The bank for a changing world

Will the IPCC save the planet?

  • Marie Perez Journalist at Usbek & Rica
  • Paris, France
  • 21.04.2017

What does the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change do? How does it work and can it really help us avert a climate crisis? Valérie Masson-Delmotte, the IPCC’s Group 1 Co-Chair, answered these and other questions asked by BNP Paribas Foundation’s guest audience at her talk on 4 April 2017 in Paris.

With the rise of global warming, the IPCC - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - is becoming an increasingly familiar acronym. Yet its role and how it works remains a mystery to most of the population. It is for this reason that BNP Paribas Foundation opened the floor to the IPCC as part of its Climate Initiative programme. And who better to present this conference than Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Palaeoclimatologist and IPCC Group 1 Co-Chair? 

The impressive scientific adventure that is the IPCC dates back to 1988 when it was launched by the UN for the purpose of mobilising all scientific disciplines to study climate change. Yet contrary to what some might think, the IPCC is not a research body and produces neither data nor models. Its aim is to scrutinise the published scientific literature on climate change to identify knowledge that is robust, as well as emerging hypotheses, uncertainties and controversies. Indeed, it is very hard for individual researchers to comprehensively assess the enormous quantity of available information. Ultimately, the IPCC’s mandate to provide government decision-makers around the world with information that is relevant yet non-prescriptive.

 the purpose of the IPCC is to mobilising all scientific disciplines to study climate change.

It comprises a secretariat of around 10 people based in Geneva, and three working groups in charge of preparing the assessment reports. Each group is co-chaired by a Southern country representative and a Northern country representative. The first group focuses on the physics and environmental principles of climate change; the second looks at the possible impacts of climate change on our societies; and the third presents solutions to mitigate these climate risks. The preparation of these reports involves hundreds of experts around the world who examine the published literature on the climate from a scientific, technical and socio-economic standpoint. The reports are then subject to several stages of review, before being summarised into a synthesis report, including a Summary for Policymakers. The next report, the sixth to date, will be released in 2021.

First meeting of authors of the fifth IPCC report (AR5).

The question put to Valérie Masson-Delmotte did not end at how the organisation works: will the IPCC save the planet? It is impossible to answer this with certainty, but the IPCC could play a massive role in limiting global warming.

Already, it has confirmed that human-induced climate change is irrefutable, thus invalidating the credibility of climate-sceptic arguments and ruling out the IPCC as a “climate-convinced” lobby. The diversity of members and stages of review ensure the complete objectivity of the IPCC. These stages have in fact been further enhanced by a correction process that was implemented following an error made by Group 2 in the 2007 report. As Valérie Masson-Delmotte remind us: “to err is human”.

In addition, by studying the different warming scenarios in relation to the measures in place, the IPCC helps governments set clear targets. Without it, there would be no translator between the political sphere and the climate sciences. Indeed, how many climatologists are there in your government? It is not surprising, therefore, that the IPCC received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

The four RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway) scenarios that predict the evolution of greenhouse gases over the 21st century were established by the IPCC in its fifth report (AR5).

However, the IPCC needs funding to continue its work, making the recent election of Donald Trump a point of concern. Currently, the United States accounts for 40% of the IPCC’s funding. Could the IPCC turn to another major economy, such as China which is ramping up its role in the fight against climate change? Either way, Valérie Masson-Delmotte believes that expanding the sources of funding resources certainly merits discussion.

In a world at crossroads, torn between resistance to change and the realisation that change is necessary, and at a time of abundant scientific production, the continued existence of the IPCC has never been more critical. Its example should encourage the formation of intergovernmental groups, such as the IPBES (Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), on many other scientific matters.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

 The IPCC was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.