IPCC: Window to avert catastrophic climate change is quickly closing

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Monday released its latest report, which found that nations are falling short of their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avert catastrophic climate change. While the technology exists to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) of average global temperature increase — the goal that virtually every nation agreed to in the 2015 Paris climate agreement and reaffirmed last year in the Glasgow Climate Pact — current policies put the world on a trajectory toward at least twice as much warming.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called the report’s conclusion “damning.” The Working Group III report marks the end of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment, with strong words for countries that have failed to act on climate change.

“The jury has reached a verdict. And it is damning,” Guterres said in a statement. “This report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame, cataloging the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”

The IPCC report included 278 authors from 65 countries reviewing over 18,000 scientific papers.

Smoke billows from several massive chimneys at a coal-fired power station.
Smoke billows from the chimneys at the coal-fired Lethabo power station in Vereeniging, South Africa, in 2018. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

According to their findings, to meet the 1.5°C target, global greenhouse gas emissions have to start dropping in 2025 and go down 43% from current levels by 2030 — and 84% by 2050. Achieving that requires ambitious actions from large emitters such as the United States, the European Union and China in the next few years. Waiting longer, the scientific consortium warned, will mean economic losses from the impacts of climate change such as drought, wildfires and sea level rise. Even limiting warming to 2°C (3.6°F) would require peaking emissions by 2025 and cutting them by roughly one-quarter by 2030.

Without a dramatic shift in policy, Guterres warned, “We are on a fast track to climate disaster: Major cities under water. Unprecedented heatwaves. Terrifying storms. Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals.”

The closest the IPCC came to sharing good news was revealing that the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change are growing more slowly than in the past, thanks to increased energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies — particularly battery storage that is essential to widespread reliance on wind and solar energy. Global emissions are at their highest level in history: 54% higher than in 1990, and 12% higher than they were in 2010. Emissions growth slowed from 2.1% per year in the 2000s to 1.3% annually in the 2010s.

The pathway to averting catastrophe is now clear and technologically feasible: Rapidly redesign the power sector to rely on renewable energy, switch transportation and heating to electric systems, and capture the carbon dioxide from the smokestack in the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors such as cement and steel production. For the situations where that is infeasible, such as air travel, carbon emissions can be offset with the emerging technology of actually removing carbon from the atmosphere.

A freeway packed with cars and trucks traveling in both directions.
Traffic on Interstate 80 in Berkeley, Calif., on Feb. 16. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A key problem is that energy utilities, car manufacturers, airlines, steel producers and other industries have no financial incentive to act without governments offering rewards or penalties to encourage participation.

“Does the technology exist so that you could pull this off? The answer is yeah, it does,” Jae Edmonds, chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute and a co-author of the IPCC report, told Yahoo News. “Do we have the policies and measures that have put us on track to get to net-zero [emissions] by a 2050 time frame? Not yet.”

Edmonds likened the current approach taken in Paris and Glasgow to reducing emissions as “the church model: We’re gonna fund this by passing the collection plate around and we’re gonna take up a collection of emissions mitigation and see where that gets us. And even if everyone were to complete their nationally determined contribution, ... it doesn’t look like that’s going to be enough.”

Just operating the existing fossil fuel infrastructure — the oil and gas wells and pipelines, the coal mines and the coal- or gas-fired power plants for the rest of their natural lives — puts 1.5°C out of reach. And if every currently planned fossil fuel project is completed, it would only guarantee that the world warms more than 2°C. To stay below 1.5°C, the use of coal must be virtually eliminated by 2050, according to the IPCC, and oil use must decrease by at least 60% and gas by 45%.

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment in 2014 predated two notable shifts that were central to the latest report: the increasingly universal agreement in the scientific community that 1.5°C is the threshold for triggering devastating and irreversible effects of climate change, and the increasing prevalence and awareness of methane emissions. Methane is a long-overlooked but powerful greenhouse gas, and emissions of it are rapidly rising as natural gas displaces coal and demand for meat grows. (Methane is emitted when natural gas leaks instead of being burned, and it is a byproduct of the digestive process of farm animals.) The IPCC states that fast, deep cuts to methane emissions are essential to getting warming mitigation on target.

Cows stand and lie in pens.
Livestock outside Bakersfield, Calif., in 2021. (Citizen of the Planet/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

To stay below 1.5°C, carbon dioxide emissions must fall by 48% by 2030 and by 80% by 2040; methane emissions must fall by 34% by 2030 and 44% by 2040.

The IPCC is more bullish on wind and solar energy than on other low-carbon energy technology such as nuclear energy and hydropower, noting that costs have come down faster in the wind and solar industries. “From 2010–2019, there have been sustained decreases in the unit costs of solar energy (85%), wind energy (55%), and lithium-ion batteries (85%),” the IPCC report notes. (Lithium-ion batteries are needed for electric vehicles.)

Special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry hailed the IPCC report as a call to action. “The stakes are clear,” Kerry said in a statement. “Complacency will be met by irreversible and unthinkable impacts from climate change. Every country must move further and faster. Faster means rapidly upscaling deployment of renewable energy. Faster means targeting methane emissions. Faster means reducing demand and focusing on efficiency. Faster means halting and reversing global deforestation. Faster means demanding more sustainable transit.

“The IPCC report is a reminder that mitigation is not about cost,” Kerry argued. “It is about investment — in our future, our children’s future, and our planet’s future.”

“This report tells us we are not doing enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” said United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen at a press conference on Monday morning. “The solution has to be to kick-start the transition to renewable and cleaner sources of energy. Increased action must begin this year, not next year, this month, not next month, not tomorrow. Otherwise, we will continue, as the secretary-general warned, to sleepwalk into catastrophe.”


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