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UN warning on climate

Irene QuaileOctober 31, 2014

Governments and scientists have been meeting in the Danish capital Copenhagen this week to adopt a key IPCC report on the state of the climate. It says policymakers must act now to avert the worst.

Symbolbild Klimaschutz Wetterveränderung
Image: Daniel Loretto - Fotolia.com

Climate change may have "severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems." But there is still time to prevent the worst by reducing greenhouse gas emissions now.

That is the message from a report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be published on November 2 after a week of international scrutiny.

The "Synthesis Report" does not contain new information. Its wording, however, lends new urgency to the issue. It integrates and condenses the information contained inthree separate reports released over the past year, looking at the scientific evidence for climate change, its impacts and what can be done about it.

Delegates from more than 100 governments and top scientists are attending the meeting to prepare the publication of the report and the all-important "Summary for Policymakers," which will be essential reading for governments preparing for this year's UN climate conference in Peru in December.

Urgent action

The IPCC summary states clearly that global warming is happening, that humans have caused it, that it is already dangerous, and that the warming trend could be irreversible.

It makes it clear that urgent emissions reductions are required in the very near future to keep warming below two degrees Celsius to avert the worst impacts of climate change. These include extreme weather, rising sea levels, and increased heat waves, flooding and droughts.

The report also suggests climate change could aggravate violent conflicts and refugee problems and have a negative effect on food production.

Another major impact mentioned is ocean acidification, as the sea increasingly absorbs more carbon. This is harmful to marine life.

Coral reef in Australia
Undersea life suffers from warming and acid seasImage: AP

If there are no changes to our emissions of greenhouse gas emissions, "climate change risks are likely to be high or very high by the end of the 21st century," according to the report.

It says it is likely that temperatures will increase by another two degrees Celsius by mid-century compared to temperatures from 1986 to 2005. This scenario would implies temperatures by the end of the century that are nearly four degrees higher.

Editing with an agenda

Before the politically sensitive summary is published, it has to be approved, line by line, by government representatives. In theory, their role is to make sure the findings in the summary are understandable for policymakers. In practice, governments try to influence the wording in ways that support their negotiating positions at the UN talks.

Countries submitted more than 2,000 comments on the text. Some want it to be more specific in translating the data into clear warnings of storms, heat waves, floods and rising seas.

Drought in Honduras
Increasing droughts are threatening food securityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The European Union called for the report to be more specific and "help guide policy makers."

Both the EU and the US asked for the study to stress that richer countries could also be affected by future extreme weather events.

The US also ask for the report to be more accessible to readers without deep technical knowledge of climate issues. In a country where skepticism about climate change is still high, experts are concerned that the report should make it clear in graphic terms what will happen if we don't act on climate change.

Saudi Arabia, a country which has tried to play down potential impacts of climate change, asked for the report to reflect a recorded slowing down in temperature rise since 1998. According to the climate news provider RTCC, the world's largest oil exporter has also been calling for the "negative" effects of curbing fossil fuel use, including the devaluation of its assets, to be mentioned in the final text.

Consequences for Peru

NGOs, including Greenpeace, WWF and Germanwatch, stress that the report shows it is not too late to avert dangerous climate change. They see a "window of opportunity" between now and 2020. Within that period, the world would have to switch to renewable energy, increase energy efficiency and halt deforestation to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Wind turbine and coal power station
Switching to renewables protects the climateImage: picture-alliance/dpa

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend the release of the study, showing the importance the UN attaches to it. Ban Ki-moon stressed the urgency of reaching a new world climate agreement by staging his own summit in New York in September.

Peruvian Environment Minister Manuel Pugar-Vidal, who will host the UN climate conference in Peru in December, told the media the report would be a guide for the meeting and that it would "show the need for urgent and ambitious action in coming years."

The Peru meeting is to pave the way for a new binding agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, to be concluded at next year's UN climate conference in Paris. The attention given to the wording of the IPCC document shows the path will not be an easy one.