It’s worse than we thought

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The United Nation’s scientific body on climate change, namely the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has just released a special report which is a scientific as well as political report of great significance and could be a game-changer in galvanising enhanced action to tackle climate change.

The report has a controversial history. The consensus on the long-term global temperature goal used to be a rise of 2 degrees Centigrade for many years.

However, this was not acceptable to the most vulnerable developing countries, including Bangladesh, as even a 2-degree temperature rise would put millions of their poorest citizens at risk of severe adverse climate change impacts.

Hence in the run-up to the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) held in Paris in December 2015, the vulnerable countries, including Bangladesh, made a concerted effort to limit the long-term temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Centigrade.

This demand was initially met with strong resistance from not just the developed countries but also developing countries such as China and India, and especially Saudi Arabia. The argument that they made was that keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, while not impossible, was extremely difficult. Our counter-argument was that as long as it was not impossible it was the right thing to do.

After two weeks of extremely intensive diplomacy and media work, we managed to persuade almost every country to agree to our demand. The one exception was the delegation from Saudi Arabia who wanted to ask the IPCC to prepare a special report on the topic first (which would take several years).

In the end, in the last hour of the last day, after a phone call from then President Hollande of France to the Saudi King, the Saudi delegation withdrew its objection.

Then some months later, at the plenary of the IPCC, it was actually agreed to have them prepare a scientific report on temperature rise up to 1.5 degrees. This report, which involved several hundred scientists from all over the world and went through numerous reviews by experts and governments, was finally approved at the IPCC plenary in Korea on October 8.

Even here the Saudi delegation tried to water down the recommendations of the scientists but fortunately other countries prevailed in keeping the scientists’ language intact.

The first main message is that the global mean temperature has already increased by more than 1 degree Centigrade compared to pre-industrial levels and the impacts of human-induced climate change are already being felt. And at this rate the effects will be much more severe than had been predicted in previous reports. Hence the problem is much more urgent now.

The second main message is that staying below 1.5 degrees will indeed be very difficult but is still possible. Hence efforts by all countries and actors need to be redoubled to tackle climate change. This will require much greater political will.

The third message relates to what needs to be done and how to achieve the target. This requires phasing out fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and natural gas as soon as possible. We need to transition the global economy (as well as every national economy) into a hundred percent “renewable energy economy” no later than 2050.

Therefore, it is hoped that this IPCC report will raise the alarm bells for the global emergency that is climate change and galvanise actions by all actors.

Originally this article was published on October 10, 2018 at Daily Star. The author Dr. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).