UN climate report claims certainty, calls for caps

Oct 7, 2013

— Human actions, alleged omissions, carbon limits take spotlight

As always, the topic of climate change has a way of spurring controversy and ire. But when claims of certainty are thrown around, as well as accusations of information being left out and calls for global carbon limits, the stage is set for greater-than-usual The UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a final draft of a massive new report on climate change on Friday, Sept. 27. Among the most pressing details of the report was the conclusion that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

The report rated the certainty of human-caused (anthropogenic) impact on climate change as 95 percent.

The extensive report concludes—among so many other things, and all in excruciating detail—that the surface temperature of the Earth has risen dramatically over the last several decades. Added to that, the report asserts that human activity is “extremely likely” (defined as a confidence margin between 95-100 percent) to have caused it.

“Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is projected to be likely to exceed 1.5C [2.7F] relative to 1850 to 1900 in all but the lowest scenario considered, and likely to exceed 2C [3.6F] for the two high scenarios,” said IPCC Co-Chair, Thomas Stocker, speaking of the differing ranges of predictions covered in the report.

“Heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer. As the Earth warms, we expect to see currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less, although there will be exceptions,” he added.

“Observations of changes in the climate system are based on multiple lines of independent evidence,” said Qin Dahe, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I, which did the lion’s share of compiling the report.

“Our assessment of the science finds that the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, the global mean sea level has risen and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

The report was the fifth such report with the previous report published in 2007. It included data from thousands of sources and was reviewed by hundreds of scientists. It will later be finalized and presented in a more official form to UN-participant governments next year.

Discounted cooling?

The details were numerous and far-reaching in this 2,500-pagelong report. But one detail that caught the attention of skeptics was something not addressed at length in those thousands of pages.

“The IPCC has decided to discount the global warming standstill since 1997 as irrelevant and has deleted from its final document its original acknowledgement (in its 7 June draft) that climate models have failed to ‘reproduce the observed reduction in surface warming trend over the change issues based in the UK.

The group—which describes itself as “open-minded on the contested science of global warming” but concerned about the costs and implications associated with climate change proposals— accused IPCC with trying to distract the public. The group claimed IPCC is trying to divert attention “by claiming increased certainty about the reliability of climate models and their outputs.”

“Today the IPCC has taken a huge gamble that will soon determine whether it is still fit for purpose,” said Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. “Unless global temperature begins to rise again in the next few years, the IPCC is very likely going to suffer an existential blow to its credibility.”

Analysts differ on whether the report contains information on the slowdown in its original June 7 form or not. The report does briefly address the topic, though instances are scattered across several chapters rather than cohesively covered in a single area.

“Despite the robust multidecadal timescale warming, there exists substantial multi-annual variability in the rate of warming with several periods exhibiting almost no linear trend including the warming hiatus since 1998,” read the report. “The rate of warming over 1998– 2012 (0.05C [–0.05 to 0.15] per decade) is smaller than the trend since 1951 (0.12C [0.08 to 0.14] per decade).”

The report acknowledged this period has inspired considerable interest, but it only topically addresses possible reasons. Among them are the short period being considered—the climate science rule of thumb insists on 30 year spans before something is called a trend—natural volatility and variation when looking at short time periods, and natural terrestrial and solar events.

Recommended action

IPCC and UN officials are urging governments and people across the globe to act now on climate change.

“Climate change is a longterm challenge but one that requires urgent action, not tomorrow but today and right now, given the pace and the scale by which greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere and the rising risks of a more than 2-degree Celsius temperature rise,” said the Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, Achim Steiner in the UN’s announcement of the report’s release.

Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, also urged action.

“As the results from the latest and best available science become clearer, the challenge becomes more daunting, but simultaneously the solutions become more apparent. These opportunities need to be grasped across society in mutually reinforcing ways by governments at all levels, by corporations, by civil society and by individuals.”

Thomas Stocker, the other Co-Chair of Working Group I, said, “Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

However, Stocker said that the effects of climate change will continue long into the future even if emissions of greenhouse gasses stopped immediately.

IPCC went so far as to endorse a global “carbon budget” in the effort to mitigate extensive climate change into the future. Their recommended carbon budget for humanity is one trillion metric tons of carbon burned and the subsequent gasses released into the atmosphere. The panel estimates that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a little over a half a trillion metric tons have been burned. This budget coincides with the target goal of keeping the global average temperature increase relative to the pre-Industrial Revolution average below 3.6F.

Carbon in the U.S.

Given this report and the recommendations which have come from it, the issue of a carbon tax or cap and trade system is likely to become a larger one in the political discourse of the near future. As it stands, the Obama administration has been pushing for carbon limits on energy producers, particularly on coal-fired power plants.

In late September, Gina McCarthy—now administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and selected for the position largely for her climate change focus—announced the President’s plan for carbon limits for power plants. According to the plan, new gas-fired power plants would be limited to 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt-hour and new coal plants would be limited to 1,100 pounds.

It is important to note these requirements are placed on new plants. Many energy industry analysts have pointed out this will make building a new coal plant in the U.S. nearly impossible. This won’t have much impact as building new coal plants has taken a backseat to building the more economical natural gas-fired plants. Many pre-existing “modern” natural gas-powered plants already meet the standard or have very little to do to meet the standard.

There are four coal plants currently under construction which will be forced to meet the standards, but they are planning to utilize carbon capture and storage technology which can theoretically sequester carbon emissions in the ground. The technology is still in development and its commercial viability is very uncertain, largely due to its high cost.

Numerous Congressional Republicans have gone on record as being opposed to the plan, calling it Obama’s “war on coal.” Representatives of the coal industry have also complained that by effectively halting any new coal plant construction, the natural market-based development of carbon capture and storage technology will be negatively impacted.

Aside from the unofficial halt to coal plant construction, the impacts of the plan appear minimal in and of themselves. However, the plan sets the stage for further activity in this area. The plan is the first federal effort to regulate carbon emissions directly, and next year the EPA will draft plans on regulating carbon emissions from the approximately 6,500 existing power plants.

The plan is still under public comment period and will be until mid-November. If you wish to read and comment on the proposed plan, all relevant information can be found online at www2.epa. gov/carbon-pollutionstandards/2013-proposedcarbon-pollution-standardnew-power-plants.

A link to the online comment process is included on this site.

Other means of commenting include:

• E-mail comments to a-andr-Docket@epa.gov

• Fax comments to 202/566- 9744

• Mail comments to Air and Radiation Docket and Information Center, Environmental Protection Agency, Mail Code: 2822T, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 20460.

Remember that any comments submitted will be later made publicly available, so only include information you are comfortable with being made public. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor