Reducing fossil fuels, shifting to renewables and changing our daily habits are the needed measures to meet the Paris goals, says UN climate panel.
Countries have eight years to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43 per cent compared to 2019 levels if they are to avoid a 1.5ºC overshoot, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said on Monday as it shared its latest findings.
The report is the third and final part of the panel’s flagship report, which has so far painted a bleak picture, revealing that humans have triggered unprecedented changes to the climate in thousands of years – some of them irreversible – and that millions of lives are threatened as a result.
The new document shows a glimmer of hope. While the world is already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change and current greenhouse gas emissions set us on a path towards more heating, it is still possible to rectify the trajectory.
While average annual GHG emissions reached record highs in the last decade, the rate at which they have grown has slowed down.
“There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective,” IPCC chair Hoesung Lee said in a statement. “If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”
Rein in fossil fuel dependency and boost renewables
The report concludes that the energy sector will need to undergo a major transition in order to keep climate change in check. Fossil fuels, which made up the majority of carbon emission growth in the last thirty years, will have to be significantly reduced.
This means closing down a share of the existing power plants (coal, oil, gas) before their expiration date, Franck Lecoqc, co-lead author of the report and researcher at the French International Research Centre on Environment and Development (CIRED), told journalists at a briefing, adding that “all new construction would make the transition more difficult”.
According to media reports the approval of the report was delayed due to disagreements on the wording around fossil fuels, suggesting that not all countries are on the same page on imposing changes on this energy sector.
On low-emitting renewable energies, the report argues that widespread electrification will also be needed, for example shifting to electric cars and other means of transportation. The document shows that there the market already shows positive signs with cleaner sources, especially wind and solar, being quite cost effective. In some regions, transitioning would come even cheaper than to keep relying on emissions-intensive systems.
However both public and private money flows directed at fossil fuels currently surpass those for climate action, the report states, noting that the necessary finances exist and only need to be redirected towards climate mitigation – especially in developing countries where the gap between the available finance and what is needed is greater.
Changing energy gears will not solve the whole problem. The below 1.5ºC scenario will require us consuming less energy by for example making industrial processes more energy efficient, renovating buildings so that they consume less when cooling and heating, or organising urban areas so that people live close to work and drive less. And consumers are also an important part of the formula.
“Having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behaviour can result in a 40-70 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This offers significant untapped potential,” said IPCC working group III co-chair Priyadarshi Shukla, in a statement.
Carbon capture and sequestration, meaning removing CO2 from the atmosphere will also have to be a part of the mix, including nature based solutions such as reforestation but also technologies still at early stages of development. These will be needed for residual emissions from certain industry procedures that are too hard to decarbonise.
A shrinking window to act
Global temperatures have already risen around 1.1 to 1.2ºC compared to the 19th century, meaning that the window for action is shrinking. Emissions would have to peak in the next three years for the 1.5ºC or even 2ºC scenarios to be possible.
“The coming years will be critical in terms of increasing the chances of changing the trajectory,” said Raphaël Jachnik, report lead author and climate finance specialist at the OECD, at a media briefing.
“In the short term emissions reductions will have an economic and social cost,” said Lecocq, noting that the economy will indeed slow down though not dramatically. It could mean job losses in certain sectors while others are created elsewhere, and changes in energy and home prices. These impacts will depend on the details of the public policies designed to make it a “just transition”, he added.
However, the author stressed that the actions needed to keep the world from warming up above 1.5ºC are still compatible with sustainable development goals. There are also benefits that will come from reducing emissions. For example, air quality would significantly improve with the closing of coal plants, which contribute to the deaths of thousands across India, the US and other parts of the world.