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IPCC report cautions on BECCS, NBS, inflexible power sources
Nations and companies pursuing net-zero goals must be careful when they turn to "holy grail" decarbonizing tools like hydropower, nature-based solutions (NBS), and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
The warning came in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report released On 28 February, and it presented a picture of "potentially irreversible" climate change.
Both the US and the EU, which have pledged to reach net-zero by 2050, acknowledged the urgency of the situation presented IPCC report. "The IPCC report underscores the ways climate impacts are affecting lives and livelihoods globally now," said the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement.
The Sixth Assessment came from Working Group II, and it's the second of three reports to come after COP26 in November. Its key finding is that there are limits to how humans can adapt to damage done by a hotter and wetter climate.
Evidence of limits on what can be saved is strongest for small island states but also cities, food and water systems in South America, as well as coasts in North America and Africa, a chart within the IPCC report shows.
Even so, adaptation is needed now, and steps must be taken soon. "The evidence shows that taking action now to ensure all [net-zero] infrastructure is designed to be resilient to future climate from the outset is more cost-effective and efficient than retrofitting it later," Richard Dawson, a Newcastle University professor and member of the working group authoring the report, told Net-Zero Business Daily by S&P Global Commodity Insights.
Not only existing infrastructure, but also net-zero infrastructure requires adaptation. "If we manage to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, there will still be increased risk to society and infrastructure installed to achieve net-zero," added Dawson.
Mitigation finance so far has dwarfed adaptation finance, for example in national net-zero plans, partly because mitigation is cheaper than adaptation.
Need for decentralized power
Using renewable energy, specifically decentralized generation such as wind, solar, and small-scale hydropower can reduce cities' vulnerabilities to climate change by adding more diverse power sources, the report found.
But at about 2 degrees Celsius global warming, snowmelt water availability decline and global glacier mass loss would diminish water availability for hydropower, the IPCC's report warned.
More energy sources should be combined with measures that add flexibility. For example, energy storage, energy efficiency, and smart-grid technologies. Countries need "robust" networks and systems to enable rapid response to outages.
Governments need to restructure energy markets and update equipment design standards to encourage adapting power plants for climate change, the report added.
Global Wind Energy Council CEO Ben Backwell warned that because the report is only published every 6-7 years, this would be "last call to action to all policymakers to strengthen climate ambitions" and that "near-term actions to cut emissions," for example deploying renewable energy, were the only real solutions.
A digitized power sector should work with the sectors that rely on it to prevent blackouts from leading to a humanitarian catastrophe. "Cascading failures have been observed around the world as loss of power or [internet] can lead to knock-on disruption to other key services such as lighting, heat, water, and sanitation," Dawson said.
BECCs, bioenergy, NBS risk being "maladaptive"
The report warned that net-zero infrastructure that is either wrongly implemented or inflexible will be costly to change and could do harm.
One technology seen as crucial for helping to attain needed global emissions cuts is BECCs, or the burning of carbon-absorbing biomass while capturing its emissions to attain negative emissions overall.
The report's authors noted that BECCS would be necessary to attain Paris Agreement goals, but BECCS has to be done carefully to avoid taking up cropland needed to grow food and habitats for animal species, for example, birds.
"BECCS is an integral part of all widely accepted pathways to holding global temperature rise to 1.5°C. This requires large areas of land which can conflict with the need to produce food and 30 protect biodiversity," the report stated.
Supporting the need for care with BECCS, a report released this month by academic body, the European Academies' Science Advisory Council said "the science does not support launching into the conversion of existing large-scale forest biomass power stations to BECCS" but instead power plants using local feedstocks such as grass or waste.
IPCC's warnings extended to NBS, for example the planting of trees practiced by many energy companies with net-zero targets.
The report supported reforestation of formerly forested areas, for example in urban areas in some cases. But it warned in other cases planting trees may lead to climate change because draining land for afforestation can cause an overall increase in GHGs and warmth.
It recommended not planting trees in open grasslands, densely wooded savannas, peatland, and shrubland, but restoring existing forests and ecosystems instead.
building structures like seawalls is generally more costly than nature-based coastal adaptations—and it comes with its own risks and negatives as well.
Experts agreed on the need to shift to of shifting from infrastructure like seawalls to early warning systems and NBS like beach and shore nourishment, although whether it noted that the idea this alone could provide a solution to climate change was a "misunderstanding."
While effective in the short term, such solutions can increase exposure to climate risks in the long term unless they are integrated into a long-term adaptive plan, the report found. For this reason, city development plans should be taking adaptation into account today.
The report references a study examining the consequences of a Spanish government irrigation project
intended to adapt farms to climate change that inadvertently made small-scale producers more vulnerable to climate change because they sold their land to the project.
Other adaptation options include managed migration, but the report noted "important uncertainties [remain] as international regimes develop around human rights, migration, displacement and the implications for the national sovereignty of disappearing land spaces caused by climate change."
This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.
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