Today the Committee on Climate Change and the China Expert Panel on Climate Change publish a joint report on Climate Risk Indicators. The two-year project, involving an international consortium of experts convened by the two Committees, aimed to develop a set of indicators for a new climate change risk assessment system as a proof of concept. Overall, the project highlighted three important conclusions. Dr Andy Russell, Senior Analyst at the CCC’s Adaptation Sub-Committee secretariat, explains.
After last week’s sobering IPCC report, the news that global greenhouse gas emissions from nearly all energy sectors are off track almost sounds like old news. But that’s what our new study, conducted with the China Expert Panel, also clearly shows. The risk of failing to reduce global emissions onto a pathway consistent with a 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels is high. Worse, we cannot rule out ending up on a high emissions pathway leading to even higher levels of warming. Indeed, as the IPCC warned, the window for meeting a 1.5°C compatible emissions target is now rapidly closing. Thankfully, it’s not all bad news: the global deployment of renewable energy technologies in the electricity sector has been consistent with a global target of keeping warming well below 2°C. Sadly, renewables are just one small part of what’s needed to transform the global economy from high to low-carbon.
Secondly, our work highlights that the risks posed to social, economic and environmental systems by direct climate impacts, such as flooding, heatwaves and crop failures, are all projected to increase in the future. The impacts are particularly severe on a high emissions pathway. For example, our analysis shows that the likelihood of experiencing a heatwave in any given year at the end of the 21st Century will increase by 8 times compared to today on a low emissions pathway. However, on a high emissions pathway, this likelihood could increase by over 20 times. As families and communities recover from an extraordinary year of heatwaves, hurricanes, tropical storms, floods and droughts, the prospect of even more damaging events in the future is concerning; a redoubling of effort to prepare is now in order.
Thirdly, we looked at a range of ‘systemic risks’. Systemic risks are threats to complex societal systems, like international financial markets, global food systems and networks of critical infrastructure. In short, we found these risks to be deeply concerning ‘known-unknowns’ when it comes to potential climate impacts globally. Our analysis shows that these risks will increase even on a low emissions pathway. The message here is that in a globalised world it may not be possible to spend our way out of problems, and that managing systemic risks will require new collaborative approaches and governance arrangements between countries. Developed and/or those nations which are prepared face the prospect of socio-economic damage because of their links with more directly vulnerable or unprepared regions and nations. The scale of these risks is very hard to quantify today but our work shows that we need more effort to understand where and when they might hit and new thinking about how we can improve our resilience globally and nationally.
More generally, the project also suggests that developing a set of climate risk indicators could have real practical use for policymakers who need to monitor and assess climate risk over time. What we have developed, a preview of which is below, provides insights into how such an indicator set could be structured and presented. It would allow policymakers to see changes in trends and projections with a view to informing climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies on a rolling basis.
Overall, this work has demonstrated that consistent monitoring and assessment of climate change risks is feasible and has significant value. It shows that the principle of consistent and comparable climate change risk assessment, using indicators of risk where appropriate, should be strongly incorporated into the climate change mitigation and adaptation evidence and policy-making process. In light of the upcoming agenda of international climate change events – including the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report in 2021, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in 2019, and the UNFCCC Global Stocktake in 2023 – there has never been a better time to reassess the global climate change risk assessment process.
The project was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under the Prosperity Fund and included contributions from the following organisations: Chatham House; University of Reading; International Energy Agency; Tsinghua University; National Climate Center, China Meteorological Administration; Chinese Academy of Sciences; Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences; National Marine Information Centre, Ministry of Natural Resources of China; University of Southampton; University of Leeds; The Administrative Centre for China’s Agenda 21; National Centre for Disease Control and Prevention; University of Oxford; University of California at Davis; Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture; Mott MacDonald; B&CE; Willis Towers Watson; Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.