What impacts will climate change have on the future? What do they mean for higher education?
Today we continue our group reading of the new IPCC report, focusing on the Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability document produced by Working Group III. Specifically, we’ll dive into the Technical Summary, which is an expansion of last week’s Summary for Policymakers.
Also, on May 26th we hosted a video conversation on the topic! The Future Trends Forum held its first book club conversation:
We’ll begin today with a summary of the high points, then outline some first implications for higher education, and conclude with questions.
The IPCC divides this document into six parts.
The report emphasizes that it includes new data, science, and approaches generated since 2014. It argues for closer links between climate change mitigation, sustainable development, and social justice.
2: The Changed Global Context
Here the IPCC notes major changes since the last report, in 2014: rising interest in climate action; growing signs of the crisis, including the addition of more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere; the 2015 Paris Agreement actually issuing national climate targets; progress in alternative energy technologies.
The report then makes the case for climate action to integrate with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Further, the document calls for climate action to not only occur across multiple domains (financial, technological, social, etc) but to involve complex, broad-based governance.
(Check pages 9-11 for a table of improvements balanced by challenges, a classic good news and bad news story)
3: Emission Trends and Drivers
Here the IPCC summarizes the best current science about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. All GHGs continue to grow, led by carbon dioxide and methane, although the rate of growth is less than it was in the earlier 21st century.
4: Mitigation and Development Pathways
Mitigation – actions designed to reduce global warming – are badly needed, as we are currently on track for “a median global warming of 2.4°C to 3.5°C by 2100″. The report outlines many ways* to adjust human society and behavior to increase mitigation, then adds that more drastic measures may well be needed: “If obstacles to accelerated mitigation are rooted in underlying structural features of society, then transforming such structures can support emission reductions.” The report frames this in terms of overall development as well as in terms of a “just transition.” Once more, making such changes in line with the sustainable development goals appears.
This section also sees mitigation in the 2020s being so low that things will have to ramp up very much from 2030-2050. It also offers several different ways we might attempt that, or Illustrative Mitigation Pathways (IMPs):
heavy reliance on renewables (IMP–Ren), strong emphasis on low demand for energy (IMP–LD), extensive use of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) in the energy and the industry sectors to achieve net negative emissions (IMP–Neg), mitigation in the context of broader sustainable development and shifting development pathways (IMP–SP), and the implications of a less rapid and gradual strengthening of near–term mitigation actions (IMP–GS).
Here the report makes a noteworthy call for humanity to implement some form of carbon capture. There’s a specific list of techniques: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), afforestation, and direct air capture with storage. This section concludes by noting the many benefits humanity can realize by adopting an aggressive mitigation strategy in the short term, including improved health and eventual economic progress.
5: Mitigation Responses in Sectors and Systems
This section – the largest in the report – examines ways different sectors can mitigate the crisis.
Energy: begins with a call for “rapid and deep reductions in energy system CO2 and GHG emissions,” which will likely lead to “stranded assets,” fossil fuel reserves and infrastructure left to economic loss. In contrast, the renewable energy world represents a massive economic opportunity. A whole series of technological developments appear, including hydrogen power and improved batteries.
Urban and other settlements: most of humanity now lives in cities, with their numbers and footprint likely to grow through 2050. Therefore urban planning and design needs to address global warming thoroughly, dealing with infrastructure (new and legacy), extreme weather, carbon capture, transportation, and informal populations. Governance is both complex and key.
Transport: this section calls for more “electromobility” (electric cars plus scooters etc.) and further research and development into biofuels, synthetic fuels, hydrogen, and more. There is also praise for “[c]hanges in urban form, behaviour programs, the circular economy, the shared economy, and digitalisation trends.” At the same time there are issues around governance, labor rights, and mining impacts.
Buildings: the report reminds us that buildings contribute greenhouse gases through their construction and operation. To stop this, the document calls for a variety of design measures, from maximizing space use to circular use of materials. Retrofitting buildings is also a good idea.
Industry: extraction and manufacturing business has grown since 2000, and so have its GHG emissions. Plastic production – deeply reliant on fossil fuels – has also grown. The report calls for increased energy efficiency, “circular material flows” (re-use and re-purpose of stuff), switching industrial production to electrical power sources, using materials which don’t emit carbon in their production, capturing carbon leakage, embracing new technologies, and more.
Agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU): this domain contributed significantly to global warming, “account[ing] for 13–21% of global total anthropogenic GHG16
emissions in the period 2010–2019.” Hence calls for ending forest reduction, for growing more trees, producing more alternative foods (plant-based “meat,” insects, algae, bivalves), and for changing human diets to ones “high in plant protein and low in meat and dairy.”
Each of these can interact with the others. For example, “Wind and solar power can coexist with agriculture in beneficial ways.”
This section also calls for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through various means, although in very hedged ways. There’s a range listed here, from seeding oceans to expanded forestry to bichar and emerging technologies. There are many open questions, from how to store captured CO2 to energy inputs.
6: Implementation and Enabling Conditions
That potentially cryptic header refers to “behaviour and lifestyle, policy, governance and institutional capacity, international cooperation, finance, and innovation and technology can accelerate mitigation in the context of sustainable development.” So this section is how to get people and systems changing.
It includes tactful calls for laws to drive social change along direct (banning CO2 production) and indirect (altering people’s behavior) lines, as well as repeated calls for expanded and improved governance. There are also recommendations for cities, media enterprises, lawyers, and businesses (especially for carbon pricing and taking subsidies). Overarching is a plea for integrated decision-making, which is understandable, given the problem’s scope and complexity.
There are many more enabling conditions and barriers in play. Financing these changes remains below what’s needed. Intellectual property rights might or might not help. Technologies may arrive which disrupt these plans.
7: Mitigation in the Context of Sustainable Development
Looking at climate change from a justice perspective also means placing the emphasis on: i) the protection of vulnerable populations from the impacts of climate change, ii) mitigating the effects of low–carbon transformations, and iii) ensuring an equitable decarbonised world…
The IPCC calls for all of the above to be done justly and equitably. They use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a way of framing such action. Actions, rather, and these actions can cut across different directions. For example, some policies can help SDG and climate goals reinforce each other, while others involve trade-offs between them. The trick is to mount a wide range of actions – a portfolio – and watch for the connections between them, SGDs, and climate strategy.
What might this mean for higher education?
There are very few direct references to education at all, much less to colleges and universities. Mostly education appears as part of the SDGs, where the document supports expanded access to and better quality of schooling.
At one point a call appears to “use education and information instruments to shift behaviour,” but this is confined to “(media campaigns, websites).” More ambitious is this idea for changing schooling as a whole:
Changing from a commercialised, individualised, entrepreneurial training model to an education cognizant of planetary health and human well-being can accelerate
climate change awareness and action.
There we see education (as a whole, presumably including academia) transformed and at the same time transforming society. That’s a bold and enormously ambitious vision.
Beyond that call, we can identify connections between different parts of universities and what the report argues for. Changing up the physical environment of a campus, for example, ties into changes to nearly every mitigation domain: buildings, cities (urban institutions), transport, and energy. Implementation and enabling conditions are, first, terrific subjects for research. Second, they provide opportunities for academia-community connections. Third, they leave open opportunities for academics to seek to influence the world, using their intellectual capital.
…and that concludes our run-through. I might post a summary with more reflections, if there’s interest.
*”More than 2000 quantitative emissions pathways were submitted to the AR6 scenarios database“!!