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Key Findings From The Latest United Nations Scientific Report on Climate Change

Every six to eight years the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, undertakes a massive review of the latest science around climate change. Right now, we are near the end of one of these cycles of scientific review.

My guest today, Ryan Hobert, is the managing director of the United Nations Foundations climate and environment team. We kick off discussing the process behind these IPCC reports before diving deep into some of the specific findings of the latest report, released Monday.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What is the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

Ryan Hobert [00:02:34] The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is essentially the United Nations climate science body. It was created in 1988 by two UN entities, the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Program, and its role is to provide governments with scientific information and regular assessments to inform their climate policies. It also has played an important role, as you can imagine with the international negotiation process, and its universal, so it has all 195 country governments of the UN are members of the IPCC, so just a couple of things. So, one is it doesn’t produce any original research. It assesses peer reviewed scientific literature, and it pieces together a complete picture of where things stand on climate change, and it also involves a very diverse group of hundreds of scientists from all those 195 member governments. And that’s why it’s seen as the ultimate authority on climate science and represents the consensus on climate change. So, the way it works is that the IPCC operates through multiyear assessment cycles, so those cycles last anywhere from five to seven years, usually on the longer end of that time frame. And so there will be usually in the process of the cycle, there will be several what they call special reports. And then in about a two-year period at the end of any cycle, there will be three working group reports and then one synthesis report. They kind of sum up everything that has been gathered over that time period.

What are the synthesis reports that the IPCC assesses? What are the IPCC’s working group reports?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:37] And it’s these synthesis reports that are like the big deal reports in terms of the output of the IPCC?

Ryan Hobert [00:04:45] So the synthesis reports are the big deal in terms of summarizing everything from the cycle, but the three working group reports themselves each have what’s called a summary for policymakers, and those reports themselves are negotiated by governments based on the underlying science in the Working Group report. So just very quickly, the three working group reports—in this cycle, we had working group one that came out in August, and that was on the physical science basis of climate change. So, kind of the basic science. Working group two came out in late February and it covered impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. And then working group three just came out earlier this week and it covered mitigation so the solutions aspect. But each of those working group reports have their own processes, their own technical leads, et cetera. And they each end in week to two-week negotiation among governments with the IPCC and the lead scientists.

Why did the IPCC working group three report take so long to negotiate?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:00] And again, we’re speaking just a couple of days after that working group three report was released, and I understand that, you know, it kind of came down to the wire in terms of putting the dots on the lowercase j’s and crossing the t’s in terms of the summary for policymakers, is that right?

Ryan Hobert [00:06:20] That’s exactly right. So, it was the longest negotiation it went over by several days. In fact, it delayed the final press conference, which was supposed to be early in the morning, US time on Monday morning and ended up happening later, later in the day. And it was largely because of political wrangling. I mean, typically the IPCC, they’re very clear about how they are not being politically prescriptive. They’re providing the assessment tools for governments to make their own policy decisions but inevitably, given the polarization, given the kinds of things that they’re saying in their reports, a number of governments are very vocal about how things get framed, which topics get raised and just to also say that these summaries for policymakers are much shorter, they’re typically the thing that actually gets read by the broader public. And they can be somewhat different than what’s in the underlying reports. And the underlying reports are so big and so large that a lot of different things can be pulled out of that to be put in the summary for policymakers. So, in this particular example of the working group three report, we had India and Saudi Arabia in particular that had a lot of objections to how things were being portrayed in the draft. And so, it took an extra several days, which is usually more of kind of within the UNFCCC, the climate negotiating body. That’s where things tend to go over less than the IPCC but, in this case, that happened, and it sort of makes you wonder whether some of the politics of the broader negotiation process is infecting even these science endeavors.

Why did Saudi Arabia and India object to some parts of the IPCC working group three report?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:23] Well, I want to get into the substance of the report, but I am curious to learn like what were, say, India and Saudi Arabia’s objections.

Ryan Hobert [00:08:34] Yeah, so India was largely objecting on issues related to responsibility of countries, and while the report itself doesn’t directly touch on who should do what again, they’re not policy prescriptive, the way you emphasize certain things could lead you to believe that countries should have a responsibility to do more or less based on their historical responsibility, their capacity, things like that. So that was largely what India was pointing out. Saudi Arabia, for a long time, has been well known within the climate negotiations and in these kinds of fora to block certain things and to object, particularly when the implications of things like these reports show that fossil fuel extraction, development and consumption are going to need to be drastically cut back, since they’re largely a fossil fuel-based economy.

What made this working group three report different from past IPCC reports?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:41] Yeah, the final report did say precisely that, right?

Ryan Hobert [00:09:46] Exactly, it is about it. And that’s sort of the remarkable thing in the end is that they go along with these reports that essentially say we need to very quickly transition away from fossil fuels.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:00] OK, so what were some of the key takeaways from this working group three report? Now I take it what distinguished this report, as you said earlier, is that it focused on opportunities for mitigation. That is, what can we do to prevent a climate apocalyptic scenario?

Ryan Hobert [00:10:24] Yeah, that’s right, so we’d already gone through what’s the basic science then what are the impacts and how are we going to adapt. And so, this third part is about what are the solutions, how do we mitigate? And then what do we need to do in order to stick to the goals that we’ve set ourselves? So essentially, what it said, the big headline is, we’re not on track. The Paris Agreement in 2015 set goals of staying below two degrees of warming compared to pre-industrial levels, aiming, if possible, at keeping temperatures from rising no more than 1.5 degrees. That’s Paris’s stretch goal. And essentially, what this report says is we’re not on track. We’re not on a trajectory to get us there with even with the commitments that have been made since Paris we’re probably more on a three-degree course so, you know, double that 1.5 goal. That said, they clearly said that it’s within reach to be at 1.5. But that means really, really drastic emissions reductions in a very short amount of time. So, they essentially said that emissions have to peak and start to very quickly go down by 2025, so in the next three years. And that we would have to reduce our emissions globally by something like 40% by 2030. So, a really big task. But they also said that we have the technologies we need to get this done, at least to get well on the way of reducing emissions over the next few years. And I think for the first time, compared to previous reports, that these technologies are now cheaper and in many, many cases, even in the developing world, they’re the preferable option. So, they said that solar and wind costs fell by 85 and 55 percent, respectively, over the last ten years, again making them cheaper than fossil fuel powered electricity generation in most places. So, their point was really that the obstacles at this point are political rather than technological.

What are the carbon sequestration methods the IPCC working group three report encourages?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:41] And it seems also a good deal of the public commentary I’ve seen around this report also has highlighted that perhaps for the first time, at least in a meaningful way, the IPCC is embracing or at least giving much credence to like carbon capture and sequestration, is that right?

Ryan Hobert [00:13:04] Yeah, that’s correct. So and you know, this can be this can be a touchy subject for a number of reasons, but they essentially said that what they call carbon removal, which is not just reducing the emissions that we’re putting out there, but actually finding ways to sequester and do away with emissions that are already in in the atmosphere, that that carbon removal is unavoidable if we want to reach what they call net zero by mid-century. And then they talk about ways to draw down CO2 and other gases. You know, obviously there’s reversing deforestation. But then there are also more technological approaches, which involve what they call direct air capture, which is essentially taking carbon right out of the air. There are a number of other technologies, and they range from natural sinks, what they call sinks, absorption places where carbon and other greenhouse gases can be absorbed all the way to, you know, much more technologically focused solutions.

What does the IPCC working group three report say about agriculture and sustainable food systems?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:21] So, you know, in addition to rapidly moving away from fossil fuels, somehow embracing, or advancing work and progress on some of these other technologies, like carbon capture and sequestration, another big focus of the report, and I know your area of expertise, is around how the agriculture sector and land use and food systems could be harnessed to support global efforts to combat climate change. What does the report say about that?

Ryan Hobert [00:14:57] Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. So, the report essentially says that between agriculture, forestry, and other types of land use, those together are contributing over a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions—they say 22%. And then if you think about food systems, so slightly different way to conceive of it, so it’s the agriculture, the production of food, transport, sales and then the resulting waste of food consumption that makes up about a third of greenhouse gas emissions. So, either way, you look at it, it’s really huge. It’s a really big chunk and that’s true in terms of emissions, but it’s also true in terms of reduction potential. And it makes very clear that agriculture and food and forestry have the potential to provide large scale greenhouse gas emission reductions, but they offer a number of caveats about how there’s no one size fits all approach when it comes to addressing these emissions and that they need to be tailored at the local and in particular, socioeconomic contexts.

What climate mitigation opportunities does the IPCC working group three report highlight?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:16] I mean, so I take it, there’s no like single low hanging fruit in terms of what can be done, perhaps with a minimum amount of political will to use this sector to improve our climate or, in other words, use this sector as a way to mitigate climate change.

Ryan Hobert [00:16:41] Yeah, I think there are a lot of different solutions, I mean, there are the ones that are obvious and that we know of and probably the first one there is preserving and restoring forests. There are a number of reasons to do that, including biodiversity reasons, you know, microclimate reasons, et cetera. They touch on peatlands and wetlands, essentially carbon that’s in a wet form that’s been deposited over thousands of years. And it’s very, very rich in carbon and that we’ve been we tend to drain and used. It’s very fertile soil, so we tend to use it for agriculture but those are ticking time bombs in terms of carbon. But there are other strategies, including managing the soil carbon, whether it’s in grasslands or in croplands. Agro forestry, which is an intermixing of agriculture and forestry to provide shade and humidity in optimal ways. There are ways to improve rice cultivation, especially to reduce methane emissions. And then there’s a whole piece around livestock and nutrient management on farms, and those are all kind of the supply side solutions and then there are demand side solutions that really are about diets, moving away from animal product consumption and towards plants, as well as a whole piece that’s to be done around food waste and the resulting methane emissions from the about one third of all food that we waste at the end at the end of the food chain.

What can individuals do to assist with climate mitigation efforts according to the IPCC working group three report?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:25] So I want to drill down a little bit on diet and food waste because to me, that was like the most interesting part of the report in terms of like things that actual individuals can do to support these broader efforts. A lot of discussion around climate change, to me, at least seems and appropriately so that these are decisions that have to be made on political levels. But you know, a modest reduction in the consumption of cows seems to go a long way in terms of reducing carbon emissions.

Ryan Hobert [00:19:05] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, red meat in particular is the big one. I mean, the emissions from consuming that kind of diet is orders of magnitude higher than a plant-based diet. And that’s both because cows are ruminants and so they have a digestive system that makes it so that they emit methane, another really potent greenhouse gas over the course of their lives. The other thing is that in order to produce an ounce of red meat, it takes a lot more grain to be fed to those animals. So, you can just imagine that if we reduce the amount of red meat that we consume, we can free up a lot of land for consumers to eat plant-based diets.

How does food waste contribute to greenhouse gas emissions according to the IPCC working group three report?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:07] And on food waste. Can you define, I guess, what we mean by food waste and how food waste contributes or what the report says about how food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions?

Ryan Hobert [00:20:20] Yeah. So, there’s essentially two parts to it. One is the losses on the field, either because of pests or because crops stay out in the field too long or other issues before they get to market. And then at the end of the chain, there’s the whole issue of food that’s wasted because it’s not consumed. It’s perfectly good food, but it just doesn’t get eaten for various reasons. And that’s where, as you say, Mark, there are a lot of opportunities for individuals to take responsibility for making sure that we eat the food that we purchase. And it’s essentially, it’s doubly bad to waste food because you’re wasting all the carbon and greenhouse gases embedded in the production of that food and then when that food goes to a landfill, it emits methane, which is a very potent, as I was saying, short term greenhouse gas. So, it’s basically double points against food waste. So that’s one of the areas where people can be much more conscientious about not wasting and that can be that can be a really significant part of the solution.

What are the policy implications of the IPCC working group three report on climate mitigation?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:36] So lastly, you know, as you said, this is a report of scientists though influenced by politics to a certain degree. To you, though, as someone who has followed this issue for a while, has followed these processes for a long time, what would you say are some of the key policy implications of this particular report?

Ryan Hobert [00:22:02] Yeah, so I think I mean, going back to what I was saying earlier, the big one is that we have absolutely no time to lose, and we have to make really big changes in a very short amount of time. And I think you have, for example, the secretary general who makes that very clear in his pronouncements, including in the fiery speech that he gave at the press conference for the release of this IPCC report.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:27] I saw that, and it was fiery. I was expecting him to start rattling off the names of like CEOs of fossil fuel companies. He seemed on the verge. But go ahead. Sorry.

Ryan Hobert [00:22:40] Well, and it’s really remarkable that we’ve now had this a second secretary general in a row who’s had essentially had climate change as their top priority. I mean, I think that’s really to talk about leadership on climate change from the U.N. It’s coming from the very top. But to come back to your question, I think it’s a real call for governments to act now and to act decisively. I think the real challenge right now is that we see geopolitics taking over in a in a significant way, particularly with the war in Ukraine and a little bit like COVID—the beginning of the COVID pandemic a couple of years ago—there’s sort of this moment when we realized that both because of emissions going down quickly, because economies were at a standstill, but then because of recovery packages, there was this opportunity to really shift how we do business across the world and really reduce our emissions. And I would say that we seized that opportunity to some extent, but not nearly the way that some had hoped. I think similarly here with the war in Ukraine, you’ve got particularly Europe that’s really being pressured now to make a transition away from imports, particularly of fossil fuels from Russia and having to make very dramatic changes in a short amount of time. And that’s the kind of thing where it could go either way, you know, it could pressure them to lock in over a longer period of time, fossil fuel import potential, or it could encourage them to aggressively pursue energy efficiency, renewable energy and other solutions. That would be a total transformation of how things happen right now. So, I think this report comes and reinforces the idea that that these things are possible and that geopolitics can play against climate action, or it can be a little bit of a boost and can be the old adage that a good crisis is an unfortunate thing to waste comes true.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:56] Well, Ryan, thank you so much for your time. This was very helpful.

Ryan Hobert [00:25:00] Good. Thank you. Appreciate it!

Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:05] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Ryan Hobert for his time. This was great, a very good and easily understandable explanation of what was in this latest IPCC report in the final report in this cycle will be due out later this year. I’ll see you next time. Bye!

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