IPCC report: Climate change will be ‘irreversible’

A new report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has painted a world where human civilisation will struggle to survive unless carbon emissions are cut urgently. The impacts if nothing happened would be "severe, pervasive and irreversible", it said.

"Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change," Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the panel, said.

The 2 600-page report, titled "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability", is the second one in a trilogy after last year's report said there was a 95% "certainty" that humans were driving climate change. It takes information from 12 000 peer-reviewed articles and 300 scientists to give an idea of what risks are posed by climate change. Another report next month will look at solutions.  

Changes were already being felt across Africa and the world. "African ecosystems are already being impacted by climate change, and the future impacts are expected to be substantial," it said.

The report said that average temperature increases across Africa would exceed 2°C by the end of the century, if urgent action was taken to reduce emissions. If nothing happened, that temperature would be met by mid-century, with a 6°C rise by 2100.

Hotting up
The projections for South Africa are similar – the coastal area will warm by at least 2°C, while the interior will warm by 6°C.

The key for the continent is to adapt to climate change while lowering its emissions. South Africa is responsible for the majority of the continent's carbon emissions as a result of its coal-intensive energy production. But most of the continent was vulnerable because its ability to adapt was low.

"Africa as a whole is one of the most vulnerable continents due to its high exposure and low adaptive capacity." South Africa had an advantage because it had infrastructure in place that could be "climate proofed", along with expertise in the sector. 

In Southern Africa the impacts of climate change would be particularly harshly felt when it came to agriculture and rainfall. All crops would be impacted, with maize yields predicted to drop by a third by 2050. More frequent droughts would wipe out cattle herds – something which is already happening locally with prolonged droughts in North West and the Northern Cape. For the poorest this meant they would not have the ability to recover from shocks as they already had little.

This theme runs throughout the report; the poorest are already feeling the impact of climate change with food prices, and will continue to be the most heavily impacted because they have few ways to adapt. The Millennium Development Goals, which seek to increase access to things like water and education, would be seriously undermined because of climate change. People would therefore be left in ever-increasingly vulnerable situations, becoming less and less able to adapt to an environment that was changing more and more rapidly.

Spread of disease
Dr Jane Olwoch, a climate change specialist and an author of the health impacts section, said climate change would lead to an intensification and spread in diseases. This would lower people's ability to survive other disasters and diseases and leave the population more vulnerable. The impacts would be widespread and pervasive – like people living in cities suffering greater heat stress, cutting productivity.

This was particularly relevant in Johannesburg, which is expected to warm by 6°C without the impact of urban heat islands, which trap heat inside the city's buildings and drive up temperatures. 

In South Africa the most immediate impact would be with rainfall. The already water-scarce country will dry up, with an increase in rainfall only in the east and along the Drakensberg. But these rains would  be more intense and infrequent, which would make it difficult for farmers.

The report tries to balance the possibility of catastrophe with what could be achieved if action is taken now. "Equitable socioeconomic development in Africa may strengthen its resilience to various external shocks, including climate change," said the report.

Professor Oliver Ruppel, a law professor at Stellenbosch University and an author on the Africa section, said South Africa's climate change response explicitly accepted the findings of the IPCC process. The findings of the body therefore had to be accepted and used locally. 

Political action required
He emphasised the need for global and local political action to stem emissions now. "The problem we have now is that everyone blames someone else for the problem. If we don't find a solution, that's a problem." If countries did come together and prioritise lowering emissions, there was enormous potential in Southern Africa owing to the possibility for renewable energy. "This must be considered a win-win," he said.

The report, drafted over three years by scientists volunteering their time, drew 30 000 comments. Each one of these had to be catalogued and responded to. The final document, released on Monday in Japan, came after a further week of discussion about the exact wording of each document. Here country representatives could ask for tweaks in wording, on which the scientists had final sign-off.

Dr Robert Scholes, a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said the document had to be a call to action now. If it did not the world would continue on a path which ended in a climate system that was not inducive to human civilisation. "There is no sudden point, it just gets worse and worse," he said.

The climate change panel's reports have become increasingly more informative, and alarming, in recent years as climate change science fills in holes in knowledge. It is not prescriptive, so cannot tell governments what to do. But the information is used by governments to guide their thinking and planning to deal with issues that will be raised as the world warms and changes.

Penny Urquhart, an independent analyst on adaptation and an author of the report, said early on that aggressive emission reductions were needed. "We have a window of opportunity to avoid a 4°C increase, but it is closing really rapidly."

The timing of the report was critical, as it would be used as a basis for the international climate negotiations, which are to create a global plan to survive climate change. This has to be signed off at the annual Congress of the Parties in 2015 before being implemented in 2020. "Failure in Paris in 2015 is not an option and the report makes that very clear," she said.   

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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