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The IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land

27 February 2020

Insider perspectives on the 7 August 2019 approval session and key policy messages

Perspective 1. Dr Frank McGovern, Chief Climate Scientist, Environmental Protection Agency

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is currently in its sixth and busiest assessment cycle. With the full Assessment Report still to come in 2022, this cycle has already produced three special reports and a major update of the good practice guidelines used to compile greenhouse gas inventories.

This busy schedule meant that it was difficult to find a date and venue for the plenary meeting to approve the Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL). It finally took place in Geneva, Switzerland, during the first week in August 2019. This six-day meeting allowed government representatives to consider the Summary for Policy Makers report line by line. The Summary for Policy Makers condenses hundreds of pages of scientific assessment into key findings and messages.

It was a laborious process but necessary. It was focused on meaning and understanding and how to communicate complex issues to decision makers in governments and more widely. Even after a series of late nights and an overnight session, the mood was positive and ultimately joyful as the report was finally agreed on the 7 August 2019.

Subsequent government statements reflected their gratitude to the authors and satisfaction with the report. They recognised it as a key step forward, but not an end point; more a platform for reflection and development.  

Key findings from the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land that:

  • Land is a critical resource upon which we all rely, but is under increasing pressure from the burden we place on it
  • Climate change is making a challenging situation worse and undermining food security and exacerbating desertification and land degradation
  • Food production and deforestation are major drivers of climate change, accounting for 23% of human GHG emissions globally
  • Land is also a major sink for carbon dioxide, taking up almost as much CO2 as the emissions from agriculture, but this sink is threatened by future climate change
  • The land we are already using could feed the world in a changing climate and provide biomass for renewable energy. However, this would require early and far-reaching action actions that optimise sustainable food production systems.
  • Better land management can play its part in tackling climate change, but land can’t do it all. There are limits to the scale of energy crops and afforestation can be deployed, and land must also remain productive to maintain food security

The IPCC distilled these findings into three messages for the press; land is under growing human pressure, it is a part of the solution, but cannot do it all. I would add that delaying actions to reduce emissions from all sectors increases the pressure on land and reduces its options to contribute.

The Summary for Policy Makers and full report are available here

Interview with Dr Frank McGovern

When did you join the RIA Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee?
I joined some years ago, and as an “institutional” member have had the pleasure of working with number of committee chairs and members.

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
My research was in atmospheric physics but have, through working with national, EU and UN bodies, gained considerable insights on a range of sciences from some of the leading experts in these areas.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
The treatment of our atmosphere as an open dumping ground for a range of pollutants that threatens our individual and collective health and well-being.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
Moving away from unmitigated combustion energy and particularly combustion of fossil carbon.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
Think about your actions and activities. Don’t waste energy and food or opportunities to walk or cycle.

Perspective 2. Dr Eamon Haughey, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin and Senior Scientist in the Technical Support Unit to Working Group 3 of the IPCC

I am an EPA funded postdoctoral research fellow based in the Botany Department in Trinity College Dublin and a Senior Scientist with the Technical Support Unit (TSU) in Working Group 3 of the IPCC. In the months leading up to the approval of the SRCCL my work focused on development of the four graphical figures which appear in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM). This involved working with both authors and a specialist graphic design team to ensure the figures were scientifically robust, reflective of the key messages in the report and comprehensible to a wide audience. Prior to the approval session the Summary for Policy Makers and figures had already been through two rounds of government and expert review and over the course of the approval plenary further detailed discussions took place.

While each line of the Summary for Policy Makers must be approved individually in the plenary session, at the request of the chairs of the session complex or contentious issues may be moved to ‘contact groups’ or ‘huddles’ for detailed discussion. Contact groups are formal sessions chaired by representatives of two government delegations, while huddles are less formal and are not formally chaired. These procedures help facilitate the approval process by permitting complex issues to be discussed in depth, while also allowing the plenary session to move onto the next part of the text.

As an IPCC Technical Support Unit member, I spent most of the approval session involved in contact groups or huddles regarding the Summary for Policy Makers figures. Figures present a unique set of challenges to approval since live editing of graphics is not possible and changes that are agreed at the approval session can take a long time to implement. Many of the contact group sessions lasted for over eight hours and towards the end of the week late night sessions were required to get over the finish line. I was immensely impressed by the attention to detail of the government delegates and the hard work of the authors in this process. The outcome was a Summary for Policy Makers which clearly highlights the increasing challenges faced by the land system, and also the potential land has to contribute to climate change mitigation. Importantly the Summary for Policy Makers had a very strong focus on the response options which are available to tackle these challenges.

By Dr Eamon Haughey
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin and Senior Scientist in the Technical Support Unit to Working Group 3 of the IPCC.
 

Interview with Dr Eamon Haughey

What is your area of research expertise and where are you based?
My research is focused on interactions between climate and agro-ecological systems. I am particularly interested in the effects of precipitation extremes on the functioning of agricultural grasslands and tropical agroforestry systems.

What do you think is the single most pressing environmental issue facing Ireland?
Dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and developing a national land use plan which maximises the contribution of land to climate change mitigation in a sustainable manner. This needs to be addressed while also considering the conservation of biodiversity and the economic viability of rural communities.

In your opinion what are some of the most compelling solutions to this issue?
In agriculture, which dominates land use in Ireland, I believe there are options to improve sustainability and climate change mitigation through diversification of farming systems. Diversification can also have co-benefits for farm incomes through increased resilience, and for wider rural community development.

What advice do you have for individuals to tackle this environmental issue?
As consumers we can choose to purchase food which is produced in a sustainable manner with low carbon footprint and which supports local producers. We can also demand more information regarding the carbon footprint of the food we eat and use this information to make better informed choices. 

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