New Delhi: A group of scientists from Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) in Bengaluru have challenged the assumptions of the sixth assessment report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), arguing that the modeled scenarios on how to achieve global net-zero emissions place an unfair burden on developing countries.
The IPCC is considered the most authoritative scientific body on climate change. Between 2021 and 2022, the IPCC released its sixth assessment report in three parts, calling for immediate action to slow down the onset of climate change. The series addressed the scientific basis of climate change (called the report of working group 1), vulnerabilities due to climate change (working group 2), and climate change mitigation (working group 3).
The IPCC states carbon emissions need to drop to net-zero by mid-century for a 50 per cent probability of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The world is already at 1.1 degrees of warming, and crossing 1.5 degrees will cause the effects of climate change to considerably worsen.
However, scientists had said that the IPCC’s modeled scenarios to achieve 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming “perpetuate” current and historical inequalities when it comes to regional and per capita emissions. They claimed that the projections continue to afford rich countries high levels of energy consumption and fossil fuels, while cutting down disproportionately on the share for developing countries, potentially affecting development.
A country’s gross domestic product (GDP), for example, is inextricably linked to development and higher emissions. In the scenario to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, they have found that by 2050, per capita GDP “is restricted to $9,000-$28,000 at the most”, for most developing countries (except China). The per capita GDP considered is based on purchasing power parity.
The 2021 per capita GDP for the world averages at around $18,603, which is still a major departure from that of the US ($69,287) the UK ($49,675) and the European Union ($44,840).
For South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, the figures are projected to be even lower, at around $18,000 and $9,000, respectively.
“Far from allowing for aspirations of universal well-being, the model scenarios deny incomes that would ensure even basic development, even as late as 2050,” the researchers have said in a pre-print, which was made available on 8 December. The paper is currently under review.
The IPCC is considered a neutral body that doesn’t prescribe climate solutions or dabble in the politics of climate change, but the paper’s findings add to a growing number of the voices from researchers in the global south who say scientific findings should factor in historical emissions to draw a fairer picture of the future. Historical emissions refers to emissions produced since pre-industrial times, which are primarily attributable to the US and Europe.
“No doubt that there is a consensus among IPCC authors that the issue of equity merits much more thought when it comes to scientific analyses of climate mitigation. But, again, the IPCC relies only on the literature available that is out there,” said Roberto Schaeffer, professor of energy economics at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and coordinating lead author of the working group 3 report.
He added: “It is up to scientists, both in the developed and in the developing world, to develop and publish more work related to equity, so that this issue can be better reflected in future IPCC reports.”
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An unequal path to net-zero emissions
Apart from per capita GDP, the paper also analyses the IPCC’s projections based on energy consumption, fossil fuel consumption, and carbon sequestration across time, relying on 556 of 700 scenarios from the IPCC working group 3 database.
Most rich countries are projected to continue having a much higher per-capita energy consumption compared to developing countries. According to the paper, per capita energy consumption is projected to reduce in most developing countries by 2050, with the highest reduction projected in the Middle East and Asia (excluding China and South Asia).
“There is a coupling between GDP and energy, and a coupling between energy and emissions. To a certain extent, the latter two can be decoupled because of technological interventions, but only to an extent. You cannot decouple the two beyond an extent,” said Tejal Kanitkar, lead author of the paper, adding, “To achieve 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming, therefore, the models restrict energy consumption itself, and this would impact developing countries the most.”
For example, the North American region is projected to continue consuming six-to-eight times more energy than Sub-Saharan Africa and around five times more energy than South Asia in 2050. This, despite the fact that both regions will see a “minor increase” in their energy consumption.
As of 2015, North America has a per capita energy consumption of a little over 10 times that of Sub Saharan Africa, and a little over 12 times that of South Asia.
Since the findings also include consumption via renewables, the authors said the implication is “therefore a severe restriction of energy consumption, even from renewable energy sources”, for the developing world.
Cutting down on fossil fuel use is unequivocally the most impactful way to achieve net-zero emissions, according to the IPCC. However, countries still depend on their use to maintain standards of living and achieve development goals. For several developing countries, fossil fuel use is the only current viable path to afford energy access to their citizens.
The analysis by the Indian scientists found, however, that reductions in the use of fossil fuels in 2050, as compared to 2019 levels, to be highest in regions that are still developing, and added that “The highest reduction in fossil fuel use, across all the three fuels is in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Sub Saharan Africa has among the lowest electrification rates in the world, despite the fact that 67 per cent of its energy consumption is serviced by renewables and 39 per cent by fossil fuels.
By 2050, the IPCC projected Sub Saharan Africa will “reduce its coal consumption by 100 per cent, oil consumption by 95 per cent, and gas consumption by 80 per cent”. By comparison, the North American region is projected to see an “88 per cent reduction in coal, 75 per cent reduction in oil, and 91 per cent reduction in gas” use by 2050, despite having a much higher share of fossil consumption — 83 per cent, according to the World Bank.
The analysis further found that in the scenario limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, around 65 to 84 per cent of carbon sequestration happens in developing countries.
“If you look at the regions that the sequestration is modelled to occur, most of it is in developing countries, particularly Latin America, Sub Saharan Africa and Asia,” explained Kanitkar.
In scenarios where warming is very likely to be limited to 2 degrees, developing countries will shoulder between 60 and 85 per cent of carbon sequestration required for the world to arrive at net-zero emissions by 2050.
What remains of the carbon budget
When the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed, 197 countries agreed to limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees”, and preferably 1.5 degrees, in order to manage the worsening effects of climate change.
The difference between how much carbon is left to spend to comply with these benchmarks has different implications across regions, the authors of the paper noted. According to the IPCC, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, the world has around 500 gigatonnes of carbon emissions (or its equivalent) left, whereas limiting it to 2 degrees opens up the budget to between 1150 and 1350 gigatonnes.
The world has already emitted 2390 gigatonnes of carbon since pre-industrial times, 57 per cent of which have come from the emissions and industrialisation of the developed world.
The paper finds that if countries were to consume their fair share of what’s left of the carbon budget, several developed countries would be in carbon debt.
“This implies that these regions need to accelerate towards net negative emissions and make the remaining carbon budget available to other less developed regions. However, the scenario projections are precisely the opposite. The global North exceeds its fair share of the carbon budget, even when historical emissions are not considered,” the paper read.
According to Kanitkar, the findings should probe deeper questions about the feasibility of the modeled projections, as well as their implications for poorer countries who may not have the land or money to implement adequate climate action.
Why researchers from global south struggle to contribute to IPCC
The paper by the scientists signaled other, deeper issues that affect how the IPCC collects its data. In an article from November 2022, The Intercept reported on the hurdles researchers from the global south face when making their contributions to the IPCC.
The IPCC reviews literature which forms the basis for its reports, and the literature it reviews is limited by a set of criteria that are sometimes exclusionary.
The Intercept report found that, for researchers in the global south, the cost of accessing prime data bases or publishing in top journals like Nature and Science “often stretches the meager budgets of their institutions.”
“The result of the system of scientific exclusion, financial and cultural, is that the literature of climate change is dominated by researchers from wealthier countries, who bring to the IPCC implicit prejudices as to the world’s collective climate future,” said the article.
T. Jayaraman, a co-author of the paper, said that though the IPCC generously references the vulnerabilities faced by former colonies and marginalised groups, it didn’t doesn’t reflect the arduous process of getting those voices a seat at the table.
“A great deal of patronising takes place when they talk about vulnerability and the effects of colonialism on the impacts of climate change, but don’t have voices from the global south reflected in the literature,” he said.
Schaeffer called it “unfortunate” that most models submitted to the IPCC came from the global north. “My take here is that more global models and scenarios need to be developed in developing countries, so that eventually inequalities can be better addressed in the future IPCC reports,” he said.
(This is an updated version of the report)
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
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