[Burning Issue] Recent IPCC reports

About IPCC

  • IPCC  is a scientific government body under the UN established in 1988 by two UN organizations, the WMO and the UNEP and later endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly.
  • The IPCC produces reports that support the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the main international treaty on climate change.
  • IPCC reports cover the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.
  • Membership of the IPCC is open to all members of the WMO and the UNEP.


  • With a series of reports, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has raised several flags related to climate change and calls for urgent action.
  • This is the first time that the IPCC, whose job it is to assess already-published scientific literature to update our knowledge of climate change science, has published such reports.
  • It is part of a series of special reports that IPCC is doing in the run-up to the sixth edition of its main report, blandly called the Assessment Reports that are due around 2022.

First report: The 1.5℃ Goal

  • Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate, said the IPCC report published in Seoul in Oct 2018.


 Looking beyond 2°C goal

  • In 2010, international negotiators adopted a goal of limiting warming to 2°C since pre-industrial times. It’s called the 2° goal.
  • In 2015, when the nations of the world agreed to the Paris climate agreement, they set dual goals — 2°C and a more demanding target of 1.5°C from pre-industrial times.
  • The 1.5° was at the urging of vulnerable countries that called 2°C a death sentence.
  • The world has already warmed 1°C since pre-industrial times, so the talk is really about the difference between another half-degree C from now.
  • There is no definitive way to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 above pre-industrial levels.

What happens at 2°C that does not happen at 1.5°C?

  1. The IPCC report deals with this question in detail. But a number of scientific papers in recent times have projected what could be expected in the 1.5°C scenario.
  2. The studies have looked at the physical impact on the land and ocean, as well as at the socio-economic impact, like health, malnutrition, food security, and employment. Some examples:
  • 5°C could prevent around 3.3 million cases of dengue every year in Latin America and the Caribbean alone
  • an additional 150 million people could be at risk from malaria if the temperature was allowed to increase beyond 2°C
  • the world could have 25 million fewer undernourished people by the end of the century, if the 1.5°C goal was achieved
  • 350 million additional people could be exposed to deadly heatwaves if the warming increased to 2°C as compared to 1.5°C.
  • 5°C could prevent 153 million premature deaths due to air pollution by 2100, as compared to the 2°C scenario.
  • the world could be 3% wealthier by 2100 in a 1.5°C scenario compared to a 2°C scenario.
  • 5°C strategy could create double the number of jobs in the energy sector by 2050.
  • compared to the 1.5°C scenario, extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and heatwaves are likely to become more severe and frequent, and freshwater supply could fall sharply, in a 2°C world.

How to reach the 1.5 ℃ target?

  • As of now, the world is striving to prevent the temperature rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius, in accordance with the stated objective of the Paris Agreement of 2015.
  • To meet that target, the aim is to reduce greenhouse gases by only 20 percent, from 2010 levels, by the year 2030 and achieve a net-zero emission level by the year 2075.
  • Net-zero is achieved when the total emissions are balanced by the amount of absorption or removal of carbon dioxide through natural sinks or technological interventions.

Only Pathway: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)

  • IPCC has suggested four strategies or pathways to accomplish the 1.5 °C
  • The pathways account separately for contributions of fossil fuel and industry, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), and removals in the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU).

P1: Lower energy demand

  • A scenario in which social, business and technological innovations result in lower energy demand up to 2050 while living standards rise, especially in the global South.
  • A down-sized energy system enables the rapid decarbonization of energy supply.
  • Afforestation is the only CDR option considered; neither fossil fuels with CCS nor BECCS are used.

P2: Sustainable development planning

  • A scenario with a broad focus on sustainability including energy intensity, human development, economic convergence, and international cooperation is needed.
  • It focuses on shifts towards sustainable and healthy consumption patterns, low-carbon technology innovation, and well-managed land systems with limited societal acceptability for BECCS.

P3: Emission reduction through technological development

  • A middle-of-the-road scenario in which societal as well as technological development follows historical patterns.
  • Emissions reductions are mainly achieved by changing the way in which energy and products are produced, and to a lesser degree by reductions in demand.

P4: Deployment of BECCS

  • A resource and energy-intensive scenario in which economic growth has led to widespread adoption of greenhouse-gas intensive lifestyles, including high demand for transportation fuels and livestock products.
  • Emissions reductions are mainly achieved through technological means, making strong use of CDR through the deployment of BECCS.


Second report: Focus on the land-climate link

  • Land use and changes in land use have always been an integral part of the conversation on climate change. That is because land acts as both the source as well as a sink of carbon.
  • Activities like agriculture and cattle rearing, for example, are a major source of methane and nitrous oxide, both of which are hundreds of times more dangerous than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
  • At the same time, soil, trees, plantations, and forests absorb carbon dioxide for the natural process of photosynthesis, thus reducing the overall carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere.
  • This is the reason why large scale land use changes, like deforestation or urbanization, or even a change in cropping pattern, have a direct impact on the overall emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • The report talks about the contribution of land-related activities to global warming — how the different uses of land, like agriculture, industry, forestry, cattle-rearing, and urbanization, was affecting emissions of greenhouse gases.

Food and its carbon footprint

  • The global food system currently accounts for the majority of emissions from the ‘agriculture, forestry and land use’ (AFOLU) sector.
  • If we include energy emissions from storage, transport, packaging, processing, retail, preparation, and waste, food accounts for 22-35 percent of all anthropogenic emissions.
  • The FAO estimates that food waste accounted for 4.4 gigatonnes and 8 percent of CO2 emissions in 2011, giving lie to the notion that carbon consumption is a driver of human welfare.

Agricultural emissions

  • The IPCC is clear about the excesses of ‘modern’ agriculture.
  • This is most directly reflected in emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with nearly 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
  • Nitrous oxide emissions from land have more than doubled since 1961, with cropland soils emitting around three megatonnes each year.
  • The IPCC attributes this to “inefficient nitrogen application (over-application or poorly synchronized with crop demand timings) to soils”.
  • The solution lies in revolutionizing farm-level management, a challenge in developing countries with small land-holdings and limited capital to invest.


  • The United Nations has dedicated this decade to combating desertification, yet the climate benefits of this push are poorly understood.
  • By 2050, between 170 to 270 million people living in drylands will be vulnerable to water stress, drought intensity, and habitat degradation.
  • The report emphasizes, though that “preventing desertification is preferable to attempting to restore degraded land”. That involves preserving the topsoil and soil quality in currently cropped land.


Third report: On Ocean and Cryosphere

  • The latest report, on Ocean and Cryosphere, is the last in a series of three that the IPCC had been asked to produce to assess the impacts of climate change on specific themes.
  • On May 11 this year, the global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was measured to have crossed the 415 parts per million (ppm) marks for the first time ever.

Why oceans?

  • The climate change impact mitigation and adaptation portfolio for the oceans and cryosphere include energy, carbon storage, pollution reduction, coastal vegetation, open ocean production, and ocean acidification, etc.
  • Over the 21st century, the ocean is projected to transition to unprecedented conditions with increased temperatures, further ocean acidification, marine heatwaves and more frequent extreme El Niño and La Niña events.
  • Land and ocean together absorb nearly 50 percent of greenhouse gases emitted every year through natural processes in the carbon cycle.
  • The importance of land, or ocean, as a carbon sink, thus cannot be overstated in the global fight against climate change.

Highlights of the report

  • The new ocean report noted that the global mean sea level had risen by 16 cm between 1902 and 2015 and that the rate of increase had doubled in the last decade.
  • The sea levels were rising because of the thermal expansion of ocean waters due to rising temperatures as well as due to the melting of glaciers and polar ice.
  • It says that between 2006 and 2015, the Greenland ice sheet lost ice-mass at an average rate of 278 billion tonnes every year, while the Antarctic ice sheet lost a mass of 155 billion tonnes on an average every year.
  • Snow over areas outside of these two regions, like the glaciers in the Himalayas, together lost an average of 220 billion tonnes of ice every year.

Why so many reports are being published?

  • It is not unusual to see the conversation around climate change picking up during this time of the year.
  • There are several reasons for the sudden rise in attention to the climate debate this year.

“Now or never” is nearing

  • Last year’s IPCC report on 1.5°C mentioned that humanity had barely 12 years to keep alive the hopes of restricting global temperature rise to within 1.5°C from pre-industrial times.
  • This was contingent not just on immediate aggressive action from countries, but also on the development of technologies that could remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • This report has instilled a new sense of urgency in climate conversations.

Transition year ahead

  • Next year, 2020, happens to be the transition year for the international climate regime, from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement.
  • The Kyoto regime has been a major underachiever in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The Paris Agreement, in so far as it makes it mandatory for every country to initiate actions and not just rich and developed nations as under the Kyoto Protocol, is expected to deliver much better results.

NDC’s were insufficient

  • As required by the Paris Agreement, every country had already finalized and submitted a climate action plan, called NDCs, in 2015.
  • The assessment of several NDCs has concluded that these actions were not adequate to achieve the global goal of keeping temperature rise within 2°C from pre-industrial times.
  • But the NDCs have to be updated every five years, and the countries are scheduled to do it next year.

Raising curiosities

  • Those concerned about climate change are hoping that in the light of these reports, and growing fresh evidence, countries will show greater ambition when they update their NDCs next year.
  • The Paris Agreement also provides for a review of all climate actions in 2023 to assess whether the individual actions of countries were adding up to what was required to achieve the goal.
  • Countries can then decide what more needed to be done.

Way Forward

  • Limiting warming to the lower goal is not impossible but will require unprecedented changes.
  • However, it is being argued now that 2023 might be too late for such an exercise.
  • Therefore, momentum is being built to nudge the countries to announce more ambitious actions before that.
  • The move to get countries to commit to a net-zero target by 2050 is a part of these efforts.
  • It is up to governments to decide whether those unprecedented changes are acted upon.








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