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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

In October 2019, two co-chairs of the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2022 visited the Hong Kong Observatory to give advice on the climate crisis to climate researchers and government engineering departments which implement climate change adaptation measures in Hong Kong. 

The co-chairs presented the three IPCC special reports published since 2018 as well as the latest scientific research on climate change. The forum discussed Hong Kong’s relationship with the climate crisis. 

As well as summarising the latest findings on how our climate systems are changing, the forum highlighted the feasibility of reaching the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming to 2°C and ideally below 1.5 °C. The co-chairs were optimistic that the development of technologies to support mitigation and adaptation measures are on track, and they also talked about a shift towards redirecting money from fossil fuel subsidies, however it was acknowledged that the bottleneck of widespread fossil fuel aversion might be stemming from a lack of informed policies for leading and directing societal transformation. 

When asked by the Hong Kong climate research community about how the city’s scientists could contribute to the next IPCC report, the co-chairs said the IPCC would look forward to more regional studies. 

More of these studies are needed because while the 2°C and 1.5 °C targets  talk about global averages, climate projections often vary regionally. Carbon dioxide concentration is fairly uniform globally, and its warming effect is therefore also fairly uniform globally. However, the variability of regional atmospheric and oceanic circulations can pose large uncertainties for regional climate projections. For example, a 2015 study and a 2018 study showed that atmospheric circulation changes are the largest source of uncertainty in rainfall projections in the Mediterranean and in Europe respectively. 

The co-chairs called for more regional studies to meet the increasing demand from governments for more certainty on regional climate projections to facilitate policy making. There has always been a trade-off between reducing regional projection uncertainty through higher spatial resolution models and the higher computational costs associated with running these higher resolutions. So far, the most commonly adopted solution is the use of higher resolution regional climate models. Through an international partnership coordinated by the World Meteorological Organisation, climate researchers in Hong Kong and its neighbouring countries are increasingly encouraged to contribute more to southeast Asia studies using regional climate models. 

In the long term, beyond the next IPCC report, it is envisioned that an even larger scale international collaboration will allow for the use of higher resolution models not just on a regional level, but global. 

The co-chairs also called for more attribution studies to be included in the next IPCC report. These studies determine the extent to which climate change is responsible for certain extreme weather events. This is achieved by comparing the climate model simulations between those with and without inclusion of anthropogenic forcings, or human activity. By comparing the frequency of certain extreme events in both simulations, scientists can quantify how much human activity is shaping the odds of such extreme events happening. 

Attribution studies have been done on a variety of extreme events, for example on the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017, on the South China drought in late 2018, and on the record-breaking June 2019 heatwave in France. These studies are useful in estimating the additional economic costs associated with increased frequency of extreme events in a warming climate, which can then be compared to the estimated costs of mitigating and adapting climate change during policy making to see if large investments in policies are justified. 

As for the role that Hong Kong can play in tackling such a global problem, the latest HK Policy Address indicates government plans to subsidise the installation of electric vehicle (EV) chargers across private residential buildings, easing pollution in the dense city. The government is also piloting floating photovoltaic systems at reservoirs and landfills and government buildings’ energy efficiency will also be enhanced

As the next IPCC report draws nearer, scientists in Hong Kong and around the globe are encouraged to conduct more regional and attribution studies on climate projections. Although no industrialised nation is on track to meet the Paris Agreement targets as of September 2019, hopefully more such studies can reduce uncertainties surrounding the climate crisis and can provide more economical justifications for policy changes.

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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