IPCC: the misconceptions surrounding the report

By Angela Heathcote 15 October 2018
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Here we breakdown the biggest misconceptions surrounding the report, including the role of individual action and the fate of the Great Barrier Reef.

ON MONDAY, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a sobering report that warned of environmental, social and economic catastrophe if temperature rise couldn’t be kept to 1.5°C between now and 2030.

The report is well over 700 pages and is quite technical, but media outlets have, nonetheless, sought to synthesise and communicate the information in ways that their readership understand, which is sometimes where the whole point can get lost.

Here, we look at the coverage, commentary and misconceptions surrounding the report, and how it might not really stack up.

The fate of the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef has experienced four bleaching events since 1998. Those that occurred in 2016 and 2017 didn’t occur during El Nino events, just really hot summers. This has left almost 50 per cent of the reef dead and the rest incredibly vulnerable.

The IPCC report predicts that even if we manage to halt temperature rise to 1.5°C, there’s still a predicted loss of 70 per cent of the world’s coral reefs. If we allow for a 2°C temperature rise, 99 per cent will be diminished. So either way, the IPCC’s findings are bad news for coral reefs.

The only way to save what’s left, experts say, is to cut carbon emissions down to zero. Whether or not Australia can, or is willing to do this is currently being debated. But many scientists already aren’t happy with Australia’s ‘business as usual’ approach.

“The government keeps saying that we’re going to meet our 26 to 28 per cent reduction by 2030, but emissions have gone up since the repeal of the price on carbon four years ago,” Terry Hughes, decorated coral biologist and expert on the Great Barrier Reef, told Australian Geographic recently.

“It’s hard to imagine how they can reach that target now that there’s no mechanism after the failure of the NEG [National Energy Guarantee]. We’re not on track to reach our inadequate commitments.”

Some articles have misreported the statistics, suggesting that 70 per cent of the reef is at risk, when that figure actually referred to 70 per cent of the world‘s coral reefs.

“93 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef has already bleached at least once since 1998. If there is really a spatial refuge, it’s very small,” Hughes tweeted in response to one media report..

IPCC report not relevant to Australia

Following the release of the report, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the report did not “provide recommendations to Australia”, which was widely condemned by the scientific community, who say the effort to reduce carbon emissions has to be a global one.

On the same day, Energy Minister Angus Taylor argued that Australia only contributed one per cent of global emissions. However, this too is disputed.

Hughes argued the government’s rhetoric that Australia only contributes one per cent of global carbon emissions is misguided. “If you include carbon exports that figure rises to four per cent and that’s set to increase.

“The IPCC report recommends a 70 per cent reduction in coal by 2030, that’s only 12 years away. Meanwhile, we’re encouraging the extended use of coal-fired power stations, rather than encouraging them to close.”

The report’s analysis of the impact of a 1.5°C rise in temperature on the world’s coral reefs is of particular importance to Australia as the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef on Earth, which generates up to $6.4 billion to the Australian economy in a single year.

Individual action can significantly help in the reduction of carbon emissions

The IPCC has advised that there is little more than 12 years left to reduce carbon emissions to zero if we’re to keep temperature rise below 1.5°C, so the situation is more urgent than it has ever been.

Following the report, a number of media outlets ran stories that advised what people could do in their daily lives to help stop climate change. However, scientists argue that individual action won’t achieve 1.5°C warming.

“Change, of the speed and scope required, cannot rely on easily packaged discrete, simple, individual change checklists. We need to shift the story away from the individual towards what we can achieve together,” writes Matthew Adams, the Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton, England.

Additionally, a landmark 2017 Carbon Majors Report by UK not-for-profit, CDP has resurfaced. The report found that just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

The report further argues that fossil fuel extraction companies must take responsibility to plan their future in the context of ‘a radical transformation of the global energy system’, which is relevant considering the small window of opportunity.

The fight stops after we cap temperature rise at 1.5°C

Even if we manage to stop the temperature rising above 1.5°C, there will still be a lot of work to do.

Hughes explained that, if we manage to bring our carbon emissions to zero, we’ll still have to capture carbon from the atmosphere, for which technologies are yet to be fully developed.

“Every temperature we go up to we’ll be stuck at for centuries to a millennium because the Earth cools at a slower pace than it warms, so other mechanisms will need to be applied,” said Hughes. And it’s a lot harder for the Earth to cool than it is to warm.

Hughes said the most tractable option for carbon capture is planting for trees. “But if we reach a 2°C rise in temperature, there isn’t enough land on Earth to plant enough trees to remove the excess carbon you’d need to.”