C&EN @ COP21 – Paris Climate Change Conference – 2015, November 30 to December 11

Scientists At Work: What’s Next For the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change?

Analyzing the plethora of published scientific literature on climate change and crunching it into a form that government leaders can grasp is the job of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Since 1990 the IPCC, consisting of scores of scientists — including chemists — from around the world, has cranked out five massive reports. The most recent, released as a series of documents in late 2013 and early 2014, is the main impetus for climate negotiations entering their second and final week in Paris today.

That report affirmed that human activity, notably the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, is responsible for most of the global warming measured to date. It concludes that restraining this warming to an internationally agreed-upon level is still possible but calls for major shifts in technology.

The IPCC is gearing up for its next big report, expected in 2019, says Valérie Masson-Delmotte, the French paleoclimatologist who is co-chair of the IPCC working group that assesses the physical scientific aspects of climate change.

Valérie Masson-Delmotte credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN

Valérie Masson-Delmotte
credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN

But IPCC will also compile two or three special reports focused on a narrow aspect of climate change, Masson-Delmotte told reporters in Paris today. The subjects haven’t been chosen yet, but there are 23 proposals pending.

One involves the actions that would be needed if world leaders decide to hold human-induced warming to 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels by 2100.  That’s an enormous question looming at the Paris talks.

Back in 2009, countries set the goal of restraining global warming to 2 °C by the end of the century. That’s the target that many negotiators are striving for now. But countries, such as low-lying island nations, that are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise, are pushing hard to tighten that level to 1.5 °C.

If it carries out the report, the IPCC could shed light on how quickly the world would have to curb greenhouse gas emissions to meet a 1.5 °C target. It would also estimate the impacts of such warming on the environment, Masson-Delmotte says.

Other subjects under consideration for intense scrutiny by IPCC in the coming years include projections about climate change on the world’s oceans, mountains, or cities. Or, the IPCC could turn its scientific lens on a policy matter — putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions.   IPCC also could examine the growth of deserts and degradation of land or the anticipated impacts of climate change on the agriculture and forestry sectors, Masson-Delmotte adds.

Cheryl Hogue is reporting from Paris for Chemical & Engineering News. She has covered climate change negotiations since 1992.

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