Scientific Assessments of Climate Change in the Post-Paris Era
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The Paris Agreement reached in December 2015 has created new institutional arrangements for post-2020 global climate change governance, but the implementation details of the agreement are yet to be ironed out. The post-Paris developments in scientific assessments of global climate change has also aroused widespread international concern. In September 2017, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finalized the outline of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which will reshape future international talks and national actions on climate change. This paper provides details about the background and progress of AR6 and future direction of the IPCC, analyzes the trend of scientific assessments of climate change in the post-Paris era and its links to international institutional arrangements addressing climate change, and puts forwards recommendations as to how China could play a more positive role in the IPCC scientific assessment.
KeywordsParis agreement IPCC Climate change assessment
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued five scientific assessment reports on climate change since 1990. These reports present scientific findings in a well-organized manner to guide the international response to climate change. Representing the international scientific community’s current knowledge of climate change and its impacts and responses, they are highly policy-oriented and have received wide international attention. The Paris Agreement (“Agreement” hereafter) reached in December 2015 has made new institutional arrangements for post-2020 global climate change governance, but the implementation details of the Agreement are yet to be ironed out. The post-Paris developments in scientific assessments of global climate change has also aroused widespread international concern. In October 2016, March 2017, and September 2017, the IPCC agreed the outlines of the three special reports and three working group reports in the sixth assessment cycle (AR6). These assessment reports will definitely affect future international talks and national actions on climate change. This paper provides details about the background and progress of AR6 and future direction of the IPCC, analyzes the trend of scientific assessments of climate change in the post-Paris era and its links to international institutional arrangements addressing climate change, and puts forwards recommendations as to how China could play a more positive role in the IPCC scientific assessment.
3.1 Background to AR6
The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), released over the course of 2013 and 2014, gained international recognition and played an important role in the international community’s response to climate change. The IPCC has become an example of how scientific knowledge can influence public policy.
With lessons learned and experiences gained over the past twenty five years in mind, the IPCC launched a series of discussions on the future of the IPCC in early 2013, and on this basis, considered whether its organizational structure and functions needed to be modified or improved. These discussions involve among others future trends, product forms, organizational structure, and work arrangements for the next step.
Discussions about the future of the IPCC centered on whether the IPCC should consider adjustments and changes to the number and mandate of the Working Groups and Task Forces (including the possible creation of a new Working Group or Task Force), and the composition and size of the IPCC Bureau (including any specific role associated with certain positions), how to make arrangements for AR6 (including the commencement date, the writing cycle, product form), how to enhance active participation on all fronts, especially participation of developing countries. After a series of discussions and talks over the course of 2013 and 2014, the IPCC reached an agreement on future work arrangements and decided on the future product forms, organizational structure and ways to enhance participation of developing countries in early 2015.
The IPCC decided that it will continue to prepare, every 5–7 years comprehensive assessment reports, including regional aspects, together with the three-stage government/expert review process, supplemented by Special Reports; in determining its future reports and their timing, the IPCC will take into account the work of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); the Special Reports, the Synthesis Report (SYR) and cross-cutting issues should be planned as early as possible and the increasing importance of enhanced cross-Working Group cooperation should be emphasized; the three working group reports should be released within about one year but no more than eighteen months; it will continue to prepare Methodology Reports on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories and other methodology reports or good practice guidance reports, further explore ways to enhance collaboration with other relevant international and scientific organizations, facilitate and enhance further the use of up to date digital technology for sharing and disseminating information, enhance the readability of IPCC products, and better reflect non-English language literature in IPCC reports.
With regards to the organizational structure of the IPCC, the IPCC decided that it will retain the current structure and mandate of the three Working Groups and the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories (TFI) and consider adjustments of the size, structure and composition of the Bureau. The IPCC decided to add three positions to the new Bureau for the AR6 cycle and to distribute these additional positions equally among the three working groups. It also decided that the term of office of the new Bureau shall start in October 2015 and end in 2022 at the latest.
With respect to the administrative matters of the IPCC, the administrative arrangements for the IPCC Secretariat remain as agreed in the Memorandum of Understanding between the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) on the establishment of the IPCC. The IPCC will establish Technical Support Units (TSUs) to support the preparations of IPCC products and activities during the AR6 cycle. The Secretariat and all TSUs are required to put in place workplace policies and practices that promote diversity, fairness, collaboration and inclusiveness. This should involve recruiting professional staff internationally and selection, performance appraisal and contract extension of TSU staff will be done jointly by both relevant Co-Chairs.
With regard to the participation of developing countries, the IPCC decided to adopt a number of measures to enhance the engagement of developing countries with the IPCC, including, among others, further encouraging Co-Chairs and other Bureau members to engage experts from developing countries in TSUs and author teams, increasing the number of IPCC activities in developing countries, arranging training sessions for government representatives of developing countries.
In October 2015, the IPCC elected the new Bureau for the AR6 cycle. North Korean scientist Hoesung Lee was elected as the new Chair and the three Vice-Chairs were from the United States, Brazil and Mali. Mr. Panmao Zhai, researcher from Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences serves as Co-chair of Working Group I (WGI), and together with the French scientist Valérie Masson-Delmotte, is tasked with preparing the AR6 WGI report The Co-Chairs of WGII are from South Africa and Germany, WGIII from India and the United Kingdom, and TFI from Peru and Japan.
The IPCC assessment reports are important scientific basis for international negotiations on climate change and have played a central role in the negotiation process of the UNFCCC. AR6 will continue to provide the international community with up-to-date assessment results of the science basis, impact, adaptation and mitigation of climate change, aiming to address practical hurdles in global sustainable development and advance the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The AR6 report will not only be used to inform international climate change policies and actions, but also serve as an important source of knowledge on climate change for the general public.
3.2 Global Warming of 1.5 °C and Other Special Reports
Over the course of 2013 and 2014, the IPCC released the AR5 report, including three WG reports—The Physical Science Basis, Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, and Mitigation of Climate Change—and a Synthesis Report. The AR5 provides well-organized scientific conclusions to guide the international response to climate change. It had an important impact on the Paris talks on climate change. In December 2015, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris adopted the Paris Agreement, which provides for the new institutional arrangements for global climate governance beyond 2020. As a landmark climate agreement, the Agreement has played a key role in guiding the development of the global climate governance model.
The COP21 also invited the IPCC to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways. In April 2016, the IPCC discussed the number and themes of Special Reports during the AR6 cycle. Prior to the discussion, the IPCC received thirty one Special Report theme proposals in nine categories. Given the Special Report cycle, the organizing process and past experience, the IPCC Bureau suggested that the number of Special Reports should not exceed three, and the theme of the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C has been basically determined by the relevant resolution of the COP21. Considering the opinions of all stakeholders and the constraints of time, manpower, resources and reporting quality, the IPCC decided to produce three Special Reports in the AR6 cycle, in which Global Warming of 1.5 °C is scheduled to be released in the second half of 2018, and the other two Special Reports will be released in the second half of 2019.
In October 2016, the IPCC approved the title and outline of Global Warming of 1.5 °C (SR1.5) . The full name of SR1.5 consists of a main title (“Global Warming of 1.5 °C”) and a subtitle (“an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty”). SR 1.5 will consist of five chapters, the titles of which are “Framing and Context”, “Mitigation pathways compatible with 1.5 °C in the context of sustainable development”, “Impacts of 1.5 °C global warming on natural and human systems”, “Strengthening and implementing the global response to the threat of climate change”, and “Sustainable development, poverty eradication, and reducing inequalities”. In addition, the special report also includes Front Matter, Summary for Policy Makers, Boxes (up to 20 pages) and FAQs (10 pages).
The length of the entire special report, including Summary for Policy Makers (up to 10 pages, including headline statements, tables, figures), is expected to be around 225 pages. According to the timetable approved by the IPCC, SR1.5 will be reviewed and officially released at the 48th Session of the IPCC in October 2018 in time for the facilitative dialogue at the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) to be held at the end of 2018.
In February 2017, the IPCC completed the selection of experts to prepare SR1.5. 86 experts from 39 countries will participate the development of the report. 51% of the experts come from developing countries and economies in transition, and 38% are women. Four Chinese scientists are selected. So far, the IPCC has held two SR1.5 Lead Author Meetings, and the preparation of the report is proceeding as planned.
In March 2017, the IPCC approved the outlines of the other two Special Reports. The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate  consists of a summary for policy makers, a technical summary, six chapters, case studies, FAQs and a cross-chapter box about low-lying islands and coasts, with a total length of approximately 280 pages. The six chapters are “Framing and Context of the Report”, “High Mountain Areas”, “Polar Regions, Sea Level Rise and Implications for Low Lying Islands, Coasts and Communities”, “Changing Ocean, Marine Ecosystems, and Dependent Communities”, and “Extremes, Abrupt Changes and Managing Risks”. Climate Change and Land: An IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems  consists of a summary for policy makers, a technical summary and seven chapters, with a total length of approximately 330 pages. The seven chapters are “Framing and Context”, “Land-Climate Interactions”, “Desertification”, “Land Degradation”, “Food Security”, “Interlinkages between desertification, land degradation, food security and GHG fluxes: Synergies, Trade-offs and Integrated Response Options”, and “Risk management and decision making in relation to sustainable development”.
3.3 Frameworks of the Three IPCC AR6 Working Group Reports
According to the Paris Agreement which depends on voluntary mitigation contributions by the parties, countries will submit new or updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) every five years from the year 2020. Starting in 2023, and every five years thereafter, the UNFCCC will conduct a Global Stocktake (GST) to take stock of collective climate action and identify the need for enhanced action and international cooperation. The first GST in 2023 will become a key input into international climate negotiations. Whether countries need to ratchet up climate action according to the results of the GST will become the focus of negotiations. According to the IPCC’s strategic plan, the three WG reports of AR6 will be released before 2023 in time to inform the first GST. Overall, there are two concerns concerning the linkages between the IPCC climate change assessment and the GST: first, whether the IPCC assessment cycle needs to be consistent with the global inventory cycle, and second, whether the scope of the IPCC assessment should contain the elements of the GST. Since the AR6 cycle has been determined, the IPCC should consider the linkage of its assessment cycle with the GST cycle starting from the AR7 cycle. The IPCC Secretariat has proposed three possible assessment cycles: once every five years to align to the GST cycle, or once every ten years (i.e., every two GST cycles) or to retain the six- or seven-year cycle. The IPCC Secretariat believes that the adjustment of the assessment cycle means an increase in workload and are more inclined to retain the original assessment frequency. In September 2017, the IPCC engaged in a brief discussion on the alignment of the IPCC and the GST cycle. However, due to time constraints, the discussion failed to produce results and the IPCC decided to set up a special task force to deal with this issue and postpone its decision until 2018.
In May 2017, the IPCC held a scoping meeting for the three WG reports of AR6. The meeting proposed the outlines of the three WG reports and themes for the Synthesis Report. In September 2017, the IPCC finalized the outline of the three WG reports. The linkage between the scopes of AR6 and the GST was the focus of the outline revision. The contents of the WGIII contribution to AR6 are most closely related to the GST. Countries such as the United States and Saudi Arabia maintained that the negotiations on the implementation details of the Paris Agreement, including the specifics of the GST, are still in progress; the IPCC assessment should be scientific in nature and any political content should be carefully scrutinized. Some EU countries held the view that the linkage to the global inventory is the highlight of the WGIII report, and AR6 should maintain reference to the GST. In addition, with respect to investment and finance, some countries proposed adding reference to financial flows to developing countries in the “Climate Finance and Financial Flow” chapter to meet the financial needs of the GST.
The finalized outlines of the AR6 WG reports involve some elements of GST such as mitigation, finance and technology transfer and clarify the need to provide funds and capacity building to developing countries, but do not underscore the implementation of NDGs by developing countries. The approved outline of the WGIII contribution to AR6 consists of seventeen chapters , covering introduction and framing, emissions trends and drivers, mitigation pathways compatible with long-term goals, mitigation and development pathways in the near- to mid-term, demand, services and social aspects of mitigation, energy systems, agriculture, forestry and other land-use (AFOLU), urban systems and other settlements, buildings, transport, industry, cross-sectoral perspectives, national and sub-national policies and institutions, international cooperation, investment and finance, innovation, technology development and transfer, and accelerating the transition in the context of sustainable development. The WGIII contribution to AR6 is scheduled to be released in July 2021.
The outline of the WGI contribution to AR6  is centered on scientific advances in climate change, with special attention to its linkages with AR5, WGII and WGIII reports and three Special Reports to ensure continuity and coherence, and support comprehensive assessment of mitigation targets, the linkages with sustainable development and other top global concerns. Based on the outline, AR6 WGI report will be more streamlined and logically well-organized than the WGI contribution to AR5. The outline of the WGI contribution to AR6 contains twelve chapters, covering framing, context and methods, changing state of the climate system, human influence on the climate system, future global climate: scenario-based projections and near-term information, global carbon and other biogeochemical cycles and feedbacks, short-lived climate forcers (SLCFs), the Earth’s energy budget, climate feedbacks, and climate sensitivity, water cycle changes, ocean, cryosphere and sea level change, linking global to regional climate change, weather and climate extreme events in a changing climate, and climate change information for regional impact and for risk assessment. The outline of WGI contribution contains the geoengineering aspect, but there is no direct reference to geoengineering. The geoengineering solutions is divided into two parts: greenhouse gas removal (GGR) and solar radiation management (SRM), because while GHG removal is a policy response included in the Paris Agreement, solar radiation management is not. The AR6 WGI report is scheduled to be released in April 2021.
The outline of the WGII contribution to AR6 contains eighteen chapters ,including “Point of departure and key concepts” (Chap. 1) and three sections. Section 3.1 addresses risks, adaptation and sustainability for systems impacts by climate change and is comprised of seven chapters, covering terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems and their services, ocean and coastal ecosystems and their services, water, food, fibre, and other ecosystem products, cities, settlements and key infrastructure, health, wellbeing and the changing structure of communities, and poverty, livelihoods and sustainable development. Section 3.2 addresses regions and has seven chapters: Africa, Asia, Australia, Central and South America, Europe, North America, and Small Islands. Section 3.2 also includes seven cross-chapter papers, covering biodiversity hotspots, cities and settlements by the sea, deserts, semi-arid areas, and desertification, Mediterranean region, mountains, polar regions, and tropical forests. Section 3.3 addresses sustainable development pathways: integrating adaptation and mitigation, and includes three chapters, covering key risks across sectors and regions, decision-making options for managing risk, and climate resilient development pathways.
The loss and damage issue covered in the WGII report is closely related to the compensation for the adverse effects of climate change under the UNFCCC framework. Some countries do not wish the report contain an explicit reference to loss and damage and other sensitive words used in the UNFCCC negotiations. Small islands and developing countries held the view that the UNFCCC has established the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts and the Paris Agreement has also authorizes the IPCC to provide information on this subject, but the concept of “residual risk” used in previous IPCC reports is too narrow and fails to reflect the full meaning of loss and damage. Thus, they called for direct reference to loss and damage in AR6. Developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom maintained that, although the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement authorize the IPCC to provide information on loss and damage, they does not specify the terminology specifically used by the IPCC in the scientific context, and that, since “loss and damage” is a political term under the UNFCCC, the IPCC cannot conduct an assessment to address a vague concept without a clear scientific definition. After several rounds of discussions, the IPCC defined “loss and damage” in Chapter One of the WGII as “scientific, technical and socioeconomic aspects of current and future residual impacts of climate change, including residual damage, irreversible loss, and economic and non-economic losses caused by slow onset and extreme events” and decided to avoid the direct reference to loss and damage. The AR6 WGII report will be released in October 2021.
The AR6 Synthesis Report (SYR) will focus on cross-cutting issues. The eight cross-cutting themes identified at the scope meeting in May 2017 are regions, scenarios, risks, cities, global stocktake, geoengineering, adaptation and mitigation, and approaches and processes for WG integration. The IPCC will hold a dedicated SYR scoping meeting in 2019 to finalize the outline of the SYR. The final SYR which will be released in the first half of 2022.
3.4 Reflections and Suggestions
The IPCC AR5 has played a central role in advancing the climate negotiations resulting in the Paris Agreement. The AR6 cycle in the post-Paris era is more closely linked to the facilitative dialogue and the global stocktake under the UNFCCC framework. The findings of AR6 will provide a science basis for global action on climate change, including mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology, and capacity building. AR6 will adopt more solution-focused approaches. In the meantime, it also underscores the uncertainty assessment to help improve communication regarding what is known and unknown about key dimensions of the climate issue. AR6 puts more emphasis on interdisciplinary and cross-WG integration, and case studies. In addition, IPCC is also actively encouraging researchers from developing countries including China to participate in AR6 and pays more attention to the demands of developing countries. In order to amplify China’s influence and voice in the field of international climate change scientific assessment, it is necessary to build research capacity concerning issues at the core of climate change science, step up the cultivation of scientific talents, produce more scientific findings concerning the impact of global warming of 1.5 °C, climate change detection and attribution, climate system modeling, near- and long-term projections of climate change, and short-lived greenhouse gases, and narrow China’s gap with global leaders in the research capacity concerning key climate issues. The nomination of authors for the three WG reports of AR6 is currently underway. Chinese scientists should actively participate in AR6 through various channels to present the research findings of the Chinese scientific community as far as possible and support China’s full participation in global climate governance.
This study is funded by the China Clean Development Mechanism Fund (Project No. 2014097) and the ninth sub-project of A Study of Major Issues related to Climate Change in the Post-Paris Era (2016), which is a research project set up under the auspices of the Ministry of Science and Technology of China.
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