Scientists working for the world’s leading authority on climate change have warned that less than three years remain to bring global emissions into decline and avert a “catastrophic” temperature rise.
The “now or never” call to action from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published on Monday, also urged for emission levels to be slashed in half by 2030.
At a press conference, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres called investing in new infrastructure relating to fossil fuels, which are behind the continuing rise in planet-heating greenhouse gases, “moral and economic madness”.
“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals,” he said. “But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing production of fossil fuels.”
Mr Guterres called the latest IPCC report “a litany of broken climate promises”.
“We are on a fast track to climate disaster: major cities under water, unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals,” he said. “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”
The report, which is reviewed line by line, was finally signed off late on Sunday by 195 member governments after the longest approval process in the IPCC’s 34-year history.
Climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, accused governments of watering down the science.
“Many seem more focused on giving false hope to those causing the problem rather than telling the blunt truth that would give us a chance to act,” she tweeted on Monday.
The report found that limiting Earth’s average temperature rise to the ambitious 1.5C (2.7F) agreed by nations under the Paris Agreement would require “immediate and deep” emissions cuts across every sector of society.
In short, the IPCC says, the world stands at a crossroads in terms of whether to seize the opportunity to avoid climate catastrophe.
“The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and knowhow required to limit warming,” said IPCC chair Hoesung Lee.
These are some of the key findings:
- Greenhouse gas emissions must begin to decline by 2025 at the latest – and be cut by 43 per cent by 2030 – to achieve the 1.5C limit. Methane needs to be reduced by around one-third by 2030
- Even if these cuts are achieved, the IPCC notes, “it is almost inevitable” that the 1.5C threshold will be temporarily exceeded, but temperatures could return to below it by the end of the century
- Limiting global warming will require a “substantial reduction” in fossil fuel use, as well as widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency, and the use of alternative fuels such as hydrogen
- The importance of “sustainable healthy diets” was underlined, with an emphasis on plant-based foods, which have a low environmental impact and are beneficial to health
- Agriculture and forestry can provide vast emissions reductions, and can remove and store carbon. However, they cannot compensate for delay in other sectors
- More money is needed. Finance levels are currently three to six times lower than the levels required by 2030 to limit warming to below 2C
- There has been increased climate action. In the past decade, the costs of solar and wind energy, as well as batteries, dropped by up to 85 per cent
- Cities can become hubs for emissions cuts by creating walkable environments and incorporating electric public transport, green roofs and facades, and more urban agriculture and parks. This will also bring health benefits by reducing heat and providing cleaner air and better mobility
The average global temperature has risen by about 1.1C since pre-industrial times, and the climate crisis is already unleashing a spiral of heatwaves, drought, intense storms, wildfires, and sea-level rise around the world.
The IPCC says that the global temperature will stabilise when emissions reach net zero. To stay within 1.5C, this means achieving net zero globally by the early 2050s. For 2C, it must be reached by the early 2070s.
Crucially, even curbing the temperature rise to around 2C (3.6F) – the upper limit laid out by the Paris deal – still means that emissions must begin to decline by 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by a quarter by 2030.
“It’s now or never if we want to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of the expert working group that compiled the assessment. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
While the challenges are significant, the report offered some good news. From 2010 -2019, emissions were at their highest levels in human history – driven by the fossil-fuel industry – but that rate of growth has slowed. Regardless, current emissions and policies still put the planet on track for well beyond 1.5C.
The third instalment from the IPCC summarises how much progress has been made in reducing pollution across the energy, industrial, transportation and agricultural sectors, and highlights the barriers that are blocking a speedier transition to a greener world.
It focuses on measures to reduce the painful effects of the climate crisis, particularly for those living in countries in the global south, who are already facing extreme risks.
“Most of the people living on the front lines of the climate emergency have done the least to cause this problem,” said Fionna Smyth, head of global policy and advocacy at Christian Aid. “For example, despite accounting for 17 per cent of the world’s population, Africans contribute just 4 percent of global emissions. They need major emitters to take drastic action so that we can all have a safe and secure climate.”
Among the sticking points during the negotiations was the insistence of representatives of major emerging economies that their right to development be recognised.
Several observers told Associated Press that India was a key voice pushing for recognition within the report that developing countries have contributed a far smaller share to current emissions levels than industrialised nations, and should therefore not be required to make the same steep cuts.
Others, such as oil exporter Saudi Arabia, argued that fossil fuels will still be needed for decades to come, and that phasing them out too quickly could hurt the world’s poorest.
Some scientists called out the report’s emphasis on individual behaviour change, as well as technologies such as carbon capture and storage, which are still unproven at scale.
“Once again, the fossil-fuel industry has played a blinder,” said Myles Allen, professor of geosystem science at the University of Oxford and director of the Oxford Net Zero initiative.
“At a time of rising carbon dioxide emissions, record profits, and a rush to license new oil and gas fields, all the headlines around the latest IPCC report are about how ‘we’ are going to have to change our behaviour and pay to scrub carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere.
“How about ‘they’ – the industry – need to stop selling products that cause global warming, by safely and permanently disposing of all carbon dioxide generated by their activities and products by 2050? This would, of course, increase their costs – but gradually and predictably over the next 30 years, [and] by slightly less than their profits have increased over the past 9 months. Of course, the IPCC can’t say this, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”
The IPCC report provides a basis for international talks such as Cop27, the climate summit being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this November.
The report, which summarises all the available science on the climate crisis, was prepared by 278 authors from 65 countries, who volunteered their time.
In August, the first IPCC chapter dealt with the physical science of climate change. The assessment found that it was “unequivocal” that climate change is human-caused, widespread and intensifying.
The second chapter was published last month and found that half of the planet is highly vulnerable to the climate crisis, with the consequences of climate change taking effect faster than previously expected.
The rest of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report will be completed later this year.
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