The IPCC’s latest report shows we have the tools to make fast cuts in emissions – all that’s missing is the political will
5 April 2022
The message is very clear. In three instalments, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has told us that humans are “unequivocally” to blame for rising temperatures, we are outstripping our ability to adapt and, on 4 April, that we can fix this crisis. The fix requires us to ensure that global greenhouse gas emissions peak in three years and are cut by 43 per cent by 2030. Achieve that, and we have a 50 per cent chance of staying under 1.5°C of global warming, the threshold for when climate impacts become far more damaging.
Yet, as the IPCC itself points out, without stronger policies from governments, global emissions are projected to keep rising beyond 2025. The current trajectory is for a planet that has warmed by a hellish 3.2°C. So what reasons are there to think the world can land at 1.5°C instead?
There is no good historical precedent for such rapid and deep emissions reductions. Global emissions were just under 60 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2019, after factoring in everything from fossil fuel burning to land use changes such as forests cleared for farms.
Emissions have grown despite years of UN climate talks and swift deployment of renewable energy projects. The rate has slowed, though: average annual growth was 1.3 per cent between 2010 and 2019; it was 2.1 per cent in the decade before. Yet reaching a plateau remains elusive. Covid-19 restrictions delivered a record fall in fossil fuel emissions in 2020, but a coal-fuelled rebound in 2021 wiped out those savings. Emissions are expected to rise this year too.
The world missed a chance to restructure its energy and transport systems with pandemic stimulus packages. The current energy crisis, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, presents another possible inflection point.
Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC’s working group III, which produced this week’s report, says scientists are conscious that getting emissions to peak by 2025 and almost halve by 2030 represents a “big change of direction”. However, he adds: “What the report absolutely makes clear is that we’re not talking about business as usual if we are going to address the challenge of climate change. So we don’t look at the immediate past and say we expect that pattern to continue.”
The report offers a bounty of ways to avoid business continuing as usual for emissions. Wind and solar power have the greatest potential when it comes to making cuts, with nuclear offering a much smaller supporting role. Meanwhile, we must switch from fossil fuels to electrification to heat buildings and power cars, scale up alternative fuels including hydrogen, improve energy efficiency and implement carbon capture and storage in sectors such as heavy industry.
Reducing emissions isn’t just about technological fixes. “Demand-side strategies” – behaviour changes such as switching to more plant-based diets and flying less – could cut emissions by between 40 and 70 per cent in all sectors by 2050. Among the 60 actions that individuals could take to curb consumption, walking and cycling are identified as offering the biggest potential emissions reduction.
The IPCC also hints that the richest in society could deliver the biggest emissions cuts, if people curbed their consumption of goods and services. The 10 per cent of households worldwide with the highest per capita emissions are responsible for 45 per cent of all consumption-based household emissions.
The good news is that in a world where money talks, many of the measures needed are cheaper than the cost of not acting. Both the main types of solar power, plus onshore and offshore wind power, are already at costs that compete with fossil fuels in many places, says the report. The prices of key technologies have plummeted, such as the cost per kilowatt-hour for lithium-ion batteries falling by 85 per cent between 2010 and 2019.
The IPCC makes clear that there is still technically a path to the safer haven of a 1.5°C world. But there is little sign of the political will to embark on that trail. Last year, 196 countries promised to “revisit and strengthen” their national climate plans in 2022. To date, none has. Scientists are usually reluctant to say when the totemic 1.5°C target will be out of reach. But Skea admits that it will be “gone” if more ambitious plans don’t arrive before the next UN climate summit, in Egypt this November.
Time is almost up. Skea insists that making sure emissions peak within three years is still feasible, but as he tells New Scientist: “The longer we put off action, in terms of addressing climate change, the bigger the feasibility challenges will be.”
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