Thirty months: that is the very short time the world now has for global greenhouse gas emissions to finally start to fall. If not, we will miss the chance to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
The conclusion of the world’s scientists, collated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and approved by all the world’s governments, says this reversal requires “immediate and deep” cuts in emissions everywhere.
The language of the third part of the IPCC’s report is less dramatic than the first two, which placed “unequivocal” blame on us for putting a “livable future” in grave peril. Rather than plainly stating the scale of the climate emergency, the new assessment spells out what needs to be done. Its text was therefore haggled over furiously by those states with much to lose.
But the conclusion is no less stark: a century of rising emissions must end before 2025 to keep global heating under 1.5C, beyond which severe impacts will increase further, hurting billions of people.
“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Prof Jim Skea, a co-chair of the report. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
The implication for the biggest culprit, fossil fuels, is clear: it’s over. The IPCC states that existing and currently planned fossil fuel projects are already more than the climate can handle. More projects will lock in even greater emissions and our journey to climate hell. The IPCC warns fossil fuel investors they are on track to lose trillions of dollars if governments act as they must.
Responding to the report, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, had a savage assessment of current political and corporate pledges of action: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying.”
“Increasing fossil fuel production will only make matters worse,” he said. “It is time to stop burning our planet, and start investing in the abundant renewable energy all around us.”
That is the good news in the new IPCC report. “We know what we need to do and we can do a lot of it already,” said Stephen Cornelius of WWF. “But every moment,every policy, every investment, every decision matters to avoid further climate chaos.”
The IPCC spells out the huge cost reductions over the last decade in solar and wind power and says that some countries already have electricity grids predominantly powered by renewables. It also strongly highlights the big potential impact from energy-efficient homes, walking and cycling, greener diets and less food waste. All these are popular with people, the IPCC notes.
“Having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behaviour can result in a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – significant untapped potential,” said Prof Priyadarshi Shukla, another IPCC co-chair. “The evidence also shows that these lifestyle changes can improve our health and wellbeing.”
Protecting and restoring nature can deliver both large-scale cuts in emissions by ending the razing of forests and large-scale removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through growing trees, the IPCC report says. But it warns this cannot compensate for any delay in cutting fossil fuel burning and must involve Indigenous peoples, who are the best guardians of wild places.
“With adequate funding, nature could provide up to one-third of cost-effective carbon cuts, as well as protecting and restoring the vital natural ecosystems that sustained life on earth, said Bronson Griscom, at Conservation International.
The cost of ending the climate crisis is small, the IPCC concludes. Global GDP is expected to double by 2050 and halving emissions by 2030, to keep on track for 1.5C, would shave 1-2% of that doubling. Taking into account the climate damages avoided and the savings in adapting to extreme weather, investing in emissions cuts saves money.
“We must be clear that decisive action on climate is not a ‘cost’; it is an investment, not just in our future, but in our survival. it would be the greatest cost-saving of human history,” said Steve Trent, at the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Nonetheless there are upfront costs and Prof Linda Steg, another IPCC co-chair, said: “Many governments are struggling with the question whether people would support changes. This report shows that public acceptability is higher when cost and benefits are distributed in a fair way.”
The most controversial part of the IPCC report is about technologies to bury fossil fuel emissions and suck CO2 from the air. The scientists are, at best, cautious about carbon capture and storage, which could extend the use of coal and gas in power stations: “Global rates of CCS deployment are far below those [needed].”
But they are clear it is “unavoidable” that some CO2 is going to have to be removed from the atmosphere to balance emissions from energy-intensive industries and aviation, which are hard to decarbonise. That could be growing trees, burning plants and trapping the emissions, or even turning CO2 into rock.
But the IPCC warns of dangers, such as biomass plantations pushing food crops aside. Green campaigners are resolutely against such technologies, fearing that polluters could use them as an excuse to continue their activities.
“There is no silver bullet for solving climate change but there is a smoking gun, and that’s fossil fuels,” said Nikki Reisch at the Center for International Environmental Law. “The focus must be on [cutting emissions], not purported techno-fixes, which are unproven at scale, pose significant risks to people and nature, and may simply not work to reduce emissions.”
The IPCC also emphasises the inequality of global heating and the need for climate justice. The Least Developed Countries (LDC), a grouping of 46 nations, have contributed less than 0.4% of emissions since 1850. The Small Island Developing States, 38 countries that face disappearing under rising seas, contributed 0.5%.
In contrast, the IPCC states that, globally, the 10% of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute 34-45% of global consumption-based emissions. North Americans have a CO2 footprint of nearly 20 tonnes a year, while people in Africa and South Asia are below five tonnes.
A net zero future can be achieved, the IPPC says, while bringing millions out of poverty, but the finance needed is missing: “Financial flows fall short of the levels needed to achieve [emission-cutting] goals across all sectors and regions.”
The issue of money will remain central in the UN climate negotiations, with the next summit in Egypt in November. The IPCC says climate investments need to be three to six times greater than they are today. “The limits [to beating climate change] are not scientific or technological but political and economic,” said Reisch.
“This report is a resounding call to action for governments,” said Madeleine Diouf Sarr, chair of the LDC group and the government of Senegal’s climate chief. “Ending the deadly addiction to fossil fuels and harnessing the full potential of cheap and abundant renewable energies is critical. We know the scale of the problem. We know the solution. This report provides a roadmap of how to get there. Let’s get on with it without delay.”