For those in the business of fighting climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports are like the bible. These five-pounders summarize the evolving global scientific consensus around climate change – including apocalyptic undertones.
The latest IPCC report, out in April, focuses on mitigating climate change. Mitigation refers to interventions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or removing GHGs from the atmosphere. For those of you who don’t have copies of IPCC reports weighing down your bedside table, here are five key findings from Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change:
1. Global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing — at an accelerating pace
Emissions reached 49 billion tonnes in 2010, and are growing by about 1 billion tonnes every year. Global economic growth is the driving force, with increases in per capita income offsetting the benefits of more efficient economies (reduced energy-use per dollar of GDP). Absent any major new actions, global emissions will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Current country commitments made at the Cancun Climate Change Conference are not consistent with stabilizing the earth’s climate; even worse, many countries are not on track to achieve these limited commitments, including Canada.
2. The cost of mitigation is marginal and may be largely offset by the economic benefits of slowing climate change
If we start now and use the most cost-effective approaches, the cost of mitigation activities required to maintain a temperature change of less than 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels is actually quite manageable. While estimates vary widely, the median estimate is an average annual reduction in economic growth rates of .06%. As the Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman recently noted, this would “basically amount to a rounding error” in global economic growth rates. And that estimate does not factor in either the avoided costs of adapting to more extreme climate change, or the economic co-benefits of investing in climate solutions. Taking these factors into account, there may in fact be no net cost to the global economy. However, the longer we wait to get global emissions stabilized and heading downward, the higher the costs will be.
3. Mitigating climate change will require significant changes in investment patterns
Getting onto an emissions pathway that stabilizes temperatures at less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels will require dramatic changes in investment patterns over the next two decades. Annual investments in conventional fossil fueled electricity generation will need to drop by an estimated $30 billion (US). Annual investments in low-carbon electricity generation would need to increase by $147 billion (US). And annual investments in energy efficiency and public transit would need to increase by a staggering $336 billion (US). Each of these areas represent opportunities for smart investors and risks for those who don’t get with the program.
4. Today’s infrastructure and investment choices will lock societies into GHG intensive pathways if carbon is not taken into account
Due to the very long lifetimes of infrastructure and buildings, the choices we make today could lock us into a high carbon future. Making new buildings energy efficient is critical because, first, those buildings are going to be around for many years and, second, it’s easier and cheaper than retrofitting them down the road. Transportation infrastructure and policies relating to urban form have similar “lock-in” effects. Building codes and energy efficiency regulations for equipment, appliances and vehicles are among the most cost effective policy options because they help limit the lock-in effect.
5. Mitigating emissions in urban areas is vital due to the increasing share of global population living in cities
While over half of the global population already lives in urban areas, this is expected to increase to two-thirds by 2050. Urbanization presents challenges and opportunities for climate change mitigation. Effective mitigation strategies in cities requires packages of mutually reinforcing policies addressing energy efficiency as well as location efficiency – reducing transportation demand by co-locating residential, employment and other land-uses, and ensuring walkable, cycle-and-transit-friendly neighbourhoods.
Cities are leading the way in many respects, but no one is sure where they are going! Thousands of cities have developed climate action plans. However, reporting on progress made is scant and GHG reduction measurements are oftentimes either unreliable or non-existent, making it difficult to say whether municipal efforts are making a meaningful difference as of yet. Nevertheless, in a rapidly urbanizing world, cities have a key role to play in fighting climate change, so time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work!