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Abreu: ‘The Science Prevailed’ as IPCC Hands Governments a 2050 Deadline for Net Zero Emissions

Photo Credit: Climate Action Network

Catherine Abreu is executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, and was Climate Action Network-International’s Head of Delegation for last week’s high-stakes meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Incheon, South Korea. In this in-depth interview with The Energy Mix, she talks about the alarming but extraordinary result that scientists, civil society advocates, and government negotiators are bringing home from IPCC 48, and how it came about.

The Mix: Beginning very early Saturday morning North American time, the emails out of the Climate Action Network delegation in Incheon were exhausted but ecstatic. Why is this such big news?

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Abreu: A colleague put it this way: With the Paris Agreement, we were given the destination. With the writing of the Paris Rulebook, we are being given the rules of the road. The Special Report on 1.5°C actually gives us the road itself. It gives us the path that we have to follow in order to reach that stretch goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

It’s a really good deal, because it actually gives us all the scientific evidence to tell us, not just how to limit warming to 1.5°C, but also the difference that half a degree makes to the world that we might have ourselves living in. It really drives home the fact that every tenth of a degree matters. And one of the most stark findings of the report is that a 2.0° world is really a completely different universe than the one we’re living in, one that’s quite hellish.

That 1.5° world, while it still has impacts, is an escalation of the very challenging effects of climate change that we’re already experiencing. It’s still the upper limits of normal, whereas 2.0° is not normal.

This report makes it clear that 1.5°C is possible. That goal in the Paris Agreement was met with a lot of skepticism, a lot of folks feeling it was already going to be such a challenge to get to 2.0° that 1.5 was a remote possibility. This report makes it clear that it’s possible, and it outlines the scale of effort that is required of us to be able to actually get there.

And it tells us what we lose if we don’t do it. One of the most iconic findings in the report is that at 2.0° of warming, we basically wipe out all the coral reefs in the world. At 1.5, it’s still a bad situation. We’ve wiped out between 50 and 60% of them. But we protect 40 or 50%, and we know it’s possible for coral reefs to recover. If we’re able to save that last bit of coral reef, we know we have the opportunity to bring them back. If we don’t act now, we’ll lose them altogether. So those tipping points have been made really clear.

The Mix: Has the science behind climate tipping points really advanced that far?

Abreu: It has, yes! I know—that’s the value of the IPCC, right? The science is out there, but it’s out there distributed across 6,000 independent studies that not one single person has read all of. The IPCC’s job is to bring all that together and tell us a story about it. So, yeah, the science is that advanced, but it wasn’t until this moment that we’ve been able to hold it all together at once and understand the narrative.

The Mix: What does this mean on the ground for countries’ efforts to get climate change under control, and for people and communities living with the impacts of the climate crisis?

Abreu: This is no surprise, but it makes it very clear that the level of effort that is currently under way in countries is insufficient, and puts us on a path to a world that has warmed by more than 3.0°C. And the picture it paints of 2.0° is bad enough. You can’t even imagine what 2.0° looks like. So it’s clear that we really need to ramp up our efforts, and it tells us what that ramp-up needs to deliver.

So we need to get to net zero emissions by 2050. That is absolutely the case, we’ve been saying it now for a little while, but this report really drives home the fact that if we’re going to keep the world at a level of warming where we keep living our lives in a way that somewhat resembles the way we can live our lives now, we have to be at net zero by 2050.

It also helps us understand the pacing of the effort. We can’t say, okay, we’re going to get to net zero emisisons in 2050 by doing nothing until 2035, and by then we hope we will have developed carbon removal technologies we can use to somehow suck all the carbon out of the atmosphere. It really makes it clear that if we don’t ramp up efforts to drive emissions down in the next decade, until 2030, that we will have set into motion a series of those tipping points that will deliver significant impacts, and we will have lost the opportunity to drive emissions down affordably, while of course subjecting ourselves to really expensive impacts of climate change.

So the report gives us this really clear understanding that we need to cut emissions in half by 2030, and by 2050 we need to get them to net zero. And that the quicker we work to drive those emissions down, the cheaper those emission reductions are going to be, the better we’ll be able to avoid those tipping points, and the better we’ll avoid expensive impacts while taking advantage of the co-benefits of climate action.

The Mix: Does the 1.5°C report create new moral momentum for countries to get serious about implementing their Paris commitments and taking on more ambitious carbon reduction targets?

Abreu: Yeah, the moral imperative is actually a really great point. Because another thing that’s new for the IPCC is that it talks about the interlinkages with poverty reduction, sustainable development, and other social factors. That’s an area the IPCC hasn’t really ventured into very ambitiously in the past, I think because it’s felt like softer science. But part of the mode of work that was delivered to IPCC by countries when they negotiated the outline of this report was to touch on those interlinkages. So we get a really great description in this report of the increases in human suffering, and the increases in ecosystem and biodiversity loss, that result from delayed action. Alongside the usual carbon accounting content of the report, it makes the moral argument that much clearer.

The Mix: Will the IPCC’s rendition of the science and impacts support legal action to hold companies and governments to account?

Abreu: It doesn’t directly suggest that kind of action, of course, because it’s not the IPCC’s job to be proscriptive in that way. Of course, it’s going to give folks taking legal action a lot of really good ammunition and evidence to work with. But as far as its impact on the international legal conventions countries have entered into, we’ll find out more at COP 24.

The Mix: Saudi Arabia often shows up as a less than constructive voice in international climate fora, and there were media reports over the weekend that their delegation was blocking the IPCC report. What changed?

Abreu: Ultimately, I think this process really drove home the fact that science can’t be negotiated.

This session brought countries together to discuss the summary for policy-makers (SPM) that governments receive as a prelude to the report. Countries don’t actually get to make any changes to the report itself, because the report is the science. Their job is to make sure the SPM accurately reflects the science as delivered in the report, so it’s not meant to be a political negotiation—it’s meant to be a bunch of smart people reading the science and deciding what are the top headline pieces they want their policy-makers to see in a 25-page document, to open the door for policy-makers for sections of the report they might want to dig deeper into.

Of course, we see that political agendas find their ways into most places. But the scientists, the authors of the special report, showed up so strongly in this meeting, and the co-chairs of the three working groups under which the authors organized their efforts actually chaired the meeting for the first time. We saw political agendas emerge throughout the week, and there were moments of frustration, for sure. But in the end, the science prevailed, and that’s a really inspiring part of this story.

The Mix: How can this high-level result be used to shift the progress that’s possible (or the setbacks that are no longer possible) on projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the LNG Canada megaproject, and now the proposed Teck tar sands/oil sands mine?

Abreu: This report confirms that the problem is deployment of fossil fuels, and the solution is to invest in energy efficiency and developing energy sources that are not derived from fossil fuels. But the report also makes clear that this is possible.

There are some dire scenarios of how far off-course some sectors are in delivering what they need to deliver to get us to 1.5. But it also says the electricity sector is on track: Renewable energy technologies are being deployed across the world, coal is being phased out, and we’re seeing the dramatic decline in the price of renewable energy, storage, and smart grid technologies.

That’s a real good-news story from this report. And it makes it clear that we need to replicate the momentum in other sectors, rather than continuing to dig the hole deeper.

It also makes clear that, along with not continuing to build fossil fuel projects like LNG plants and oil pipelines, we need to be thinking about how to help countries that are trying to deliver energy services to populations that don’t currently have access to them. We need to help them leapfrog fossil fuel dependence. So as India looks to provide electricity to millions of people who have never had access to it, the world needs to figure how to make sure they aren’t doing that by opening coal plants and subjecting themselves to human health impacts that countries that rely on coal power have had to take on.

The Mix: How will the 1.5°C report shape what’s possible when the UN brings COP 24 to the heart of the Polish coal industry, in a country that is actively hostile to the Paris agenda, in Katowice in December?

Abreu: I don’t know if I would necessarily say that Poland is fundamentally hostile to the Paris agenda. Any country tries to read the Paris Agreement in a way that is friendly to what they perceive as their national interest, and we may just disagree with them on what that national interest is. But we anticipate that the Special Report on 1.5° will inform COP 24, and will somehow be taken up at the conference, and will also be the key element informing the political phase of the Talanoa. We’ve received word from Poland that they’re thinking about that, but the details are still taking shape.”

The Mix: How did you come to be named CAN International’s Head of Delegation for IPCC 48? Was this our real “Canada is back” moment?

Abreu: We offered, basically. I coordinated civil society participants on the ground at IPCC conference in Montreal last year. It was the first time in recent history that they’d brought together civil society at an IPCC meeting. It was a positive experience that allowed us to maximize our presence and our impact on the ground, and develop some really good relationships with the IPCC. So it just made sense to continue that work in South Korea.

The Mix: Does your leadership in Incheon, along with the overall composition of the CAN delegation, point toward a generational shift in the authority and standing to push for the change we need, at the pace at which we need it to happen, in traditional deliberative bodies like the IPCC?

Abreu: I hope so. I increasingly see the presence of young people, people who come from developing countries and smaller countries, Indigenous communities, and that’s not just on the civil society side. That was a really interesting element of this meeting. Canada showed up with representatives from three national Indigenous organizations, working as a part of the Canadian delegation.

In the past, the IPCC has been criticized for being a platform where primarily developed western countries were leading the agenda, and that’s changed. A number of folks I spoke to commented on that. We had delegates form a variety of developing countries, small island developing states, African nations, that were some of the most present, active voices in the negotiations. And I would actually say that this was their meeting: This meeting belonged to the nations in the world that are most vulnerable to climate change. Their win from this meeting is huge.