Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying

Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying

“Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying”

 

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

August 9, 2021 Press Release

 

The impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent in our daily lives: increased forest fire activity, unprecedented heatwaves, and historic flood events to name a few just this summer. The need to mitigate and adapt in the face of climate change is recognized globally. Toward this end, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) will be held in Glasgow, Scotland later this year.  

The purpose of the COP26 is to “bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change” (COP 26 website). Key goals of the COP26 include the following (COP 26 explained).

      • Securing global net zero by 2050 (to keep a 1.5°C increase within reach).  This requires acceleration of the coal phase-out, increased investment in renewables, curtailed deforestation, and a switch to electric vehicles.
      • Adaptation to protect communities and natural habitats.  This includes protection and restoration of ecosystems, building flood defences, putting warning systems in place, and increasing resiliency of infrastructure and agriculture. 
      • International cooperation to finalize the Paris Rulebook (i.e. rules needed to implement the Paris Agreement), as well as accelerating collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society to achieve climate goals.

 

Parties participating in the COP26 will be informed by two recent reports.  On August 9, 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its sixth assessment on climate change: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. The IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change: it provides policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, identifying where there is agreement in the scientific community and where further research is needed. 

Just a few months earlier (in May), the International Energy Agency (IEA) – which “works with governments and industry to shape a secure and sustainable energy future for all” (IEA website) – released its report mapping out the steps necessary for the global energy industry to achieve net zero by 2050 (Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector). This goal is central to limiting global warming to 1.5°C, thereby avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

This blog will provide a brief overview of both the IPCC and IEA reports, as well as highlighting key take-away messages for Alberta.

IPCC: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis

The IPCC assessments are done on a regular basis and provide a comprehensive summary of current scientific knowledge about the climate system and climate change.  This massive endeavour is undertaken by three working groups to assess the physical scientific basis of the climate system and climate change (Working Group I),  the vulnerability of socio-economic  and natural systems to climate change (Working Group II), and options for mitigating climate change (Working Group III). 

This report – Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis – forms one part of the IPCC’’s sixth assessment and is the product of Working Group I. There are two other reports underway as part of the IPCC’s sixth assessment, both of which are scheduled for release in spring 2022 (Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability and Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change).

The Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis (IPCC Report) is a very substantial document (almost 4,000 pages), providing “an assessment of the current evidence on the physical science of climate change, knowledge evaluation gained from observations, reanalyses, paleoclimate archives and climate model simulations, as well as physical, chemical and biological climate processes”. This blog provides an overview of the Summary for Policymakers, which provides a high-level summary of the information found in the full report, and the Technical Summary, which provides a synthesis of key findings. In its Report, the IPCC reaches several conclusions on the current state of the climate and assesses possible climate futures using 5 emissions scenarios.

The IPCC Report indicates that, on the current state of the climate, several conclusions can be made.

  • It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred.
  • The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.
  • Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence have strengthened since [the last IPCC Report in 2014].
  • Improved knowledge of climate processes, paleo climate evidence, and the response of the climate system to increasing radiative forcing gives a best estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity of 3°C with a narrower range compared to [the last IPCC report in 2014].  Radiative forcing is the change in energy in the atmosphere: positive radiative forcing means that the Earth receives more energy from sunlight than it radiates to space (i.e. it is the scientific basis for the greenhouse effect).   Equilibrium climate sensitivity is the long-term temperature rise that is expected from a doubling of C2 concentration  in the atmosphere. 

The bottom line is that, in order to limit human induced global warming, limiting CO2 emissions to at least net zero and strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions are necessary. In order to avoid exceeding global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C during the 21st century, deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are needed.

The IPCC Report assessed possible climate futures using 5 emission scenarios ranging from very high emissions (roughly double emissions by 2050) to very low emissions (below net zero emissions by 2050). The emission scenarios varied depending on assumptions made about socio-economic factors, levels of climate change mitigation, and air pollution controls for aerosols and non-methane ozone precursors. Using these emission scenarios, predictions can be made about potential changes in the climate system. The IPCC Report notes that, due to ongoing research and knowledge, confidence in these predictions is much higher than those that were made at the time of the last IPCC report in 2014. 

Regardless of which emission scenario is assessed – whether very high or very low – global surface temperatures will continue to increase at least until the mid-century. Many changes due to past and future  greenhouse gas emissions will be irreversible for centuries to millennia to come, especially changes in ocean, ice sheets, and global sea levels.

It is also clear from the scenarios that changes in the climate system will become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming.  That is, the climate system changes are more devastating with higher emissions. Climate system changes include hot extremes, marine heatwaves, heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, intense tropical cyclones, and reductions in Arctic ice, snow cover, and permafrost. Further, continued global warming  is projected to further intensify the global water cycle (i.e. variability, monsoon precipitation, and severity of wet/dry events). The emission scenarios with increasing CO2 emissions also project that ocean and land carbon sinks will be less effective at slowing CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere. 

 From IPCC Report at SPM-21.

IEA: Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector

The IEA released its report – Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector (the IEA Report) – to  support the COP26 process by mapping how the global energy sector can reach net zero by 2050. Because the energy sector is the source of about ¾ of global GHG emissions, it holds the key to averting the worst effects of climate change. The IEA Report sets out a path with over 400 milestones, for all sectors and technologies, designed to transform the economy from one reliant on fossil fuel to one based on renewables.  

The IEA Report states that to achieve net zero by 2050, all governments need to strengthen and successfully implement their energy and climate policies. An immediate and massive deployment of all available and efficient energy technologies is required. As the electricity sector becomes cleaner, then electrification becomes a crucial tool to reduce emissions. In addition, major innovation is required within this decade to bring new technologies to market. New technologies that address heavy industry and long-distance transport – such as advanced batteries, hydrogen electrolysers, and direct air capture and storage – is particularly crucial. This means research and development must be at the core of governmental energy and climate policy.

 From IEA Report at 20.

The path to net zero by 2050 as set out in the IEA Report requires the following critical steps:

  • Due to the IEA’s forecast of a precipitous decline in demand, there should be no new coal mine or mine extensions.
  • There should be no new development approval of unabated coal plants, the least efficient coal plants should be phased out by 2030, and remaining coal plants should be retrofitted by 2040.  By 2050 almost 90% of electricity generation should come from renewable sources (almost 70% being wind and solar).
  • In light of the IEA’s demand forecast, there should be no new oil fields approved for development, although continued investment in existing sources of oil production is still needed. 
  • There is no need for new gas fields beyond those already under development (the IEA forecasts a decline in global natural gas demands).  In addition, many of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) liquefaction facilities currently under construction or at planning stage are not need in light of IEA’s demand forecasts.  

The IEA Report acknowledges that the path to net zero by 2050 that it describes is a “contraction of oil and natural gas production [that] will have far-reaching implications for all the countries and companies that produce these fuels” (at page 23).  However, it notes that while “traditional supply activities decline, the expertise of the oil and natural gas industry fits well with technologies such as hydrogen, [carbon capture, utilization and storage], and offshore wind that are needed to tackle emissions in sectors where reductions are likely to be most challenging” (at page 23).  Furthermore, the decreased demand for coal mining could be offset with a need to increase mining of other critical materials such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and various rare earth minerals.

Important Take-Away Messages for Alberta

The IPCC Report is clear in its conclusion that climate change is caused by greenhouse gas releases by humans. Furthermore, specific weather events can now be linked to human-made climate change.  In order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed. Given our northern location, Canada will see larger temperature increases (i.e. we will experience more drastic climate change impacts). This means that we need to build resilience and invest in nature-base solutions to address the impacts of climate change.  For more information on this approach, see the ELC’s publications on Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.

Furthermore, the IEA Report indicates there will be a dramatic decrease in demand for fossil fuels.  Obviously, this has huge economic implications for Alberta.  Whether or not this is bad news for Alberta depends on the direction taken from here… do we continue expanding our investments in fossil fuels or do we lead the way on renewables? As stated in the IEA Report, “the enormous challenge of transforming our energy systems is also a huge opportunity for our economies, with the potential to create millions of new jobs and boost economic growth” (at foreword).

While the IEA forecasts a major contraction in fossil fuel demand and production, oil and gas companies have skills and resources that could play key roles in developing new low-emission fuels and technologies: “[b]y partnering with governments and other stakeholders, the oil and gas industry could play a leading role in developing these fuels and technologies at scale, and in establishing new business models” (at page 160).  Oil and gas companies have the opportunity to transition to energy companies, by developing and using technologies such as carbon capture, utilization and storage, hydrogen, and bioenergy (biofuels and biomethane).

Easing the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is a job for government.  As an example, the recent release of the B.C. Hydrogen Strategy provides a comprehensive framework for transitioning to renewable and low carbon hydrogen as a source of energy. Our government can take similar steps: set out a framework for the transition of renewables, invest in research and development of new technologies, and explore development of our renewable resources (such as wind, solar and geothermal). In this regard, see our publication on geothermal energy and keep an eye out for our forthcoming publication on solar energy.

 


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