The strongest yet warning issued by world's top scientists this Friday reinforces the grim fact that climate change is happening, we're causing it and it's going to get much worse if we continue doing too little, too late.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the scientific assessment of climate change under the UN, met in Stockholm this week and presented on September 27 summary report of its Working Group I (WGI), the findings of latest physical science.
Every six years, the IPCC divides its team in three Working Groups and rounds their findings up with a Synthesis Report. Subsequent reports from other working groups will be released next year. The IPCC summary of the "state of knowledge" on climate change is widely considered the most authoritative source of climate reality to inform decision making.
In this round, the WGI of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) scientists confirm, with the help of further advanced scientific observations and models, at least 95 percent certainty that most of the warming observed in the Earth's surface temperature since 1951 was caused by humans. This is enhanced from more than 90 percent certainty in the Fourth Assessment Report and more than 66 percent certainty in the third one.
Climate change has been studied for decades. As science progresses, it becomes less about mind-blowing new discoveries and more about increasing certainty and detail. The AR5 therefore reminds us where we're heading with the current levels of inaction and what we need to do if we are to prevent sliding into climate chaos.
For China, what science presents this week is not only an urgent climate crisis, but how much we are contributing to it.
China is also particularly vulnerable to the adverse impact of climate change. The Second National Assessment Report on Climate Change states that global climate change influences China's food production, water resource allocation, and oceanic circulations, putting the country's ecosystem and biodiversity in peril. The report also projects frequent extreme weather events not only affect human health but increase the risk of epidemic disease incidence.
In response to this and joining global efforts, the Chinese government pledged in Copenhagen in 2009 that the country will endeavor to cut its CO2 emission on a per unit GDP basis by 40 to 45 percent and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy mix to 15 percent by 2020.
Given these policy measures on table, what the scientific community tells us this week is we still need more and enhanced action from all around the world, in particular the largest emitters like the US, the EU, and China.
A promising sign has already come from the Eastern hemisphere while we seek global leadership. On September 12, the Chinese State Council issued a national air pollution action plan. Featuring the control of coal, this comprehensive strategy mandated three of China's most important economic regions, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtze River Delta, and Pearl River Delta, to peak and decline their coal consumption by 2017. Approval of new conventional coal-fired power plants in these regions is also banned.
Pledges coming from local authorities further tightened the grip. Beijing, Shandong, and Hebei have committed to decline their coal consumption by 13 million, 20 million, and 40 million tons respectively by 2017. Collectively, the reduction plan requires them to cut more than 10 percent of their current coal consumption in five years - a rapid U-turn given that these provinces were still running on an annual consumption growth rate of 6 percent over the past five years.
Given the emerging actions and the likelihood of other provinces coming out with their respective coal control measures, what we urgently need is to channel such ambition to the global collective process in tackling climate change.
Just this Tuesday in New York while the UN General Assembly (UNGA) convenes leaders of the world, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his opening remark to the UNGA, called the heads of states to a Climate Summit in 2014. This will be the highest level political gathering exclusively dedicated to climate change since Copenhagen in 2009.
World leaders are therefore left with one year to carefully prepare their homework. From then on, another one year to gear up for the 2015 climate conference in France, where they had committed to materialize a future global climate regime that covers all countries.
This will no doubt be a challenging task. Historically, there have been quite a few cases where daunting jobs were accomplished with the help of science. The first IPCC assessment report in 1990 yielded the negotiation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the very home for multilateral climate governance. The second assessment report in 1995 ultimately led to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, so far the only legally binding treaty that has obligatory requirements for emission reduction.
"The scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change has strengthened year by year, leaving fewer uncertainties about the serious consequences of inaction," Qin Dahe, one of the most prominent climate scientists in China and chairman of the first working group of IPCC said this week in a press release. As we come to the AR5, there is no louder warning than the simple but strong message: Our efforts need to speed up.
Image: Action at IPCC in Stockholm © Greenpeace / Christian Åslund