What the recent IPCC Report is saying about climate policy

The third of IPCC’s set of reports on the global climate has now appeared, looking at policies for preventing, slowing down, even reversing, the process of global climate change.

What I think is particularly striking about this new report is its matter-of-fact tone, and the sense that an awful lot of research has already gone into this area.  This is no longer a new cutting-edge field, but something which has settled down.  Overall the message is clear: we already know what to do.  Various policies have been tried.  Most of them work, in the right circumstances and if operated in the right way.  All this might once have required the climatological equivalent of rocket science, but not any more.

However, around the edges, the report does have some room for new emphases and areas of uncertainty, and these help to create an agenda for where it will be worth putting time and attention in future.

  • The report is clear from near the beginning that the choice of policies for mitigating climate change inevitably involves making value judgements, and these judgements often need to be about fairness.
  • Most policies for combating climate change have ‘co-benefits’: other benefits, such as reducing air pollution.
  • Most policies for combating climate change have a fairly low cost if implemented soon, but the cost will steadily increase if action is further delayed.
  • There is a particular need to address the danger of ‘lock-in’ of infrastructure and spatial planning: if mistakes are made there, they are with us for a long time.  The rapid urbanisation now taking place in many developing countries creates both a danger and a massive opportunity for getting things right.
  • The report is very cautiously favourable to nuclear power, provided there are safeguards on various aspects, but (contrary to some media reports) it doesn’t endorse fracking.
  • It is favourable towards carbon capture & storage (CCS) but says that will need incentives to get it going.
  • The record of market-based ‘cap and trade’ mechanisms has been poor, because the caps have been too high (page 31 of the Summary).
  • Surprisingly – because this is the IPCC – comparatively little space is given to international co-operation, which rates only half a page in the 33-page Summary.  This puts the focus very much on national policies, perhaps reflecting some pessimism about getting a strong international deal sorted out next year.
  • Interestingly – because so much research has gone into other areas – the report highlights the fact that “relatively few studies” (page 30) have examined investment needs for low-carbon transition, and the policies for climate finance that will be required.  Perhaps this shows economists lagging behind natural scientists in the usefulness of the analysis they have produced.

The report comes from Working Group Three of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and is its contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, which is the key science input to next year’s global climate conference in Paris (Nov 30 to Dec 11).

In the UK, Government policies seem largely in conflict with the report’s findings, with rumours (reported in the Financial Times recently) of an Infrastructure Bill to be introduced in June, to make it easier to frack to get at fossil fuels, easier to build new roads, and possibly also easier to expand airports.  Here, as in many other countries, politicians and scientists look like they must be living on different planets.

Victor Anderson

Victor is a Director of PBI and Visiting Professor, Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University:




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