The challenge of climate change has been defined as a ‘super-wicked’ problem. It needs urgent responses. It needs those responsible to accept responsibility, and provide solutions and support. It requires aspects of sovereignty to be ceded to an international body, or that wide-ranging powers be conferred to a central body at the national level. And it carries perverse incentives to push action into the future.
Despite these complexities, international negotiations to address the challenge of climate change have been underway since the UN Conference on Environment and Development at Rio in 1992, and under the aegis of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since 1994. The first protocol on climate change – the Kyoto Protocol – was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC in 1997. Since then, negotiations have continuously evolved to culminate in the Paris Agreement at the 21st COP in December 2015.
The task of comprehensively assessing the relevant science was given to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). IPCC’s first assessment report was published in 1990, and it has since been regularly assessing the growing body of literature on impacts, vulnerability and mitigation options for climate change. Governments have a key role in nominating authors and approving texts. These assessments have had a key influence on the global negotiation processes.
Scientific assessments undertaken by IPCC have emphasised the need to limit global average temperature increase to below 2°C, but also covered a range of likely scenarios up to a 6°C increase and beyond. Political negotiations, however, have consistently disregarded the high-end scenarios that could lead to abrupt, irreversible or runaway climate change. This was despite scientific evidence that risks associated with tipping points “increase disproportionately as temperature increases between 1–2°C additional warming and become high above 3°C”.
Thus, in the lead up to and during the Paris negotiations, the focus was on ensuring that temperature increases “remained well below 2°C”. Pessimism relating to the ability to meet the 2°C goal could have led to lower ambition in global commitments, delays in mitigation efforts, and exponentially higher costs of subsequent adaptation actions. Unfortunately, accompanying adaptation options and response measures too, although less scientifically robust, were limited to this ambitious, highly uncertain, scenario of remaining under 2°C increase. As such, despite the fact that the current pathways offer a greater than 50% chance of exceeding the 2°C guardrail, the world is currently completely unprepared to envisage, and even less deal with, the consequences of catastrophic climate change.
The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030), which was the outcome of inter-governmental negotiations supported by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction at the behest of the UN General Assembly, adopted in March 2015, could have addressed itself specifically to the risks emanating not just from the aspirational 2°C scenario but the almost equally likely scenario of tending towards a 3°C to 4°C world. Instead, it generically limited itself to be “within the mandate of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under the competences of the Parties to the Convention”.
The Paris Agreement came into force in October 2016, with national pledges falling woefully short – setting the world on a 3.6°C temperature increase track. Although climate change action has now become part of mainstream economic and social strategies, and is one of the Sustainable Development Goals, too little emphasis is put on the risk of catastrophic climate change.
One central method to assess the expected increase of average global temperatures is the development of climate change scenarios. Those scenarios are descriptions of alternative futures, where total greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting global temperature increase are projected on the basis of various socio-economic factors affecting emission levels, including population growth, economic activity, technological change, as well as governance and cultural values. These scenarios typically compare the anticipated effects of various parameters – particularly the anticipated effects of various changes in policy settings – with a ‘business-as-usual’ situation, and play an important part in both policy development and climate change negotiations, on a national and global level34.
Vice Chancellor, TERI University, New Delhi