Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will soon release its special report on the impacts of both a 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius increase in global average temperatures above pre-industrial levels, and on the actions that would be needed to avoid exceeding those temperature limitation goals.  The report is the result of hard work by experts from all over the world, drawing on a broad base of peer-reviewed scientific literature; drafts of the report underwent an intensive series of reviews by both experts and scientists, and the report’s Summary for Policymakers is being approved line-by-line by government representatives at a meeting that will soon wrap up in Incheon, South Korea.  UCS senior scientist Rachel Licker provides an excellent overview of the report’s origins, structure, and the process that led to it here.

The report will provide vital information to countries as they consider whether to enhance the ambition of their emissions limitation pledges (which are referred to as “nationally-determined contributions,” or NDCs) under the Paris Agreement; as the report makes clear, those current collective pledges are nowhere near adequate to meet the goal set forth in the Agreement of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels.”  As I noted just after the Paris Agreement was adopted, “getting the 1.5⁰C reference in the Agreement represents a major victory for small island states and other countries who have been correctly making the case that a 2 degrees C limit is by no means ‘safe,’ and for some island states, in fact poses an existential threat.”  The special report will make these dangers abundantly clear; as my UCS colleagues detail here and here, there are substantial differences between temperature increases of 1.5 and 2⁰C when it comes to extreme precipitation and extreme heat.

The report will also inform the actions of states, provinces, cities, businesses, and other subnational actors as they develop or strengthen their own emissions limitation commitments.  More on that below.

Some context

The special report was requested by the member states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the historic Paris climate summit in December 2015; in their decision adopting the Paris Agreement, the IPCC was invited “to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 ⁰C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways.”  That same decision “notes with concern that the estimated aggregate greenhouse gas emission levels in 2025 and 2030 resulting from the intended nationally determined contributions do not fall within least-cost 2 ˚C scenarios…and also notes that much greater emission reduction efforts will be required than those associated with the intended nationally determined contributions in order to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 ˚C above pre-industrial levels…or to 1.5 ˚C above pre-industrial levels.”

The Paris Agreement itself acknowledged the transformational nature of the actions required to meet its long-term temperature limitation goal, stating that: “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.”  The IPCC report will flesh out in great detail what will be required to meet this profoundly challenging objective – as well as the very serious consequences of failing to meet it.

The reason countries asked the IPCC to complete its special report by 2018 is because they decided in Paris that they would organize a “facilitative dialogue” at the climate summit being held this December in Katowice, Poland, in order “to take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the [Paris Agreement’s] long-term goal…and to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions.”

The Talanoa Dialogue

When Fiji became the first small island country to hold the rotating presidency of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC in November of last year, its Prime Minister announced that this process would be renamed the Talanoa Dialogue.  As the UNFCCC background page explains, “Talanoa is a traditional word used in Fiji and across the Pacific to reflect a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. The purpose of Talanoa is to share stories, build empathy and to make wise decisions for the collective good. The process of Talanoa involves the sharing of ideas, skills and experience through storytelling.”

The Talanoa dialogue asks countries to address three simple questions: ‘where are we,’ ‘where do we want to go,’ and ‘how do we get there.’  There has already been a rich and in-depth preparatory phase of the dialogue, involving inputs from countries as well as states, cities, businesses, and every sector of civil society seeking to answer these questions; the IPCC special report will add greatly to this technical background.

The current Fijian and incoming Polish COP presidencies will conduct a political phase of the Talanoa dialogue at COP24 in Katowice; they have declared that “the outcome of the dialogue is greater confidence, courage and enhanced ambition; this outcome is expected to capture political momentum, and help Parties to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions.”  The IPCC will be asked to present the key findings of its special report to ministers and negotiators at the opening of this high-level political event on December 11th, which will be followed by a series of interactive roundtables where ministers and non-Party stakeholders (representatives of subnational governments, business, and civil society) will be asked to address the question of ‘how do we get there.’

The 21 Talanoa sessions held at the May UNFCCC negotiating session in Bonn, Germany, displayed a constructive tone and open exchanges between the participants that contrasted sharply with the zero-sum, finger-pointing dynamics that are all too prevalent in the climate negotiations themselves.  As one participant put it, “Everybody talked to each other like people, not like parties.”  We can only hope that the high-level roundtables in December benefit from a similar spirit, and help pave the way for more countries to join the Declaration for Ambition issued last June by the Marshall Islands and 22 other countries, which declared “we commit to exploring the possibilities for stepping up our own ambition, in light of the forthcoming IPCC Special Report on 1.5⁰C…[and] call on other countries to join us in expressing their desire to lead from the front.”


The UN Secretary-General’s Climate Leaders Summit

In May of last year, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that he would hold a summit of world leaders during the opening session of the General Assembly in New York in September, 2019 to address the need for enhanced climate ambition.  “Climate change is a direct threat in itself and a multiplier of many other threats — from poverty to displacement to conflict,” he said. “The effects of climate change are already being felt around the world. They are dangerous and they are accelerating. And so my argument today is that it is absolutely essential that the world implements the Paris Agreement – and that we fulfil that duty with increased ambition.”

In a speech in New York last month, the Secretary-General reiterated his warning about the mounting threat of climate change. “As the ferocity of this summer’s wildfires and heatwaves shows, the world is changing before our eyes,” he said. “We are careering towards the edge of the abyss. It is not too late to shift course, but every day that passes means the world heats up a little more and the cost of our inaction mounts.”

He also elaborated on his vision for the summit:  “The Summit will provide an opportunity for leaders and partners to demonstrate real climate action and showcase their ambition. I want to hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. I am calling on all leaders to come to next year’s Climate Summit prepared to report not only on what they are doing, but what more they intend to do when they convene in 2020 for the UN climate conference and where commitments will be renewed and surely ambitiously increased.”

In addition to enhancing ambition at the national level the summit will challenge states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens to step up action in six areas: the energy transition, climate finance and carbon pricing, industry transition, nature-based solutions, cities and local action, and climate resilience.  Building on the commitments announced at last month’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, UN agencies and key countries will work with non-governmental stakeholders over the next year to identify high-impact actions that can be taken in each of these areas.  The IPCC Special Report provides a roadmap to the transformational actions that will be required on these and other fronts, and will help both to inform and to gauge the adequacy of these actions. My colleague Rachel Cleetus lays out the technical and policy implications of the IPCC report in much greater detail here.

The 2020 moment

All of this is building towards the end of 2020, which is when the decision adopting the Paris Agreement requests countries to put forward new or updated NDCs; of course, as these pledges are “nationally-determined,” it is entirely up to each country to decide whether or not to enhance their ambition.  But as the science being assessed in the IPCC Special Report makes clear, if the collective ambition of these pledges out to 2030 is not significantly raised, the option of holding temperature increases below 2⁰C – much less anything approaching 1.5⁰C – will be foreclosed.  But there will be good news in the report as well: technological advances and rapid reductions in the costs of photovoltaics, LED lightbulbs, and many other climate-friendly technologies over the last several years mean that greater emissions reductions can be achieved at less cost than countries envisioned when they were preparing their initial NDCs in the run-up to Paris. These gains can and should be harnessed for the benefit of the planet in the form of enhanced NDCs.

As 2020 draws closer, we’re seeing momentum building for enhancing ambition. The “Call to Action” issued by the several thousand governors, mayors, corporate CEOs, major investors, and other leaders attending the Global Climate Action Summit calls on national governments to step up the ambition of their NDCs by 2020, as well as to develop net-zero mid-century emissions plans.  Nineteen countries – including twelve member states of the European Union – are now members of the Carbon Neutrality Coalition.  They are joined by the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, the Under2 Coalition, and the Science-Based Targets initiative involving nearly 500 companies, in working to develop and implement long-term decarbonization plans that are in line with the Paris Agreement’s temperature limitation goals.  And the Climate Vulnerable Forum – a group of around 50 countries that as its name implies, are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – has announced that it will hold a Virtual Summit on November 22nd, combining interactive live sessions with statements by Heads of State to amplify the findings of the IPCC Special Report and build momentum for increased climate ambition just in advance of COP24 in Poland.

These are hopeful developments, but they are not enough.  As the IPCC Special Report will make crystal clear, time is running out; we can – and must – do more.  The Talanoa Dialogue, the Secretary-General’s Climate Leaders’ Summit, and the 2020 deadline for countries to “step up” on enhancing their NDCs all provide important international moments to focus public attention and showcase examples of the climate ambition we need.  But it is at the national and subnational levels that the battle to limit the impacts of climate change will be won or lost.

During India’s struggle for independence from Great Britain, Mahatma Gandhi said that “the future depends on what you do today.”  Future generations will celebrate those elected officials, corporate CEOs, and leaders from the academic, faith, environmental justice, labor, and other communities who have the courage to rise to the challenge so clearly outlined by the IPCC’s Special Report.  We can only hope that enough such leaders step forward to make the difference we need.