UN climate panel offers escape route from climate emergency

Solar installations on 340 hectares surround the village of Hjolderup west of Aabenraa, southern Denmark, 21 February 2023. The 300 MW solar park will be Northern Europe's largest and is being built by Danish European Energy. (Keystone/Scanpix_Dk/Mads Claus Rasmussen)

The IPCC’s latest report lays out a myriad of pathways to fight off climate change. It’ll be up to countries to decide which one they take.

The planet is already experiencing the catastrophic consequences of climate change and is headed for even worse as global temperatures continue to rise, according to the latest warning by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But while humans are the main culprits, they also have the tools to stop it.

Released on 20 March after being green-lighted by governments gathered in Interlaken last week, the document draws on thousands of scientific research papers on the changes to the Earth’s climate system, its impacts on humans and the natural world, and what can be done about it.

The 30-page summary crafted for policy-makers states that humans have “unequivocally” caused global temperatures to rise by 1.1ºC above pre-industrial levels. Fossil fuel use but also agriculture, forestry and lifestyle habits have contributed massively to greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise.

These changes to the Earth’s climate system are leading to droughts, floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather events, with vulnerable communities, which have contributed the least to climate change, bearing the brunt, according to the document. And with every inch of warming, the consequences are bound to worsen.

Despite painting a grim picture, the document, which has been dubbed a “survival guide for humanity” by the UN secretary-general António Guterres, also lays out several pathways countries can take to limit future impacts and cope with current ones.

Urgency to act

Observers have stressed that one of the key takeaways of the report is the urgency to act as the window of opportunity to stay in line with the Paris goal of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC shrinks.

“The world is in a very difficult situation. Urgency is increasing, but we do have the means to act meaningfully on climate change,” Frank Jozto, leading author of the report and professor of environmental economics and climate change economics at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, told Geneva Solutions.

“It is certainly no longer a question of waiting to understand things better or waiting for new technologies to be developed. This is a time to act.”

The report stresses that for a net-zero emissions scenario which would allow for a liveable future, “rapid and deep and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors this decade”.

This includes significantly reducing fossil fuel use and ramping up renewable or low-carbon energies.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is listed as a tool that could allow for fossil fuels to still be extracted but spew fewer carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The emerging technology has been strongly criticised by green campaigners who see it as a lifeline to the fossil fuel industry.

Jotzo said that CCS would play a “relatively minor role” in the wider picture of the transition to a low-carbon economy. Renewable energies, on the other hand, would be central.

“Renewable energy is really at the centre of those transitions with an adjunct role to technologies such as nuclear power and carbon capture and storage for fossil fuel,” said Jotzo.

According to the report, solar and wind energy are among the mitigation options that are becoming increasingly cost-effective and popular with the public, with costs for solar energy dropping from 2010 to 2019 by 85 per cent and for wind energy by 55 per cent.

“There has been tremendous progress in technology development and in particular, falling costs of clean energy technologies, renewable energy in particular,” said Jotzo.

“Seven years ago, we did not dream that we would have a large-scale deployment of electric cars in the year 2023, for example. We did not dare to hope that we would see solar and wind energy deployment rates anywhere near what we're seeing already.”

Sustainable land management, conservation, but also lifestyle changes are among the other solutions that the summary puts forward to mitigate future climate impacts.

“The ability to get to grips with the problem is greatly bigger now than it was just some years ago. And so that's a reason for great optimism.”

Roadblocks ahead

The IPCC’s reports offer governments solutions but it is ultimately up to authorities to take them on. While the report highlights that some progress has been made in terms of climate actions and plans, it suggests these are a drop in the ocean of the consequences that are already wreaking havoc and the ones that are to come. 

Plans to help communities cope with current climate impacts such as through urban greening, restoring wetlands and putting early warning systems in place, are fragmented and vary depending on the region.

One of the main challenges that persist is insufficient finance. Financial flows towards fossil fuels are greater than those towards mitigation and adaptation, according to the authors, with the latter falling to the bottom of the list.

The gathering in Interlaken was yet another reminder that governments are in the driving seat and their national interests are indicating what direction they go. Countries reportedly tried to downplay the role of fossil fuels in the summary last week.

Read more: Climate change report: states seeking to downplay climate crisis

“The question of the future role of fossil fuels was certainly challenged by some governments,” said Jotzo, noting that the language around fossil fuels in the summary came out as “circumspect” but in line with the underlying science.

“Everything that's in the report is correct. And everything that should reasonably be said is said in the report. When it comes to questions of whether a particular message is emphasised sufficiently well, that is in the eye of the beholder,” he added.

Another issue that the IPCC hasn’t taken into account is the ongoing war in Ukraine and its impacts on the global economy, energy markets and the diplomatic arena. On one hand, some countries concerned with energy security have slowed down their greening plans in some cases reverting to coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels. On the other, calls to accelerate the shift to renewables have intensified.

“I would expect when the next assessment cycle begins, four or five years down the track when the substantive assessments are being finalised, then what happened as a result of the Ukraine war is very likely still considered to have been very influential in how all of this pans out,” said Jotzo.

Countries are expected to meet in Dubai in December for the yearly round of climate negotiations, in which they will discuss how to address the climate crisis.