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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a UN body founded in 1988 that evaluates science on the climate crisis. It has 195 Member States and it was created to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on the climate crisis, its potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation recommendations. 

The IPCC produces major reports every five years, but does not conduct its own research. Rather, it selects hundreds of scientists from around the world to prepare them. These scientists evaluate scientific literature as well as government and industry reports to develop a comprehensive analysis of the state of the climate crisis. Once put together by experts, the reports are reviewed line-by-line in plenary sessions by UN member states, who must then unanimously approve them. 

The IPCC has so far produced five reports. The most recent one discusses living on a planet with 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius of global warming and its implications on land, oceans and icy places. 

It also produces Special Reports on topics agreed to by its member governments, as well as Methodology Reports that provide guidelines for the preparation of greenhouse gas inventories.

To deliver these reports, the IPCC holds meetings of its government representatives, convening as plenary sessions of the Panel of IPCC Working Groups to approve, adopt and accept reports. Plenary Sessions of the IPCC also determine the IPCC work program, and other businesses including its budget and outlines of reports. The IPCC Bureau meets regularly to provide guidance to the Panel on scientific aspects of its work. 

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Working Groups and Task Force

IPCC assessments and Special Reports are prepared by three Working Groups, each analysing a different aspect of the climate crisis: Working Group I (The Physical Science Basis), Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability) and Working Group III (Mitigation of Climate Change). 

There is also a Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories, whose main objective is to develop and refine a methodology for the calculation of and reporting of national greenhouse gas emissions and removals. 

The Working Groups and Task Force handle the preparation of reports and select and manage the experts working on them as authors. 

The panel does not tell governments what to do, but rather assesses possible solutions. Their conclusions are not predictions of the future, but rather projections based on different warming scenarios. 

What is the Mission Statement of the IPCC?

In the scientific community, the IPCC’s reports are broadly viewed as the most comprehensive and reliable assessment of the climate crisis. In fact, in 2007, the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Professor Paul Edwards, historian and professor of information at Michigan University, wrote in his book that the “IPCC draft reports undergo more scrutiny than any other documents in the history of science.” 

Featured image by: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

A study has found that tropical cyclones have become wetter, more destructive and more frequent in the past four decades, with more intense storms forming as a result of warming ocean temperatures. 

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analysed satellite records from 1979 to 2017 and found a rise in the cyclones that have winds of about 185 km/h. Scientists carried out the study at the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

How does climate change affect typhoons?

The researchers found that the likelihood of a storm reaching Category 3 or above, with sustained winds of 185km/h, increased by 8% per decade. James Kossin, author of the study, says, “In other words, during its lifetime, a hurricane is 8% more likely to be a major hurricane in this decade compared to the last decade.”

The study found that as well as increasing wind speeds in cyclones, warming oceans would also likely see more rainfall from cyclones. Previous research shows that when cyclones form, they are tending to move more slowly, while delivering more rain. However, there is uncertainty as to whether the numbers of all categories of cyclones would rise or fall under the climate crisis.

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Additionally, the study looked at changes in cyclone intensity by region and found that trends toward stronger storms are clearest in the north Atlantic, southern Indian and eastern north Pacific oceans. 

According to experts speaking to Guardian Australia, the findings are in line with climate model predictions and the knowledge that increasing ocean temperatures give tropical cyclones more energy. 

Dr Greg Holland, a scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, says, “There is nobody saying the trend will go the other way. The physics has been well set out for 30 or 40 years. If you get a warmer ocean, then the intensity of cyclones goes up. That’s a 5% or 10% increase in maximum winds for every 1°C of warming in the ocean. The world is warming and it’s because we have put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Dr Holland also suggests that storms are moving further away from the equator, but acknowledges that this is harder to confirm observationally. 

Increasingly destructive tropical cyclones will cause more damage to coastal communities, which are already at an increased risk of being affected by the climate crisis due to sea-level rise. 

The ocean absorbs vast quantities of heat as a result of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2013, the ocean had absorbed more than 93% of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions since the 1970s, causing ocean temperatures to rise. Data from the NOAA shows that the average global sea surface temperature has increased by 0.13°C per decade over the past century. The IPCC’s report predicts that there is likely to be an increase in mean global ocean temperature of 1-4°C by 2100.

As the realities of the climate crisis become more widely discussed around the world, governments are increasingly under pressure from the general public to take action. Many institutions and governments have declared a ‘climate emergency’, but does this translate into policy or is it just hot air?

Climate Emergency Declaration: First Country

The city of Bristol was the UK’s first council to declare a climate emergency. Bristol’s move has since been widely credited as a breakthrough for cities, local governments and parliaments worldwide to follow its example. Six months later, the UK became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency. 

One of the UK’s research hubs on climate change, the University of Bristol, declared such an emergency soon after, becoming the first UK university to do so following widespread pressure from its student body. Reacted to with much elation from environmentally-conscious students, the move was soon followed by other universities across the UK.

However, the question of whether such announcements will translate into effective policy remains.

Dr Dann Mitchell, an Atmospheric Scientist and Associate Professor at the university, responded to the declaration by highlighting the importance of policy follow-through once the declaration has been made.

“Legally, there are no commitments for declaring a climate emergency, so the university doesn’t actually have to do anything. That is a cause for concern because it raises the question of whether the university is just declaring this as a publicity stunt, or if it’s actually developing strategies to become carbon-neutral.”

UK institutions have paved the way for such landmark declarations, and other international bodies are beginning to follow suit. In November, the EU parliament declared a climate emergency following a landslide vote from members, with the president of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, asserting that it was a resounding ‘agenda for change’. 

However, these calls to action are waiting to be met with discernible change. Such an agenda places pressure on countries to join the ranks to fight climate change without significant promises or legal action. It invites the European Council to align with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global mean temperature rise below 1.5°C, but imposes no obligation on them to align themselves with such a goal.

Around the world, it seems that climate emergency declarations haven’t delivered many material accomplishments. One day after Canada declared such an emergency, the government approved a tar sands pipeline expansion that could bring an additional 600 000 barrels of oil per day to international markets. The UK’s declaration in May came as local authorities supported plans to significantly expand coal mining. 

Environmental campaigners approached the declaration in a familiar manner, by applauding the language of change but wanting to see real change. Greenpeace EU policy climate advisor, Sebastian Lang, responded by saying, “Our house is on fire. The European Parliament have seen the blaze, but it’s not enough to stand by and watch.”

Von Der Leyen’s commission has already proposed a reduction to net zero emissions by 2050, but the European Council has failed to pass this motion as of yet with staunch opposition from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. It’s alarmingly evident that tough words often don’t translate to tough policy. 

The climate crisis however, is obviously not limited to developed countries, where climate action is proclaimed by countries built on the use of fossil fuels and natural resources. Tackling the climate emergency in developing countries must address the complex interface of the need for emissions reduction alongside the necessity for economic development. 

So far, few African and Asian countries have incorporated the climate crisis into their respective policy output, nor adopted the language of ‘climate emergency’. When understood in the wider framework of meeting people’s basic needs, impending environmental issues are often sidelined in favour of more immediate socio-economic development. 

Although wealthy Western nations disproportionately emit the largest percentage of emissions, it must also be considered that six of the top ten global emitters are rapidly developing countries, whose growth has come at the cost of immense emissions output. As economic growth continues around the world, the need to rethink the way that growth progresses, and incorporate the climate crisis into a multi-faceted approach to ‘development’ is becoming even more necessary. The climate crisis demands global cooperation on these issues, or humanity risks losing the determination and effort that such a crisis deserves.

Encouragingly, African leaders called for a global climate emergency at a UN climate action summit in September, in addition to requesting more funding from the international community for droughts, rising sea levels and severe tropical cyclones. However, questions arise as to whether declaring such an emergency will change attitudes in their countries. If developed nations face resistance from those who regard their own issues to be of greater importance, then the world’s lower-income countries will most likely be faced with even more resistance from their people. 

When considering that developing countries are the most likely to bear the brunt of climate change, policymakers and the masses must work together to produce an impactful response to such a declaration that incorporates emissions reduction with a sustainable approach to economic and social development. 

Progress has undoubtedly been made as the world wakes up to the reality of how the climate crisis is unfolding and how it is affecting the planet and those who live on it. Now that the nomenclature is beginning to be more widely adopted, questions abound as to whether effective policy implementation remains, as ever, just out of reach. 

To meet climate change mitigation targets, practices that improve soil quality, like soil carbon sequestration, could be an effective and accessible solution. 

The Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming “well below 2 °C” and to “pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 °C”by 2100 requires a change in global consumption, CO2 emissions and lifestyle habits that are currently not occurring at a fast enough rate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2018 report ‘Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development’ state the need to implement carbon dioxide removal to have any chance of hitting the 1.5°C target.

The techniques mainly discussed in the report are Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation, strategies that have been explored as options to mitigate climate change but may have negative side impacts, including increasing land-use competition leading to increased food prices, increased fertiliser usage, increased water usage and a threat to biodiversity. 

In the race for the 1.5°C target, what other Negative Emission Technologies (N.E.Ts) could be implemented that pose a lower need for in-demand land and a lower risk of unwanted negative side effects? The answer: Soil Carbon Sequestration

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A tractor ploughing a field. Changes in farming techniques can lead to carbon drawdown.

Soil Carbon Sequestration to Mitigate Climate Change

Soil carbon sequestration involves changing the way land is managed by increasing the amount of carbon content in soil leading to an overall net removal of CO2 in order to mitigate climate change. Changing the carbon balance so there is a higher level of inputs than carbon losses leads to a N.E.T phenomenon. To achieve this, practices that increase inputs or reduce losses must be implemented. An example of such a change in practice is decreasing tillage (the preparation of land for growing crops), resulting in a potential 30% decrease in organic carbon lost from the soil.

In her comprehensive topical review paper “Negative emissions—Part 2: Costs, potentials and side effects,” Dr Sabine Fuss from The Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin, analyses multiple N.E.Ts, giving a comprehensive breakdown of the pros, cons and potentials of each technique. When implemented correctly, soil carbon sequestration is the technique that has the smallest negative impact on socio-economic, environmental, biophysical and bio-geophysical factors.

Fuss summarises that soil carbon sequestration (SCS) techniques have a realistic carbon drawdown potential of between 2-5 GtCO2 yr−1 (other papers estimate both lower and higher potentials due to differing estimates of areas being adaptable to SCS techniques).

Aside from the potential drawdown of CO2, SCS has a number of potential positive side effects including:

Improved soil quality and health

Improved and more stable crop yields

No impact on competition for land; some other N.E.Ts require land-use change that could lead to an initial increase in emissions or lead to conflict over land that is needed to meet growing demand for food

Negligible additional water usage, since no further water is needed to implement SCS, just a change in land-use practices

Negligible energy usage, as SCS requires little change in farming techniques or energy input to be successful. Indeed, it could even lead to a reduction in energy usage if soil is worked less intensely

Increased organic nitrogen in the soil

Reduced pollution

Compared to other N.E.Ts such as BECCS, there are some drawbacks. Firstly, the amount of carbon that the soil can absorb decreases over time. The soil might also reach a “saturation cap”, after which no more sequestration can occur. Depending on the SCS option, soil type and climate, saturation may take anytime between 10 to 100 years. During this time, constancy in soil maintenance is crucial.

Aside from this, when compared to other N.E.Ts, SCS is far more accessible for people globally. The costs of SCS are low, knowledge is already in place or is easy to acquire (soils have been managed for thousands of years), it is readily deployable and presents a wide range of benefits.

Fuss admits additional feasibility studies are needed to scale up deployment, particularly in developing economies., However, she concludes that presents a viable, green and affordable option for farmers looking to manage their lands in an ecologically responsible manner. 

It would be the world’s first major research centre dedicated to the task of reversing climate change using geoengineering.

The University of Cambridge is launching a new research centre to explore radical technological solutions including geoengineering to fix climate change. The Centre for Climate Repair will investigate radical approaches such as refreezing the planet’s poles and recycling carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from the atmosphere. This first-of-its-kind research lab is being launched in response to the concerns of many climate scientists that reducing emissions might not be enough to stop or reverse climate change.

The initiative is the brainchild of Sir David King, an Emeritus Professor at Cambridge and former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government. “What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years,” he said in a conference earlier. “There is no major centre in the world that would be focused on this one big issue.”

Geoengineering Examples:

  1. Brightening clouds above the poles
    The centre will be working on an idea to brighten the clouds above Earth’s poles in order to make them capable of reflecting off more sunlight, which would reduce the temperatures and refreeze the melting ice caps. The idea is to pump seawater up to tall masts on uncrewed ships through very fine nozzles. This will produce tiny particles of salt which will be injected into the clouds making them more widespread and reflective.

  2. Greening the oceans
    The centre will also explore the idea of greening the oceans to make them capable of absorbing more CO2 from the atmosphere. Scientists believe that fertilising the sea with iron salts will boost the growth of plankton and other forms of vegetation in the ocean.
  3. Carbon Capture Utilisation (CCU)
    Another new idea is to develop an advanced version of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology. While CCS means collecting CO2 emissions from coal or gas-fired power stations and other industrial factories and storing it underground, this advanced technology — Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU) — is a scheme that effectively recycles the stored CO2. CCU involves building a plant that converts captured CO2 into products such as methanol, biofuel, and other forms of hydrocarbons to use as alternative and renewable sources of energy.

Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU)

The radical idea 

As a climate mitigation approach, Geoengineering was proposed by many climate scientists in the past. In 1977, Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis proposed ways of capturing all of Europe’s CO2 emissions and injecting them into sinking Atlantic Ocean currents. In 1982, Soviet scientist Mikhail Budyko suggested filling the stratosphere with sulphate particles to reflect sunlight back into space. In 1997, Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, proposed putting giant mirrors into space. 

The majority of climate scientists had earlier called these ideas outlandish and ‘redolent of science fiction’. But the overall mood is slowly shifting as the temperatures continue to rise and international efforts to cut down carbon emissions are not yielding the desired results. A large number of scientists today believe that the planet is approaching a tipping point where nothing other than geoengineering can stop the climate crisis. 

As a carbon mitigation tool, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) is gaining momentum among scientists and conservationists. But is it effective enough?

Carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use hit a record last year after energy demand grew at its fastest pace in a decade, causing higher oil consumption and more coal-burning across the globe. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recorded 33.1 gigatons of carbon emissions in the global energy sector, up 1.7% from the previous year. While renewable power generation grew last year by about 7%, that was not enough to keep up with the increase in demand.

As global demand for energy continues to surge, emissions from fossil fuel use are expected to further go up unless the world nations start implementing innovative carbon mitigation initiatives.   

Negative Emission Technologies (NETs)–the frontier of climate crisis mitigation–might be an effective solution to reduce the global energy sector’s increasing carbon footprint. One of these proposed solutions, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), is now gaining momentum among scientists and conservationists. 

How does carbon capture and storage work? 

In a nutshell, carbon capture and storage is a process in which energy is generated from burning biomass. Carbon dioxide (CO2) produced during the process is captured and sequestered in geological storage units. In simplest terms, the BECCS procedure goes like this: plant thousands of trees which remove CO2 from the atmosphere, burn those trees instead of fossil fuels to produce energy, capture the emitted CO2, and then store it underground. It might sound counterintuitive to burn trees to cut emissions. But the ultimate result of the BECCS is the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.  

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BECCS process

If executed efficiently, BECCS will have a significant impact on the energy sector’s carbon footprint. For instance, if the US could sequester CO2 using BECCS, it could reduce emissions by one gigaton of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2eq) annually by 2050. That’s a significant quantity considering the world emitted 36.2 GtCO2eq from fossil fuel combustion in 2017.

The Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected that BECCS could reduce emissions by around 12 GtCO2eq per year by 2100 globally. 

BECCS is still in its infancy. As an emerging technology, it raises a lot of questions and challenges that are still being debated. Industrial-scale implementation of this solution needs substantial resources: trees need land, water, and even fertilisers; the energy production process needs new transportation facilities and industrial infrastructure. While the usage of a large volume of water may put pressure on the existing irrigation system, a massive amount of fertilisers may cause serious environmental damage.

A recent study on BECCS states that it would cause food shortage in the future.  The world will have to produce 70% extra food by 2050 to keep up with the increasing population, and that means designating more land for agriculture. For a global scale deployment of BECCS, the world needs between 300-600 million hectares of additional land–an area the size of the European Union. If such vast tracts of land are reserved for fast-growing plants as part of BECCS, global agricultural production will be seriously affected.  

Large scale cultivation of trees could also bring problems associated with monoculture and biodiversity loss. This argument, however, is often negated by BECCS advocates who argue that the large-scale cultivation of trees can be carried out on degraded lands that were already used for grazing. 

The scientific community is still debating about the efficiency and side-effects of BECCS. But in desperate times, as a carbon removal technology, BECCS might prove to be a good bet.

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