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The summary of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report has a stark warning on how climate change is threatening the world, but also shows the way out – if policymakers are willing to take it

According to the latest IPCC report, the Indo-Gangetic Plains in India, which produce about 14-15% of global wheat, could suffer significant reductions due to climate change-induced heat stress, affecting about 200 million people. (Image by Nupur Das Gupta)

According to the latest IPCC report, the Indo-Gangetic Plains in India, which produce about 14-15% of global wheat, could suffer significant reductions due to climate change-induced heat stress, affecting about 200 million people. (Image by Nupur Das Gupta)

Climate change, if left unchecked, will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts on people and ecosystems. With these words, the world’s scientists have made an impassioned appeal to the world’s policymakers to combat what has been described as the challenge of our times.

Releasing the consolidated summary for policymakers of the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientists and economists also held out a ray of hope. “Options are available to adapt to climate change and implementing stringent mitigations activities can ensure that the impacts of climate change remain within a manageable range, creating a brighter and more sustainable future,” they said.

The synthesis report released with the summary distils the findings of over 800 scientists and is the most comprehensive assessment of climate change undertaken yet. “We have the means to limit climate change,” said R. K. Pachauri, IPCC Chair of the IPCC. “The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change.”

Thomas Stocker, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I, said, “Our assessment finds that the atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, sea level has risen and the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased to a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.” Working Group I is the group of climate scientists.

Referring to the need for a global agreement to combat climate change, Pachauri said, “Addressing climate change will not be possible if individual agents advance their own interests independently; it can only be achieved through cooperative responses, including international cooperation.”

IPCC’s Working Group II looks at adaptation to climate change and mitigation of greenhouses gases emissions. These emissions – mainly of carbon dioxide – are warming the atmosphere and causing climate change. “Adaptation can play a key role in decreasing these risks,” said Vicente Barros, the group’s Co-Chair. “But adaptation alone is not enough. Substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are at the core of limiting the risks of climate change.”

How South Asia will be affected

The report shows how climate change is particularly affecting key aspects of life in various parts of the world. In the section on Asia, it says.

  • Over the mid-term (2046–2065), an increase of 2-4°C is projected for the region with the warmest temperatures concentrated in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, China, Mongolia, Nepal, and Bhutan.
  • The warmest daily maximum temperature is projected to increase 4-7°C, with the highest temperature changes in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, northern India, Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan.
  • The number of tropical nights (that is the number of nights above 20°C) is projected to significantly increase, with most concentrated in India, Thailand, portions of Burma, Laos, portions of Vietnam and in Papua New Guinea. This extended period of heat can be problematic for human health.
  • Overall, annual precipitation is projected to decrease across much of the already dry southwestern portion of the region (Saudi Arabia, Yemen) and in southwestern Indonesia and increase across eastern Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, and South and Southeast Asia
  • Over the long-term (2081–2100) there is a 10% decrease to a 50% increase of precipitation in September – November. Most of the precipitation increase is projected to occur in Mongolia, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and parts of the Middle East.
  • Cloudiness, which can amplify warming and humidity, which can affect human health are projected to decrease across much of the region, but especially in the Middle East and Japan while there will be an increase over Pakistan and India.
  • Annual mean soil moisture, which affects how well plants can grow is projected to decrease across much of the western portion of the region (Turkey, Russia, Syria, Iraq, Iran), Nepal, Bhutan, China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, portions of Indonesia, Japan, North Korea, Mongolia while there are small increases projected for Saudi Arabia, Yemen, India, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
  • Annual runoff, that is the amount of water discharged from major rivers, is projected to decrease (-30% to -40%) across much of the already dry western portion of the region (Middle East) and increase (up to 40%) in some of the flood-prone regions, such as northern China, Pakistan, India, and in Southeast Asia.
  • The impacts of climate change on food production and food security in Asia will vary by region, however, many regions are expected to see a decline in food productivity, with the largest numbers of food-insecure people located in South Asia.
  • Fisheries, a major source of livelihoods and protein for many countries, are also projected to be negatively impacted by climate change, especially in South and Southeast Asia.
  • The Indo-Gangetic Plains (India), which produce about 14-15% of global wheat, could suffer significant reductions due to climate change-induced heat stress, affecting about 200 million people (based on the current population).
  • Warming temperatures may adversely affect rice and other crops growing near their heat stress limits in places such as Pakistan/North India (during October), South India (April, August), East India/Bangladesh (March-June), Myanmar/Thailand/Laos/Cambodia (March-June), Vietnam (April, August), Philippines (April, June), Indonesia (August) and China (July-August).
  • The most vulnerable regions for reduced rice yield is projected for western Japan, eastern China, the southern part of the Indochina peninsula, and the northern part of South Asia.
  • Three of the world’s five most populated cities (Tokyo, Delhi, and Shanghai) are located in areas with high risk of floods – the intensity and frequency of which are expected to increase.
  • Climate change-induced floods also threaten vulnerable regions that have high concentrations of people and infrastructure, including many in India, Bangladesh, and China.
  • By the 2070s, the top Asian cities with the most people at risk (including all environmental and socioeconomic factors) to coastal flooding are expected to be Kolkata, Mumbai, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Bangkok, Rangoon, and Hai Phòng. The top Asian cities in terms of assets exposed are expected to be Guangdong, Kolkata, Shanghai, Mumbai, Tianjin, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Bangkok.
  • Severe child stunting (lack of growth due to malnutrition) is projected to increase by 62% in South Asia due to climate change by 2050 without accelerated investment in planned adaptations.
  • Climate change may further complicate the unsustainable consumption of groundwater for irrigation and other uses in some locations, such as the Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab, and Haryana.
  • Climate change will challenge water supply issues in south Asia and may adversely affect agricultural and livestock sustainability.

Governments urged to act immediately

Reacting to the release of the report, Navroz Dubash of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and a lead author of the IPCC report said, “The IPCC synthesis report suggests a way of thinking about climate change that is deeply relevant to India. There is a complex two way relationship between sustainable development and climate change: climate policies should support not undermine sustainable development; but limiting the effects of climate change is necessary to achieve sustainable development. This suggests India has to increasingly internalize climate considerations into development planning.”

“The report provides both an opportunity and a challenge for India. The IPCC recognizes that a climate policy focused on ‘co-benefits’ (development that brings climate gains) has merit. The challenge is that operationalising this approach is complex. In my view, India has not fully grappled with the complexities of operationalizing this approach.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said at the release, “This Report offers three key messages: One: Human influence on the climate system is clear – and clearly growing. Second, we must act quickly and decisively if we want to avoid increasingly destructive outcomes. Three: We have the means to limit climate change and build a better future.”

“The report found that the world is largely very ill-prepared for the risks of a changing climate, especially the poor and most vulnerable who have contributed least to this problem.”

Samantha Smith, leader of WWF’s Global Climate & Energy Initiative, said, “The world’s best scientists have given us a good, clear measuring stick for what the world needs to do to combat rampant climate change. What the IPCC is really telling us is that we have an historic opportunity to secure a clean, just and safer future for the world and the people that live in it.”

Harjeet Singh, International Coordinator Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Adaptation for ActionAid International, referred to the scientists’ warning that there are limits to adaptation. “This means that in some cases floods, cyclones, sea-level rise and drought will be so extreme that people can no longer cope with them. That is why developing countries have been demanding meaningful ways to support those communities battered by the climate change impacts that they have not even caused.”

Kaisa Kosonen, Greenpeace climate policy advisor, pointed out, “The IPCC spells out the benefits of scaling up the transition to renewable energy, such as affordability, better public health and more jobs.”

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “Political leaders now face a choice: they can either put policies in place to achieve this essential shift, or they can spend the rest of their careers dealing with climate disaster after climate disaster.”

The options available

The IPCC report says there are multiple mitigation pathways to achieve the substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades necessary to limit, with a greater than 66% chance, the warming to two degrees Celsius – the goal set by governments. However, delaying additional mitigation to 2030 will substantially increase the technological, economic, social and institutional challenges associated with limiting the warming over the 21st century.

“It is technically feasible to transition to a low-carbon economy,” said Youba Sokona, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III. “But what is lacking are appropriate policies and institutions. The longer we wait to take action, the more it will cost to adapt and mitigate climate change.”

The analysts have found that mitigation cost estimates vary, but that global economic growth would not be strongly affected. In business-as-usual scenarios, consumption – a proxy for economic growth – grows by 1.6 to 3% per year over the 21st century. Ambitious mitigation would reduce this by about 0.06 percentage points.

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