In 2013, the science on climate change became clearer than ever. By amassing vast quantities of data and convening global thought leaders, reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, OECD, IMF, World Bank, and the International Renewable Energy Agency brought unprecedented credibility, clarity of information, and a solutions-oriented perspective to the discussion on climate.
The research confirmed many of the global community’s worst fears for climate – and showed that in some ways the situation was even worse than previously thought. Still, the major reports of 2013 were more than bearers of bad news. Let’s look back at three ways research advanced the discussion on climate change in 2013, laying the groundwork for shifts from awareness to action:
1. The unequivocal conclusion that humans are accountable
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change convened 259 authors, cited more than 9,200 sources, and called on 1,089 reviewers for its latest assessment of climate change, which has been the topic of immense discussion since its first installment was released in September. “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis” represents the most comprehensive and authoritative assessment of climate change to date, and presents us with a exhaustive range of conclusions on the severity, irreversibility, and devastating impact of climate change. The IPCC now concludes with more than 95% certainty that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change since the mid-20th century, and also confirms the link between climate change and extreme precipitation events with more than 90% certainty.
These conclusions will be instrumental as climate-vulnerable countries seek an international framework to address the damage and loss incurred by global warming. They also seem to have wiped out any remaining credibility for the deniers of anthropogenic climate change. The IPCC report is not the place to look for good news on climate – but in the long-term narrative of climate action, its unequivocal statements on human accountability will have a powerful impact.
2. Shining a light on the true cost of carbon
In 2013, research by OECD and the IMF exposed an area in which policymakers can take action on climate change right now: fossil fuel subsidies. OECD reported in January that among its 34 member states, more than 550 mechanisms are being used to subsidise fossil fuels at an estimated cost of c tax dollars annually. The IMF incorporated these findings in a broader report of fuel subsidies for 176 countries – and arrived at a staggering expenditure of 480bn US tax dollars annually. The IMF found that if we adjust this figure to account for the costly outcomes of consuming subsidised carbon, governments were actually incurring an expense of 1.9 trillion dollars annually – as much as 8% of government revenues worldwide and 2.5% of global GDP. This may even be a low estimate: carbon emissions were priced in the report using the U.S. government’s “social cost of carbon” figure, which the administration has since increased by 65%.
Arguments against climate action have long relied on the idea that fossil fuels remain the most affordable source of energy, with the implication that restricting carbon is equivalent to restricting growth. By exposing the enormous amount of public spending that is being used to prop up the carbon regime, these reports hold policymakers accountable for deflating the cost of fossil fuels and for preventing the market from moving toward low-carbon growth.
3. Showing that we can afford to change
While OECD and the IMF revealed the true cost of carbon, the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA) dismantled the image of renewable energy as impractical and unaffordable. In their 2013 report, IRENA analysed the lifetime expenses and lifetime production capacities of more than 8,000 renewable energy projects. What they found was that while expenses varied by location, there is at least one source of a renewable energy source that beats the cost of fossil fuels in every region. To address the ever-changing nature of renewable energy costs, IRENA launched a “Costing Alliance” in June that convenes a wide range of data sources in a real-time cost portal. The hope is that accurate and up-to-date costing will cause private and public investors to consider long-term expenses in their energy decisions – a thinking shift that would favor renewable alternatives in many cases.
The gap is closing
With stark warnings about the wide-reaching consequences of climate change, a downturn in renewable energy spending, and the confirmation that climate change has played a role in devastating weather events like Typhoon Haiyan, it would certainly be a stretch to say that 2013 was a good year for climate. “The impacts of climate change are being seen and felt all over the world – and recognised as such,” says Kelly Rigg of the Global Call for Climate Action, “But the scale of action is not yet commensurate with the scale of the threat.”