It’s Time To Prioritise Sea Level Rise

By Debra Tan 20 October, 2020

CWR’s Tan gives three reasons why switch you from “complacent mode” to poring all over SLR impacts and risks now

Grim news from emission accelerants (loss of Arctic sea ice & permafrost thaw) to accelerated impacts (ice sheet & glacier melt); 2°C of warming will trigger 'irreversible disintegration' of Antarctica & 2.5m of SLR
IPCC has a conservative bias that impedes risk management & adaptation planning; key ice sheet say high-end SLR estimates can be 2-3x IPCC; reaching 1.5C 70 years in advance will no doubt bring forward impacts
NGFS has started to assess climate risks but chronic risks from SLR have yet to be factored in. This blank slate is worrying given grim polar news + multi-metre SLR + APAC vulnerability due to coastal capitals

It’s pretty difficult for me to get more depressed with climate news as I’m usually the purveyor of doom and gloom statistics. But this year, the slew of grim research observations coming out from our poles has depressed me. It has really driven home the fact that “things are really bad” and that we really don’t have much time left to get it right.

There is much bad news on the climate front but I will focus on just sea level rise – the theme of the month. Sea level rise or SLR (no not an expensive camera) is arguably one of the most well-known impacts of climate change. Everyone knows that seas will rise and islands will be impacted, the Maldives and large parts of Bangladesh as well as Florida will vanish, swallowed up by our seas.

APAC is particularly vulnerable as capitals & key cities are coastal…

…even HK is not immune despite being hilly

The Asia Pacific region is particularly vulnerable to rising seas. Many of our country capitals, key cities, towns as well as villages are coastal. Think about it … Japan, New Zealand and Australia are a cluster of islands as are Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea have long stretches of coastlines. And yes, even Hong Kong is not immune despite being hilly. You get the picture…

So why is it not THE topic of conversation at the moment?

It’s because we have been lulled into a false sense of security. We think it’s far away in the future plus the numbers are low and keep changing. But it is not, it’s sooner than you think.

Here are three reasons why it’s time to rethink our attitudes towards rising seas:

1. Grim, grim & grim research observations

Bad news is leaking out of the Arctic and Antarctica. Our oceans and atmosphere are warming faster than we think in these regions, leading to accelerated melt of ice sheets as well has thermal expansion of our oceans – both these are accelerating SLR. We will cover these in detail in the reports we will release next month, but think of it as the sum of two bad parts – emission accelerants and the accelerated impacts.

Emission accelerants

Average temperatures in the Arctic Ocean will increase by 12°C to 28°C; on land, temperatures will rise by 5°C to 12°C by 2100. This will lead to an ice-free Arctic around a quarter of the year which will speed up the loss of the ability of Arctic ice to cool the planet by reflecting back the sun’s rays which will now be absorbed by the dark ocean. Too far-fetched – well, this summer, there were reports of a new record high in the Arctic 38°C.

Permafrost thaw can add 40-50GtCO2e of emissions by 2100; this is not in IPCC’s carbon budget

Siberian wildfires that have been burning last year and again this year do not help. They accelerate permafrost thaw which in itself could add 40-50GtCO2e of emissions by 2100 – BTW this is a conservative estimate. For perspective, our GHG emissions were 55.3GtGO2e last year.

Our IPCC carbon budgets do not factor this in at the moment. With countries struggling to rein in emissions, it is hard to see how we can accommodate for this release without taken serious measures to literally sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.

The accelerated impacts

Collapses or breakaway of ice shelves are happening sooner than we think.

2°C of warming triggers “irreversible disintegration” of Antarctica ice sheets leading to SLR of 2.5m

In September, a large chunk of ice broke away from Greenland’s largest remaining ice shelf. Warm water was also discovered under the Thwaites Glacier, part of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (WAIS) earlier this year. This warm water plus warmer weather will likely speed up melt and the collapse of the ice sheet.

Scientists warn of an “irreversible disintegration” causing SLR of 2.5m from Antarctica even if at 2°C of warming. The entire WAIS holds 3-4m of SLR.

Yes, impacts could be dire, especially if emission accelerants (the loss of reflective sea-ice and permafrost thaw) are not stopped/slowed down. It’s time to get on top of SLR – we cover this in 8 things you must know about SLR in the upcoming CWR Climate Capital Threat Series.

2. Don’t just use IPCC SLR estimates, be FOMO – find out what SLR experts say

According to the IPCC, the worst-case high-end SLR estimate was 1.1m back in 1990 in its first assessment report. Fast forward to 2007, it was revised down to 0.59m in 2007, in its fourth assessment report (AR4) and then back up to 0.98m in 2014 in its fifth report (AR5); and finally 1.1m in the latest IPCC special report in 2019. It appears that the projections are all over the place – so what’s real?

Also, when tide changes are 2m-2.5m and storm surges are already 3m+ around the world, 1m or so of SLR sounds relatively tame… plus we have 80 years to adapt for it right? And so we put SLR to the back of the to-do list – labeling it with “not a big deal” and “plenty of time to deal with this”.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security… SLR may be tail risks but they are chronic – they will affect the valuations of everything

But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security; this recent spate of grim news should definitely switch you from “complacent mode” to poring all over SLR impacts and risks.

They may be tail risks but they are chronic, which means they just about affect the valuations of everything.

It is a big deal – SLR is worse than you think

Our own analysis plus reading through tons of research have led us to believe that there is an outlying chance that we will see multi-meter SLR by 2100. So is the IPCC wrong?

No, the IPCC is not wrong; it is very conservative. The IPCC wants to be as accurate as possible so will show consensus estimates in the “likely range” (66% percentile) rather than the “very likely” range (90% percentile). This means that a large chunk of estimates are “hidden” from the public. Sure, the very likely ranges are publicly available if you read the actual research referenced but who’s going to comb through those? Yeah, no one.

Survey of 100+ SLR experts showed consensus high-end SLR of 1.65m…

Clearly, this does not help in risk management and adaptation planning when the higher but plausible levels of SLR should be used. A survey released this year of over 100+ SLR experts showed that the high-end consensus of their very likely range was 1.65m.

BTW these experts each published a minimum of six papers on SLR between 2014 and 2018 so we figured they must be in the know – here, we were lucky to have talked to one of the authors of the expert survey, Nicole Khan – see what she says about this here.

…high-end estimates of plausible SLR ranges could be 2-3x IPCC’s

Experts warn that using IPCC’s numbers to plan adaptation “may be misleading & will lead to a poor evaluation of true risks”

Worse still, there are some ice sheet experts who believe that the high-end estimates of plausible SLR ranges could be double to triple that of the IPCC’s. In the last decade (2019-2018) there were on average 527 papers published every year with the words “sea level rise” in the title; and recent papers even come with warnings of using the IPCC numbers to plan adaptation – “may be misleading and will lead to a poor evaluation of true risks” and that they have “a conservative bias that could potentially impede risk management”.

Multimeter SLR could happen sooner than we thought

We failed – we will likely reach 1.5°C by 2030 – this is 70 years in advance of 2100… no doubt impacts are also brought forward

Our aim was to limit our planet to 1.5°C of warming by 2100. We failed – we will now likely reach this by 2030 – this is 70 years in advance. Impacts are also thus brought forward. This summer’s high of 38°C in the Arctic has led to headlines of “‘The kind of weather we expect by 2100, 80 years early’ says meteorologist”.

It’s happening people – by 2100, the likelihood of multimeter SLR cannot be ignored. We have to start planning to adapt to this future now. Especially when cities are also sinking, a common phenomenon in Asia due to bad planning and over-extraction of groundwater.

Bangkok’s sinking can bring forward SLR risks…

…if unabated SLR can be 1.94m by 2050; 3.9m by 2100

As Chanita Duangyiwa from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University warned – World Bank may have Bangkok sinking at a rate of 1.2mm-7.1mm per year but studies say the city could be sinking up to 25mm per year. Her own research points to high-end SLR of 1.94m by 2050 and 3.9m by 2100 if the subsidence is unabated – more on Bangkok flooding in our interview with her here.

Using a 1m or 2m+ SLR estimate makes a big difference to risk assessments as well as adaptation plans. Clearly 2m+ of SLR will bring about more risk and adapting will also be more costly, but if you are planning for 1m and 2m+ actually hits then too bad for you. Be prudent, don’t just use the plausible high estimate of SLR, also add a buffer, just in case.

Be prudent, use the plausible high estimate of SLR + add a buffer…

…governments (like HK) which rely on IPCC’s SLR estimates make no sense adaptation strategies

Governments which rely on IPCC’s SLR estimates to protect their cities may miss these and make no sense adaptation strategies like Hong Kong which is planning for coastal flooding of 0.26m.

Others with their own climate research centres are better informed – both Singapore and Shanghai are raising critical infrastructure by 5m or building sea walls of the same magnitude.

But wait, that was all just SLR – we haven’t even started on typhoons and storm surge risks. Clearly they are already damaging and will only get worse as storm magnitude/intensity is expected to rise. We speak to local experts on typhoons in Guangdong and the GBA, the Mekong River Delta and Tokyo Bay.

Worried now? You should be, we are far from ready but don’t worry you don’t have to wade through the science … we have unpacked the latest SLR research into a how-to guide to build base-case and worst-case SLR scenarios in the upcoming CWR Climate Capital Threat Series.

3. Assessing chronic SLR risks – still a blank slate for NGFS

The NGFS has been leading the global charge on pushing the financial sector to factor in climate risks. Last month it released its’ first report on Environmental Risk Analysis, led by Dr. Ma Jun. The report is an excellent easy-to-read guide of various valuation/ assessment methodologies carried out/piloted by the sector so far.

Latest NGFS ERA report does not have examples of chronic freshwater & SLR risks assessments…

…is the finanical sector lulled into a false sense of security?

But it falls short on the both freshwater and SLR fronts. Although these were classified as chronic risks in the report with the potential to impact the financial sector – there were no examples of assessments of such risks. Like Dr. Ma said in our interview with him earlier this year: “not everyone is on the same page – many financial institutions (FIs) are not yet well informed on the importance of the Environmental Risk Analysis

This blank slate is especially worrying given the grim news. It appears that the financial sector has been lulled into the “not a big deal” and “plenty of time to deal with this” false sense of security with regards to SLR. Reaching 1.5°C seventy years in advance means that we have to start recalibrating valuations for these chronic tail risks today.

Fear not, we have benchmarked SLR chronic tail risks for 20 APAC cities – reports will be out next month!

But how? Fear not, we have benchmarked the physical threats from SLR, storm surges and subsidence for 20 cities in APAC; and yes, we also benchmarked government adaptation action. The reports will be out next month – soon you can see which city is protecting their assets and which are not. So, if not already following us, sign up for our newsletters now.

Don’t let COVID-19 distract you. Yes, it did lower emissions but in the grand scheme of things, we will need a decade of COVID if we are to push out reaching 1.5C to 2100 instead of the new timeline of 2030. In April this year, record global CO2 concentrations were record at 416 parts per million, the highest since measurements began in in 1958. The last time we were at 400+ppm was in the Pliocene; sea levels were 25m higher – this too was in the IPCC report but no one has time to read it.

More On Sea Level Rise

  • Sea Level Rise – What The Science Tells Us – What’s the latest on sea level rise projections? HKU’s Dr. Nicole Khan shares key findings from her survey of 100+ sea level experts, as well as talks risks to Hong Kong and what we should take away from COVID-19
  • The Present & Future Flood Risks In Bangkok – The nature of flood risks in Bangkok are complex and there is yet to be any holistic plan or authoritative projections on SLR for Bangkok. Chulalongkorn University’s Dr. Chanita Duangyiwa breaks it down & looks ahead
  • Awareness Of Typhoon Risks In Mekong – Vietnam is already vulnerable to typhoons and climate change will increase the number and intensity of typhoons. Yet, awareness and preparedness among locals are inadequate. Dr. Le Tuan Anh & Dr. Hiroshi Tagaki unpack why
  • Typhoons And Storm Tides Risks In Guangdong – Already vulnerable Guangdong Province, accounts for 34.5% of typhoons landing on China, has to now also deal with increasingly unpredictable storm tides and escalating damage. SYSU’s Dr. Xiaohong Chen & Huiwen Bai expand
  • Rethinking Of Typhoon’s Randomness And The Impact On Economy – See why Dr. Hiroshi Takagi from Tokyo Tech believes typhoons have an unpredictable random nature and why we need to look and other factors and re-evaluate risks

Further Reading

  • The Future Of Finance – HKGFA’s Dr. Ma Jun believes in post-COVID times, investors & bankers should expect more emphasis on environmental disclosure by regulators, which will pave the way for higher quality green finance products
  • Thirsty And Underwater: Rising Risks In Greater Bay Area – How will water & climate risks, including rising sea levels & droughts, threaten the already water-stressed Greater Bay Area (GBA)? CWR’s Tan & Mirando explain in their latest CLSA report and highlight companies’ failure in climate risk disclosures
  • No-Sense Climate Strategies: From DSD To HSBC – Hong Kong’s shortsighted & unrealistic climate plans will leave key assets & infrastructure exposed that mean the government, companies, investors and the public are even more exposed. China Water Risk’s Dharisha Mirando & Debra Tan expand
  • Capital Threats Remain Post COVID – There is no vaccine for climate & water risks, yet some in the financial sector are still burying their heads. CWR’s Dharisho Mirando reminds us how our capital is at risk & steps we can take to reduce them while going green
  • Are Asia’s Savings Exposed To Water & Climate Risks? – Asian asset owners have portfolios skewed towards domestic markets that will bear the brunt of climate change. Find out about these risks and what to do as our Dharisha Mirando shares key takeaways from the new report China Water Risk co-authored with Manulife Asset Management & the Asia Investor Group on Climate Change
  • 8 Asia Water Risks: Here Today & Here To Stay In Asia – Damaging typhoons, life & business disrupting water outages and threatening sea level rise… China Water Risk review’s 8 water threats too great to miss in Asia from just the past 3 years
Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
Read more from Debra Tan →