energy guarantees of origin) to set their internal price of carbon enabling them to reach their targets at lowest cost.

And finally, they construct portfolios of carbon offsets from well designed and managed mitigation and adaptation projects around the world that deliver defined and measured sustainable development benefits above and beyond their verified carbon reductions to speed up low carbon investment on a global basis.