Not by halves: The IPCC’s Special Report 15

Today (Monday 8th October) was a day of importance for climate scientists, and it should be one for everyone else too… No, it’s not that we should sit on our laurels… The ‘half’ is the realisation that the half of a degree difference in average global warming: keeping it to 1.5°C rather than the more touted 2°C, is going to make all the difference. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released ‘SR15’ (Special Report 15), and it’s long title is something that should draw wide attention:


“Global Warming of 1.5 °C, an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.”

Let’s just break that title down for a minute:

  • First of all, consider the number: 1.5°C. Not big, is it? Put that in a weather-context (i.e. day-to-day, small scale changes), and that’s a change in temperature that we all experience over a matter of hours. Yet, it’s a headline number here. It should highlight the importance of understanding the difference between weather and climate;
  • A specific degree of warming is given. This has not been done before in the title of the report. To me, this speaks about the urgency of the issue, but more importantly the confidence that the overwhelming array of scientists have in the data – that they can put a specific number to head an entire report. We have already reached 1°C of warming since the start of the industrial period, but two-thirds of that has been since 1975;
  • The reference to emission pathways is all about how we would get to a warming of 1.5°C and how quickly, and indicates that we have a choice;
  • ‘Strengthening the global response’ is pretty self-explanatory. The use of ‘strengthening’ clearly means we aren’t doing enough, and ‘global’ is that we all have to pitch in, because, it impacts everyone everywhere to various degrees;
  • It’s not often scientists use the word ‘threat’… and good science only does so when it has the data and evidence to back up its use;
  • The report focuses a lot on sustainable development. Indeed there is a section of this Special Report that focuses on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – more on that later (with particular reference to energy) – climate change is also a huge obstacle in eradicating poverty.

It’s clever wording really, if you think about it. Formal, informative, academic. But also in my opinion very hard-hitting if you break it down. It’s a call to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’.

The media seem to agree. They have picked up on the wording and sculpted their own articles in kind. To give a few examples (using only media outlets from the ‘green zone’ on the media bias chart):

Mainstream media aside, two pieces of very good opinion and analysis has come from The Energy Mix’, a Canadian-based non-profit online magazine. Firstly, their article 1.5°c Is Doable, But Just A Dozen Years Left To Get On A Low-carbon Pathway highlights the difficulties faced by the IPCC (leaked drafts, lobbying from political entities, accusations of ‘watering down’). But more striking is the clarity of reporting why 1.5°C is preferable to 2.0°C of warming. Saving that extra 0.5°C of warming could mean, amongst other things, 10 million fewer people affected by sea level rise by 2100 and 50% fewer people globally exposed to water stress.

The second article, Climate Home News Compiles ‘37 Things To Know’ About IPCC’s 1.5°c Report really is worth the read, because it takes what is a “dense and technical document” and breaks it down in a list of 37 highlights. Of those 37 here is my one pick from each of the categorise they use (each quoted from the article):

  • #4 (under ‘Understanding 1.5°C Warming’): To stabilize temperatures, emissions need to reach net zero and stay there. That means cutting emissions as much as possible and drawing carbon dioxide out of the air to balance out any remaining emissions;
  • #17 (under ‘Impacts and Threats’): The Paris Agreement acknowledged [the] “loss and damage” [to vulnerable people that will come due to climate change], but the UN process has yet to yield concrete support for the victims;
  • #27 (under ‘Pathways to 1.5°C’): There will be tough choices around how to use land. A lot of scenarios rely heavily on bioenergy and/or expansion of forests, potentially conflicting with demand for pasture and arable land. Sustainable intensification of farming and “less resource-intensive diets”—code for eating less meat –can help ease the competing pressures;
  • #33 (under ‘Ramping Up Action’): Adapting to the effects of climate change, and reducing vulnerabilities to it, can support sustainable development. It can ensure food and water security, lower the risks of disasters, improve health, and reduce poverty and inequality. More on this below;
  • #37 (under ‘Say It with Confidence): On the whole, the authors only put stuff in the summary they are sure of… “Very high confidence” appears five times; “high confidence” 107 times, “medium confidence” 60 times, and “low confidence” just twice.

Pathways are important

Both the mainstream media and The Energy Mix links above are more than enough to get your teeth into regarding why the 1.5°C figure is important, if you aren’t already aware. So I’ll just go straight to the ‘pathways’ and the sense of urgency given by the report.

As you can guess, a ‘pathway’ is the route you would take to reach a certain destination. It is a known-thing before you set off, a bit like using the routing function on a GPS or online mapping app: plug in the destination and the route you could travel will be highlighted before you make a start. So when climate scientists use the term ‘pathway’, it means they have enough information to say “if emit ‘this much’ greenhouse gases (by various methods), we will likely see ‘this amount’ warming by ‘this’ time”. The table below is from the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, released back in 2013-14. You only really need to pay attention to the 1st column and the coloured columns on the right.

The table gives a sense of how much CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to a certain level of average temperature rise globally. For example, if we keep CO₂ concentrations no higher than around 500ppm by the year 2100 then we will unlikely keep warming to 1.5°C (blue), more likely than not keep it to 2°C (light-blue), but likely to keep it below both 3°C and 4°C (yellow). Source: 

What is striking about the table above is that we are already on a knife-edge CO₂ wise in keeping warming to a maximum of 1.5°C by 2100. We crossed the 400ppm threshold in 2012, and so already well on our way to the numbers in the 1st column in the table. The whole “1.5°C” column at 450ppm and above is a shade of blue (unlikely to stay below this level of warming). In fact, the report states that the removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere will likely be necessary (paragraphs C3 & D1 in the ‘headline statements’ document) if we are to succeed in keeping CO₂ levels low enough.

Sustainable development is key

For the remainder of this blog entry I would like to leave all the climate arguments aside. Not that they aren’t important, but for me when it comes to this issue, the authority and integrity of the IPCC and the scientific work stemming from it is unquestionable. In my opinion, discussing the climate-side of the report is to flog-a-dead-horse. And so it should be by now. So let’s look at this report from the point of view of sustainable development, and why it is key to both dealing with the threat of climate change and why it is also at risk from it. Focusing on sustainable development is a win-win, because it ignores the debacle of the climate change ‘debate’ and focuses on simply making the world a better place for everyone, and threats such as man-made climate change would get solved in the process.

If you are an educator, you will probably be very familiar with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. But just in case, here is a quick video:

The IPCC’s SR15 contains a whole chapter on sustainable development, with heavy reference to the SDGs, and is more than just a bed-time read. But I have managed to pick out a few highlights and visualisations worth exploring.

According to the studies that make up SR15, there is not a single SDG that is not linked in someway to climate change. As you would guess, some have stronger links than others; and in true scientific fashion, the strength of these connections have been quantified.

First, have a look at this graphic below, taken from SR15’s Summary for Policymakers. and don’t worry if you don’t understand it off-the-bat. I didn’t! I grasped it eventually and I’ll take you through what it means and what it shows afterward.


It’ll help to look at one particular thing. Let’s take SDG 1: No Poverty as an example…


Firstly, the difference between ‘trade-off’ and ‘synergies’. In this context, a trade-off is negative, whereby taking actions to keep warming below 1.5°C could hamper progress to end poverty. For example, cutting down on carbon intensive livestock farming could disrupt cultures and income for those who rely on it, therefore keeping them in poverty. A synergy however, is positive, where an action both helps to fight the end poverty and climate change. An example would be the deployment of renewable energy and improvements in energy efficiency, meaning the poorest would have access to energy and the benefits that come with it.

Then you have the three categories: energy-supply, energy-demand and land. These are pretty straight forward: ‘energy-supply’ considers all energy sources from renewables, nuclear and fossil fuels; ‘energy-demand’ considers behaviours of users, energy efficiency and for industry, whether carbon is captured/stored; and ‘land’, which also contains the oceans, considers things like reduction of deforestation, agriculture, waste amongst others.

This leaves the colours and the size of the bars. For me, this is what I love about research and science. Looking at many studies, it is the judgement of how strong the link is between climate change and that particular SDG but also the confidence level of that link. The darker the colour, the more sure the link (darkest being: yep, there is almost no doubt there is a link between this and climate change) due to there being many peer-reviewed studies. The lighter the colour, the less confidence and more studies are needed. The width of the bar is the strength of the link, where the wider means the SDG goal is indivisible from climate.

So this is what the graphic says about poverty and climate in terms of energy-supply. Scientists think:

  • There might be a fairly strong link between poverty and climate in terms of energy supply, where dealing with the climate threat would be harmful to eradicating poverty.
  • On the other hand, there might be equally a fairly strong link between poverty and climate which would help both fight poverty and climate change. On top of that, there is a most likely another subtle link.

Hope you’re still with me! (Thought: These kind of outputs in scientific reports unfortunately do add fire to the fuel in the whole ‘lack of public engagement and understanding issue’, leaving popular media outlets (whether they have good or ill intent) to make their own assumptions). 

Fortunately, the one area I’m going to focus on for the remainder of this entry is somewhat clearer and easier to grasp. And that’s energy.

Energy: Get it right, and it’s a win-win

There are a handful of SDGs which are almost perfect bed-fellows with the fight against climate change. What you do to keep below 1.5°C of warming will also meet that SDG. Look back at the bar charts above for SDGs that have lots of blue but hardly any red: goals 11, 12, 17… and 7: ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’.


It’s unsurprising that the supply of affordable and clean energy is a win-win in this situation. The report lists the following reasons, in order of the strength of the link between reaching the SDG and climate, and confidence (number of studies):

  • The up-scaling of renewables will greatly facilitate access to clean, affordable and reliable energy. Hydropower plays an increasingly important role for the global electricity supply (strong link, high confidence);
  • Increased use of modern biomass will facilitate access to clean, affordable and reliable energy (strong link, fairly confident);
  • Advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology (‘aiding’ link, fairly confident);
  • Increased use of nuclear power can provide stable base-load power supply and reduce price volatility (‘enabling’ link, lower confidence).

The examples given for energy demand are a lot more varied, so I’ve picked out a couple of high-confidence ones (i.e. lots of studies done) rather than listing them all. Neither of these will slap you as surprising:

  • Energy efficiency in industry leading to reduced relatively less energy demand and hence energy supply, increasing energy security and reducing imports (‘aiding’ link);
  • Energy efficiency improvement of buildings reduce energy consumption and
    hence lead to energy savings (‘aiding’ link).
Many people in the UK will be familiar with the EPC document. Currently every building is required to have one, giving details of the current energy efficiency and what can be done to improve it. Source:

Finally, the examples given in the land category are a bit more tentative and many of them need more study. There is one example which has been studied much more extensively:

  • Conventional agricultural biotechnology methods such as energy-efficient farming can help to take carbon into the soil. Biotech crops allow farmers to practise this and use less and environmental friendly energy (‘enabling’ link).
An example of a infographic which raises awareness for a farming method that can help lock carbon into the soil. Source:

If you want to go into more detail (including grabbing the citations for the studies) or figure out what those little ‘reds’ are, you can check out the (very) large table 5.3 associated with chapter 5 of SR15. It is worth a scan, actually, if only for the methodology of how they came up with the trade-off/synergy graphic.

The need for more communication between climate and energy

Looking back at the larger bar-chart graphic with all the SDGs on it, it’s pretty clear to me that energy demand will play a significant role in both meeting most goals but also tackling climate change, with the ambition to keep warming no higher than 1.5°C by 2100. I was somewhat surprised to see that studies suggest energy supply plays less of a role, but it seems no less significant (a lot of dark blue). What this does mean is that there needs to be more collaboration between the energy sector – both at the supply and demand (user) stages, and the vast array of climate services and studies that are being churned out.

Now when I think of my new job and the non-profit that I work for, the reason for its existence comes into clearer focus and context. Of course, I didn’t find the aims of WEMC or its mission statement difficult to understand at all – and it all links up nicely with my own worldview (otherwise I wouldn’t have gone for the job!) But the release of SR15 and spending the whole day today going through it has put a much greater context to it all.

I am aware of the amazing work out there by climate scientists and the community that supports them – those who handle logistics, those who collect data and process it, those who even just make sure the paperwork is done. Indeed, I spent just over two months being embedded in such an experience. I’m less clued-up about the inner-workings of the energy industry, but as an ex-Geography teacher, someone who dabs in domestic renewable energy as a hobby, and an end-user of energy, I know enough to understand the complexities involved. On one hand, it seems bizarre to me that an organisation like WEMC needs to exist – shouldn’t the energy industry already have a grip on using climate data and services already? But that’s clearly not the case – or my colleagues and I wouldn’t have a job… It feels quite empowering to be part of a team which is helping to bring these two large forces together (…yes, there was more than one pun in there…!)

I’m working on a number of things right now, but one of them is helping WEMC to set up their 6th International Conference Energy & Meteorology (ICEM), which will take place next June in Denmark.

I have to say it’s somewhat overwhelming… Not necessarily the work that has to be done (that’s something I’m used to), but more to do with the fact that there will be representatives and delegates from major climate and energy players involved. Events that get the energy sector and climate sciences together should be a big deal. And while reading SR15 and doing this blog entry has given me a deeper perspective and a bit of ‘go-get-em-tiger’ kind of a boost, I’ve realised that I have also heaped a load of pressure on myself.

Some things never change! 😉


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