The world can avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but emissions must peak by 2025, the UN’s climate science panel said Monday in a major new report.
” We are at the crossroads. The decisions we make now can ensure a viable future,” said Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Chair Hoesung Lee.
It was a familiar stark review of global progress in reducing emissions from the IPCC, which has been monitoring climate change since 1988. Despite the panel’s regular reports on the consequences of burning fossil fuels, between 1990 and 2019, global emissions increased by 54% and they are still rising.
This latest report looks at mitigation – or what the world can do to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is the third chapter of the IPCC’s gigantic Sixth Assessment Report, which is part of a series of studies that summarize the state of climate and planetary science and are published roughly every seven years.
While there is broad consensus on the science of climate change, the politics is not. The publication of the report was delayed thanks to a brutal fight over the wording of the summary – the part most easily understood by the media and the public – led by India and Saudi Arabia, according to a researcher.
Despite this scrap, the takeout remains constant – there is no hope of stopping global warming at the Paris Agreement limits of 1.5 or 2 degrees without a radical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse and electrifying many things that currently run on fossil fuels. This could mean that up to $4 trillion in coal, oil and gas infrastructure could become worthless by mid-century, the report says.
But it’s a tough argument to make as Europeans scramble to find new sources of oil and gas to end their dependence on Russia and the United States and others consider to increase their production to fill the gap.
“Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic folly,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres. “Such investments will soon be stranded assets – a blot on the landscape and a blight on investment portfolios.”
Here are five key messages from the final report.
1. The 1.5 degree shutdown will be decided in Beijing
Stopping warming at the Paris Agreement’s lower limit of 1.5 degrees is a pipe dream unless emissions peak within the next three years and fall nearly to half of 2019 levels by 2030 , the scientists said. Even 2 degrees becomes unlikely without a peak by 2025.
Although the report does not mention any country, China is responsible for almost a third of annual emissions and can do more than any other country to reach 1.5 degrees, according to several experts and diplomats consulted by POLITICO.
Currently, China’s emissions are expected to increase until “before 2030”. Its coal consumption is only expected to start falling after 2026.
The EU, US and UK have all pressured Beijing over the past year to commit to a firm mid-decade peak date. On Monday, US climate envoy John Kerry said countries “with targets that are not yet aligned on a 1.5 degree trajectory must increase their ambition”. China’s response has been that other big emitters like the EU and the US – which have huge past emissions but where pollution is declining – should do more, faster.
But China’s influence on emissions is so significant that it tends to dictate the trajectory. Between 2019 and 2021, total CO2 emissions from outside China fell by 570 million tons, but China’s emissions increased by 750 million tons and drove annual emissions to their highest level. never recorded in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency. An average Chinese citizen now produces more CO2 emissions than a European, although much less than an American.
But there is “no sign” that the Chinese government intends to change the country’s policy, said Byford Tsang, senior policy adviser at think tank E3G.
2. Capturing carbon is a must
Countries will also need to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to control global warming.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) – which encompasses methods ranging from natural processes like planting trees to technological solutions like direct air capture – is “inevitable” to reach net zero emissions, according to the authors. CO2 sequestration would offset “hard to reduce” emissions from sectors such as aviation or agriculture.
But CDR is not without side effects, scientists acknowledge, and the effectiveness and feasibility of existing methods vary widely. The only method currently deployed at scale – reforestation – is vulnerable to reversal, threatened by logging and wildfires, and could impact food production if trees replace crops.
Other methods, such as technology to suck carbon from the air or intervene in marine systems to increase the sequestration potential of the oceans, are less vulnerable to reversal and do not pose the same terrestrial problems, but most are in their infancy.
Some of these techniques would allow for the prolonged use of fossil fuels, which is why they are supported by industry and extractive countries, but the idea is strongly opposed by climate activists.
Even mentions in the report of “speculative technologies that prolong the use of fossil fuels” indicate that it was “water[ed] by governments in the final approval process, said Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law.
3. Failure to act means difficult choices in the future
Scientists have set the years in which the world must achieve net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases.
The IPCC has stated that 1.5 degrees requires achieving net zero CO2 by 2050-2055. But for all other greenhouse gases (which include methane, nitrogen oxides and fluorinated gases), he gave a startling range, indicating that if efforts accelerated rapidly in the next few years, they could continue to be emitted at low and decreasing levels until 2100, long after previous estimates.
If this change fails in the coming years, humanity will be faced with a choice: accept that warming stabilizes at a higher level, such as 1.6 or 1.7 degrees, or try to cool the planet by massive use of CDR. Neither option is good because both mean greater damage from floods, storms, fires, extreme heat and rising seas, the IPCC said in February.
“The choices before us are no longer ideal,” said Kristina Dahl, senior climatologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an NGO.
4. Governments must help people reduce their consumption
The world needs to reduce its overall energy consumption, which has the potential to “significantly” reduce emissions, the scientists write.
For governments, this means investing in technological solutions for more energy efficiency and infrastructure improvements to push people towards greener options – as well as the politically thorny task of getting people to change their habits, such as switching to a plant-based diet.
Scientists said action taken at the individual level could “rapidly” reduce emissions from the residential, commercial, industrial and transport sectors – which dominate global emissions. But they have placed the responsibility on governments to play their part in implementing policies that enable or push citizens towards choices that are good for the climate.
“A lot of people care,” said Linda Steg, author and climate change psychology expert at the University of Groningen. “Yet they may face barriers to action, which can be removed by actions, for example, by industry, business and governments.”
The authors describe a win-win situation – a world with insulated housing that helps people stay cool or warm and with compact cities requiring less commuting and more space on the streets for cycling and walking n It’s not only better for the planet, but also for human well-being. be, they write. It remains to be seen whether this argument will convince European governments – currently reluctant to ask their citizens to consume less fuel and energy even with a war on the side.
5. Batteries are the solution for clean vehicles
Scientists see electric vehicles as the best option for drastically reducing road emissions. Some car manufacturers continue to promote the merits of hydrogen and synthetic fuels, mainly because they will allow combustion engine models to continue to be sold. But the report makes it clear that these fuel options, currently limited on a commercial scale, are better suited to ships and planes where the weight of the batteries makes it difficult to switch to electric.
“Electric vehicles powered by low-emission electricity offer the greatest decarbonization potential for ground transportation,” the scientists agreed, adding that “electrification could play a niche role for aviation and transportation. by sea for short journeys”. on sales of new combustion engine cars and vans from 2035.
These goals are being helped by changes in transportation and working-from-home modes, as well as more efficient industrial supply chains and the gradual rollout of automated cars, the IPCC said.
Zack Colman contributed reporting.
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