A major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the window for avoiding more than 1.5°C of global warming has almost closed, with immediate and drastic cuts the only way to stay below the target
4 April 2022
Rapid, deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions can still keep the world’s target of holding global warming to 1.5°C within reach, but humanity’s emissions must peak within just three years to avoid breaching the important limit, according to the latest research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In a flagship report on how countries can tackle the climate crisis, the IPCC laid bare that the window for staving off dangerous warming has shrunk drastically due to our past failures to act. It found that the world can afford to emit just 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from 2020 onwards for a 50 per cent chance of holding temperature rises to 1.5°C, a level on a par with the last decade of global emissions.
Scenarios modelling how societies can meet that tight “carbon budget” require emissions to peak by 2025, before falling 43 per cent by 2030 on 2019 levels. That would require a gargantuan political effort, given global emissions rose by a record 5.5 per cent in 2021, at a time when many governments are preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, while some are mulling extra oil and gas production.
Coal use must drop 95 per cent by 2050 on 2019 levels, oil by 60 per cent and gas 45 per cent to meet the 1.5°C goal, figures that Jan Christoph Minx, one of the authors of the report, says are “very striking”. Even meeting the Paris Agreement’s weaker target of 2°C would leave “a substantial amount of fossil fuels unburned” and render up to $4 trillion of fossil fuel infrastructure “stranded”. “We need to end the age of fossil fuels,” said Minx, speaking at a press briefing.
The report, Mitigation of Climate Change, makes clear that governments aren’t doing enough yet. Taking into account pledges up to 11 October 2021 – before last November’s COP26 climate summit – the world will “likely exceed” 1.5°C this century, a threshold considered vital for avoiding the most extreme effects. “It [the report] is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world,” UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
Yet the IPCC found reasons for hope. At least 18 countries have managed continued emissions cuts for more than a decade. The costs of key technologies for decarbonisation plummeted between 2010 and 2019: unit costs for solar energy fell by 85 per cent, wind energy by 55 per cent and lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars and energy storage by 85 per cent.
“Rapid and deep” emissions reductions will be needed across all sectors, using a mix of renewable energy, carbon capture and storage (CCS), lower energy demand, better energy efficiency and a huge ramp-up of ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, such as direct air capture machines, says the report. Deployment of CCS was found to be “far below” the amount modelled needed to reach climate goals.
For the first time, the IPCC considered the role of behavioural change on emissions reductions, such as shifting diets. It found that such measures could cut emissions by up to 70 per cent by 2050 in some sectors. “The way we move around, the way we eat, the way we generate energy, everything needs to change,” says Pete Smith, an IPCC author.
Despite claims in some quarters that cutting emissions will be too expensive, the IPCC said mitigation costs for meeting the 2°C target would be “small” compared with global GDP growth, putting it 1.3 to 2.7 per cent lower in 2050 than in a business-as-usual world.
Today’s document is the third of four reports by the IPCC that make up its “sixth assessment report”: the first was on the causes of climate change; the second on the impacts. The new report was signed off by governments after an approval session that saw the launch postponed by 6 hours.
The delay was due to Saudi Arabia’s requests around language on long-term fossil fuel use, India’s views on carbon budgets and future economic growth, and a row between the US and China over financing to act on climate change, delegates told New Scientist.
Alok Sharma, president of COP26, said today’s report should serve as a reminder to governments to deliver on their promises to deliver new and stronger national climate plans this year.
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