12 April 2022

No time for half measures: A security perspective on the new IPCC report on mitigation

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III (WGIII) on Mitigation released its contribution to the Sixth Assessment Cycle (AR6) on April 4 after the longest approval plenary in the IPCC’s history. The top-line takeaway from the third and final report of AR6 is that global emissions must peak by 2025 if the world is to avoid global warming over 2°C this century. “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said IPCC WGIII co-chair Jim Skea, calling for immediate and deep emission reductions to avoid intensifying climate risks.

The IPCC report comes at a moment in time where fossil fuel dependency is seen as a direct threat to security in the West. Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many states have realized the risks of relying on imported fossil fuels. While this has inspired plans to increase investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, it has also caused a run on non-Russian fossil fuels and provoked calls for greater fossil fuel extraction in the near-term. The divergent effects of the crisis on carbon emissions demonstrate how conflict may present a risk to states’ continued commitments towards the mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Additionally, successful lobbying by government representatives—especially those from Saudi Arabia—during the IPCC approval process caused the removal of language on phasing out fossil fuel production from the Summary for Policymakers (SPM), further underscoring the difficulty of multilateral climate action.

Using Existing Tools

The WGIII report picks up where Working Group II left off—moving from the adaptation needed to protect against the climate impacts already experienced globally, to the mitigation actions and tools available now to prevent catastrophic warming. The report notes that without strengthening the existing policies which were implemented by the end of 2020, GHG emissions will rise beyond 2025, causing a median global warming of 3.2°C by 2100 (SPM Section C.1), which will “pose significant and evolving threats to global security environments, infrastructure, and institutions,” as the National Security, Military, and Intelligence Panel on Climate Change warned in 2020. In order to avoid many of those impacts, “rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emission reductions in all sectors” will be required to limit warming to 1.5 or 2°C (SPM C.3).

The WGIII report is colloquially known as the “solutions report,” and outlines many avenues for action. As Working Group III vice chair, Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, said, “There are options available now in every sector that can at least halve emissions by 2030.” Indeed, the report shows that the cost of low-emission technologies has continuously decreased since 2010, supported by policy packages (SPM B.4).

The energy sector requires the most immediate and transformative change in order to draw down emissions, but it is also where much of the technology already exists—solar and wind energy are now more available and cost effective than ever (SPM C.4). The successful transformation of the energy sector will make it easier for the other sectors the report examines, industry, transport, buildings, and agriculture, to decarbonize (SPM C.1-10).

The Link Between Mitigation and Security

WGIII also highlights the increasingly adverse effects of climate change on global health and livelihoods, as well as ecosystem health and biodiversity (SPM D.1.1). To maximize synergies and avoid trade-offs between climate action and sustainable development, policy design is crucial (SPM D.1.2). Herein, the report emphasizes the challenges for developing countries, vulnerable populations, and Indigenous Peoples and the corresponding need for accelerated, equitable, and inclusive climate action.

The impacts of mitigation efforts on “employment, water use, land use competition, as well as access to, and the affordability of, energy, food, and water” (SPM D.1.5) are interconnected with the security sphere. The “strong link between sustainable development, vulnerability and climate risks” (SPM D.2) calls for careful consideration of the complex linkages between mitigation and conflict. Thus, integrated policy implementation, which may protect existing sustainable land uses and land rights, is necessary. It is equally important that policies are coordinated and cross-sectoral, combining mitigation and adaptation efforts and avoiding tensions that may have ripple effects on security (SPM D.2). For example, some mitigation efforts, such as afforestation of naturally unforested land, could lead to competition over scarce resources, reduce adaptive capacity, and increase security risks (SPM D.2.3).

To achieve net-zero, the report also states that Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) must be used to counterbalance remaining emissions (SPM C.11). Upscaling CDR interventions, such as reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, and peatland restoration, relies on further development to make them more feasible and sustainable, especially at a large scale. It is crucial that policymakers prevent poor implementation of CDR measures by keeping their socio-economic and environmental impacts in mind. For example, biomass crops production for energy can risk food and water security and may cause wider societal tensions (SPM C.11.2) .

While climate change impacts security, the security sector itself also contributes to the problem. Though not explicitly mentioned in the report, global military activities account for an estimated 6% of total carbon emissions. Thus, the defense sector has the opportunity to lead by example and play a larger role in achieving net-zero. For instance, as an industry with great buying power in the technology sector, defense ministries can catalyze early market demand for clean energy solutions. Engaging in emissions reduction and technology creation will provide multiple benefits as it increases force readiness, resilience, and prevents some of the crises to which militaries may be asked to respond if warming continues unabated.

Accelerated and Equitable Mitigation as a Way Forward

Mitigation, if implemented well, is a powerful tool to halt global emissions, boost sustainable development, and increase societies’ and ecosystems’ climate-resilience. Effective climate action—both in mitigation of current emissions and adaptation against the worst climate-related impacts—needs to occur across sectors, scales and actors, including vulnerable groups, in order to adequately address the security risks posed by a warming climate (SPM E.3.2).

Last month’s IPCC WGII report on Adaptation, Impacts and Vulnerability clearly stated the dire effects of global warming above 1.5°C on human and natural systems’ security. Unfortunately, the measures specified in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) set before COP26 in 2021 are not enough to limit warming below 1.5°C (SPM B.6). Accelerated global action is absolutely vital and, as this report shows, possible. International cooperation will continue to be a “critical enabler” in achieving these climate change mitigation goals (SPM E.6).

“Half measures will not halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030,” said Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme. If we are to halt global warming and prevent future climate-related security risks, states should embrace the framework of strategies laid out by WGIII as they approach COP27 in November.


By Sofie Bliemel and Brigitte Hugh


Photo credit: @publicpowerorg/unsplash