Copenhagen 5: inaction is inexcusable

cop_logo_1_r_editedThe fifth section of the Copenhagen congress synthesis report  asserts that inaction is inexcusable.  It calls for a combination of mitigation and adaptation strategies.  There is little that will not be already familiar to those who follow such matters, but the importance of the report is that it articulates a consensus of many professionals and carries a consequent authority. The intention is to give policy makers an up-to-date picture of the means open to us to deal with the reality ahead and to declare them adequate when properly integrated.

Many renewable energy technologies are already available that, in combination with changes on the demand side (reduced energy usage and improved energy efficiency) give the potential to achieve a 50% greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2050 and, in some regions, to reduce emissions to virtually zero by that time. Reaching the goals requires rapid, substantial build-up of production capacity through concerted investments, stable policy frameworks, and research development. The report notes that the rapidly-expanding mix of energy efficiency, solar, wind, biofuels, and other low-carbon technologies is showing lower deployment costs than many forecasts, and the benefits are proving larger than expected.

Attention is drawn to the importance of the preservation of biodiverse natural forests, the loss of whose carbon-regulating services would seriously accelerate climate change.  Agriculture provides the possibilityof very significant and cost effective greenhouse gas reductions, primarily through altered management practices and particularly through enhanced soil carbon storage. The report recognises the promise of second generation biofuels (ie. cellulosic) and cautions that the use of the oil crops for biofuel should be avoided.

Moving to adaptation, it is the sectors already tightly managed by humans – food systems, forestry, and water systems – that can most readily be adapted to the impacts of climate change. In agriculture mitigation and adaptation often involve the same management strategies and can be achieved at the same time.   Adaptation is more difficult for natural systems which provide the indirect ecosystem services that ultimately underpin human well-being.  Nature conservation needs to concentrate on enhancing the resilience of well-functioning ecosystems through a variety of strategies, but even the most effective adaptation approaches will not save very large numbers of species if climate change continues unabated. Only mitigation can avoid the worsening crisis in species extinction.  

In the developing world adaptation measures must be integrated with other development initiatives. It is already apparent that access to fresh water is changing and that in some areas storms and floods are increasing, as are the effects of drought in other areas.  It is important to implement adaptations now, such as those that sustain water supplies or secure dwellings.

Infrastructure investments need to be considered in a climate adaptation context and to take into account the likely need to cope with extreme events at the severe end of the probability distribution.

After indicating the wide range and need of mitigation and adaptation measures the report emphasises the importance of integrating them in a systems framework. This will capture synergies that enhance the effectiveness of each and avoid perverse outcomes in which the measures taken in mitigation could have a deleterious effect on adaptation measures and vice versa. Integration is particularly pressing in relation to land use and the need to balance local needs, such as food production and space for dwellings and businesses, with global needs, such as the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, production of biomass for energy and biofuels, and protection of biodiversity.

In urban areas the integrated approach is very important.  The over half of humans now living in cities account for around 75% of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. Many cities are particularly vulnerable to extreme events and rising sea levels. More resilient urban areas are essential.

What this boils down to is the fact that there are many tools available for both mitigation of climate change and adaptation to the unavoidable impacts.  They must be vigorously and widely implemented.  The report is firm that many benefits will flow from a concerted effort to achieve effective and rapid adaptation and mitigation. They include job growth in the sustainable energy sector, reductions in the health, social, economic and environmental costs of climate change, and the repair of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.

The report acknowledges that the way the tools are applied needs debate.  It doesn’t pretend that the details are already clear.  But in its measured way it is emphatic that the tools for the job are there.  It is less certain that the political will and the social acceptance of the need to change are there.  That provision is the task of the policy makers and negotiators on the path to Copenhagen in December.

Note: In an earlier Copenhagen post I drew attention to RealClimate’s endorsement of the synthesis report.  Roger Pielke Sr has attacked them vigorously, claiming that several of the synthesis report’s statements are not true. RealCimate has replied, demonstrating that the vigour of his attack was not matched by its substance – to put it mildly.

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