It’s crunch time if we want to avoid climate catastrophe: The latest trilogy of reports by UN climate scientists have handed the world the starkest message yet about what we’re going to have to do to avoid climate breakdown. In the final installment released earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that global emissions would have to fall by 43% by the end of the decade if we are to keep global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5°C.
And it’s actually worse than the report lets on: In order to achieve that 2030 target, the report says that emissions would need to peak “before 2025 at the latest.” But in the weeks since its release, scientists have gone on record saying that language used in the report has been misinterpreted by global media and that emissions need to be reduced immediately.
Why didn’t the report say this? Scientists tell the BBC that it was a mixture of rigid climate models and the influence of politics. "The headline statement couldn't say emissions should have peaked already, as governments and scientists need to agree on messaging that is scientifically accurate without being policy prescriptive," one scientist told the broadcaster.
This week: In the final installment of a two-part series on the latest IPCC reports, we cover the third and final report, which looks at what we’re going to need to do to mitigate climate change. Read our coverage of the second report here.
Emissions are still rising: Greenhouse gas emissions rose about 12% during the previous decade, reaching their highest level on record. Data estimates that the world produced some 59 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019, up from 52.5 gigatonnes in 2010. The annual average through the decade was around 56 gigatonnes, up almost 20% from the average between 2000 and 2009. Emissions rose across key areas of the global economy including industry, transport, agriculture, and energy, which accounted for more than a third of total emissions.
The good (ish) news: Global emissions growth has slowed. The annual growth rate of emissions fell to 1.3% in 2010-2019, down from 2.1% in the previous decade, including in energy and industry which both saw marked slowdowns.
Only a few countries have shown sustained emission reductions: At least 18 countries have been reducing emissions for at least 10 years, with some seeing production-based emissions fall by a third or more since peaking.
Our energy sources will have to dramatically change to address that: Limiting our warming to that 1.5°C threshold will require the global use of coal, oil and gas in 2050 by some 95%, 60% and 45%, respectively, compared to 2019 levels—and that’s assuming we have some carbon capture and storage capabilities. Without carbon capture technologies — over which remain serious question marks — the cuts will need to be even deeper, requiring coal use to be completely abandoned by the middle of the century along with a 70% reduction in gas consumption, and a 60% cut to oil use.
The thing is, the current agreements don’t go far enough: The coal agreement signed last year at COP26 that was hailed as a “historic step” is unlikely to be enough to limit temperatures to 1.5°C according to the report’s findings. Just 65 countries have agreed to phase out coal usage under the agreement, which sees advanced economies fully transition away from the fuel during the 2030s and other countries by the following decade.
And the oil and gas industry is showing no signs of slowdown, especially as western governments look to transition away from Russian hydrocarbons. Since the final IPCC report came out this month, three major new oil and gas projects have been approved, including by the UK and Canadian governments.
This is going to mean stranded assets and oil being left in the ground: To limit warming to 2°C, we would need to turn our backs on some USD 1-4 tn in unburned fossil fuels and stranded assets. Keeping to the 1.5°C target will mean higher costs. In this scenario, coal assets could be stranded before the end of the currency decade and oil and gas assets by 2050.
And it’s going to cost a lot: Reducing emissions to at least half of 2019 levels by the end of the current decade will cost some USD 100 tn, according to the report.
Luckily, renewable energy has become a much cheaper alternative in recent years: The cost of solar energy has gone down some 85% between 2010-2019, while wind energy and lithium ion batteries have seen cost reductions of some 55% and 75% over the same period. Despite varying widely across regions, solar deployment has on average grown over 10x during this period and electric vehicle adoption over 100x. Improved battery technology could assist in bringing heavy duty trucks and electric rail systems more widely into the mix.
Tech advancement could also help: The report listed sensors, the Internet of Things, robotics, and AI as potential means by which energy management and efficiency could be improved in the coming years. It is also possible that these advancements might have the opposite effect and instead spur demand for more harmful goods and services, create more electronic waste and widen the digital divide, the report admits. “Digital technology supports decarbonisation only if appropriately governed,” the report says.
The transition’s impact on global growth will be relatively small: Global GDP is expected to double between 2020 and 2050 and capping warming at 2°C would only cut back on 1.3-2.7% of GDP of that figure. This will be more than made up for by the economic benefits of preventing further global warming, the IPCC believes.
There is enough money to finance the shift — accessing it is the issue: “There is sufficient global capital and liquidity to close global investment gaps … but there are barriers to redirect capital to climate action,” the report says. A lack of investment incentives, a misunderstanding of climate risk and limitations on institutional capacities are all holding back more capital from funding climate mitigation, as are high sovereign debt levels, the lack of financial resources in developing countries and weak regulatory environments.
But we still need a lot more of it flowing into this transformation: Limiting warming to 1.5 – 2°C will require investments three to six times the current USD 600 bn spent annually by governments around the world, the report says. And while total financial flows for climate mitigation and adaptation increased by some 60% between 2013/14 and 2019/20, growth has slowed since 2018 and public and private financing of fossil fuels remain greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation.
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