We Can Afford to Act on Climate Change, If We Move Fast

The latest IPCC report is a call to global action, but questions of blame and responsibility are getting in the way.

Apr 14 2014, 11:20am
Activists in Berlin as the IPCC report was discussed. Image: Flickr/Katherin Henneberger

The looming spectre of climate change can often seem like an undefeatable opponent; it covers the whole world, it’s caused by activities we don’t want to stop, and it just keeps getting worse. The more we hear about quite how bad things are getting, the more it sounds like an exorbitantly difficult and prohibtively expensive battle.

But the most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which focuses on mitigating the disastrous effects of climate change unveiled by its predecessors, offers an unusual glimmer of hope, and an impassioned spur to action. Quite simply, it says that mitigating emissions to stabilise the climate is in fact quite affordable—if we act fast.

The report (you can see a summary for policymakers here, with the final version available online from Tuesday) suggests that cutting carbon emissions as much as we need to would only cut 0.06 percent off annual consumption growth rates over a century. That’s not nothing—expected growth rates are around 1.3 to 3 percent, so 0.06 isn’t an entirely insignificant figure—but it’s certainly do-able, and very likely our best shot at avoiding larger costs in the future.

The point is that if we act now we can hold back the onward projectory of damaging climate change to some extent, whereas if we wait, we'll have to put more effort into actually reversing the effects. That's likely to be a lot more expensive, if we even have the technology to do so. It’s nice to think we might have a cheap, convenient way of sucking all the greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere in the future, but it’s probably not worth betting the future of humanity on it. It’s not like we have a stockpile of alternative habitable planets as a backup. As the report explains:

Delaying additional mitigation further increases mitigation costs in the medium to long term. Many models could not achieve atmospheric concentration levels of about 450ppm CO2eq by 2100 if additional mitigation is considerably delayed or under limited availability of key technologies, such as bioenergy, CCS, and their combination.

Bionergy and CCS—carbon capture and storage—is one real-life way of removing carbon dioxide from the air, but it takes up a lot of space we prefer to use for things like raising animals for food, which presents a barrier to deploying it on a really large scale.

To put the whole gist of the report in simpler terms, German economist Ottmar Edenhofer, who co-chaired the report committee, told the New York Times we can’t wait another decade. “If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization,” he said.

It’s a clear call to action: renewable technologies like wind turbines and solar panels are more affordable than ever, and while it would certainly require a substantial initial investment, it would save in the long run. An earlier IPCC report highlighted some of the technologies we’ll need to adapt to a warmer world, like flood defences and water-saving systems, but ultimately there’s only so much we can deal with climbing temperatures and increasingly extreme weather events, and our best line of defence has to come down to cutting the emissions that got us to this point, and that are pushing us ever further past it.

But of course, it’s not that simple, and the politics of what has to be a worldwide effort pose a significant barrier to global action. Because while we know more or less what needs to be done to cut our footprint, there’s an argument over who should foot the bill. 

A large part of this comes down to the classification of countries as developed or developing, and what that means for their respective responsibilities. How much should developed countries help out developing countries? Should fast-developing countries like China be classed along with much poorer developing nations? How much should a country's past emissions be taken into account? 

All that has led to squabbles over where lines are drawn, quite literally in some cases. The AP reported that diagrams in leaked drafts of the report that showed that a main force behind rising emissions were the increasing energy needs of fast-growing countries like China were deleted from the final version.

And that’s where a more pessimistic response to the report rears its head. After all, it’s not like it’s news that we need to reduce emissions from fossil fuels to stem global warming, but until governments can agree on a course of action, we’ll never see the kind of united progress that would be the most effective solution.

For the moment, the outlook continues to look pretty bleak, and the IPCC also wrote that emissions continue to rise despite our efforts to reduce them. They wrote that “emissions grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades,” and put this down to the disproportionate growth in economies and populations.