The problem of equity in IPCC reports

News Excerpt:

Recently, UN IPCC assessed 556 climate change mitigation scenarios and found that across all 556 scenarios, income, energy-use, and emissions disparities between developed and developing countries are projected to continue up to 2050.

About IPCC and its reports

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.
  • IPCC was created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
  • The objective of the IPCC is to provide governments at all levels with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies.
  • IPCC reports comprise three Working Group reports: 
    • One on physical science,
    • One on climate adaptation, and 
    • One on mitigation action. 
  • One synthesis report consolidates findings from the three Working Group reports. Then there are also thematic special reports. 
  • Each report assesses climate-related scientific literature to capture the state of scientific, technical, and socio-economic knowledge on climate change. 
  • The IPCC is currently in its Seventh Assessment cycle (AR7).

Methodology adopted in the study:

  • The IPCC uses ‘modelled pathways’ to estimate what it will take to limit the warming of the earth’s surface. 
  • These pathways are drawn using Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) that describe human and earth systems. 
  • IAMs are complex models that examine possible futures of the energy and climate system and economies. 
    • Its macroeconomic models can point to future growth levels in terms of GDP; 
    • Its energy models can project future consumption; 
    • Vegetation models can examine land-use changes; 
    • Earth-system models use the laws of physics to understand how climate evolves. 
  • With such integration across disciplines, IAMs are meant to provide policy-relevant guidelines on climate action. 
  • These models also have shortcomings. They prioritise least-cost assessments.
    • Example: - The absolute cost of setting up a solar plant or undertaking afforestation in India is lower than in the U.S.
  • Experts have said they could exercise the option of enabling countries to equitably share the burden of action, where the richest undertake more drastic mitigation action more immediately.

Key findings of the study:

  • The study was conducted by researchers from the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and from M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. 
  • They assessed 556 scenarios in IPCC’s AR6 report and found they project that per-capita GDP across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, West Asia and the rest of Asia, which together constitute 60% of the world’s population, will be below the global average even in 2050. 
  • They spotted similar inequities between the Global North and the Global South vis-à-vis the consumption of goods and services and both energy and fossil fuel consumption.
  • The scenarios were also found to project higher carbon sequestration from land-based carbon sinks (like forests) and higher deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies in developing countries compared to developed ones. 
  • Thus, poorer countries, they concluded, would bear the burden of both mitigation action and carbon dioxide removal and CCS. 
  • The global modelled scenarios in the IPCC’s [AR6] indicates that the scenarios disregard the notion of historical responsibility of the Global North, the scenarios also “disregard” the future energy needs of the Global South to meet development goals.

Why does equity matter?

  • The principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities are enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 
  • Article 3 of the Convention states countries “should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity.
  • The developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change.
  • These principles recognise that while tackling climate change requires global action, richer countries are better placed to shoulder bigger climate action responsibilities than poorer ones. 
  • By viewing climate action solely through the lens of global-level technical and economic feasibility, mitigation pathways modelled using IAMs often run counter to equity principles.
  • Equity in this sense would imply that developed regions need to accelerate towards net negative emissions and make the remaining carbon budget available to other less developed regions. 
    • The scenarios project precisely the opposite.

The construction of IPCC scenarios will need to be both equitable and environmentally sound. There is currently a major gap in the emissions modelling domain and we need to move towards model and scenario building techniques where questions of equity and climate justice come to the foreground of climate change mitigation strategies.

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