Governments approve landmark report that warns window for action is fast closing to avoid catastrophic climate change, but affordable technologies exist across every sector to slash emissions this decade
The world already has the technologies, expertise, and financial capabilities across every sector of the economy to halve global greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade.
That is the encouraging conclusion from years of painstaking research compiled by hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists and experts in a landmark report today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which argues that evidence for the myriad social, environmental, and economic benefits that would result from building a net zero emissions economy by mid-century is now clearer than ever.
However, the report also highlights the enormous scale of the challenge to move from a situation where global emissions are currently still rising to a scenario where emissions have nearly halved by 2030. The IPCC report stresses that global emissions must peak by 2025 at the very latest to keep alive any hope of limiting temperature increases to the 1.5C goal set out in the Paris Agreement. Thereafter, as previous IPCC reports have indicated, global emissions must fall by 43 per cent by 2030, in addition to a reduction in methane emissions of around a third, from 2019 levels.
Given global emissions rose sharply last year in the wake of the pandemic-driven economic slowdown and are expected to tick up again this year, the IPCC warns there is an extremely narrow window for the global economy to deliver the transformative change that is required to deliver on international climate goals.
Yet growth in global emissions has also slowed, and the authors of today’s report maintain that mobilising the finance, scaling up the technologies, and incentivising behaviour changes needed to drive a “substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use” remains eminently feasible and – crucially – affordable.
Indeed, the report states that global GDP would be only a few percentage points lower in 2050 if the world takes requisite action to limit global warming to 2C, compared to maintaining current policies, which could put the planet on a pathway to more than 3C by the end of the century. Moreover, that estimate does not take into account the wider social, health, and indirect economic benefits of decarbonisation, nor the calamitous impacts of inaction that could result in runaway climate impacts that could devastate the global economy.
Overall, capping global average temperature rise at 2C or well below by 2100 would likely deliver economic benefits to the world greater than the costs of getting there, it adds.
“We are at a crossroads,” said IPCC chair Hoesung Lee. “The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”
The report also highlights the hugely impressive progress that has been made in driving down the costs of clean technologies, and the success of policies in slashing emissions and accelerating the development of the green economy in multiple countries around the world.
Since 2010, there have been sustained decreases of up to 85 per cent in the costs of solar and wind energy, as well as sharp falls in the cost of batteries for storage and electric vehicles (EVs), while an increasing range of policies has helped tackle deforestation, boost energy efficiency, and accelerate the rollout of renewable energy sources, the report points out.
“I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries,” said Lee. “There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective. If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”
In the immediate term, authors of the report express with high confidence that existing mitigation options and tools costing less than $100 per tonne of avoided CO2 could cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half between 2019 and 2030.
As such the report argues a major scaling up of wind, solar, hydrogen, and other renewable energy technologies, clean transport options such as EVs, walking, and cycling, and efforts to improve energy efficiency worldwide across buildings, industry and agriculture, as well as more circular use of resources, could all be achieved at an affordable upfront cost while also unlocking massive economic co-benefits.
Nature-based solutions such as reforestation and mangrove restoration can also play huge roles in slashing emissions in addition to benefitting biodiversity and climate adaptation, according to the report, but it emphasises that land-based natural mitigation should not be used for offsetting emissions from sectors of the economy elsewhere that move to slowly to decarbonise.
Policies to drive greener behaviour and lifestyle changes, too, will be crucial, with the report highlighting the role of market based measures to drive industrial transformation, as well as cultural efforts, such as normalising greener products and services in advertising campaigns, in accelerating the transition to a net zero emission economy.
“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,” said Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of the IPCC working group behind the report. “This offers significant untapped potential. The evidence also shows that these lifestyle changes can improve our health and wellbeing.”
However, the IPCC authors are under no illusions as to the size of the transformation needed within just a few short years to keep the 1.5C goal alive. Even if emissions are halved by 2030 and methane is cut by a third in the same timeframe, it is “almost inevitable” warming will rise above that 1.5C temporarily, before hopefully stabilising back below that threshold by 2100 as negative emissions projects scale up, the report stresses.
As such, a major reduction in fossil fuel use worldwide is urgently required, alongside a major scale up in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, with action towards both currently off track, the report stresses.
With significant use of CCS, coal use must still drop by 95 per cent by 2050, with oil use dropping 60 per cent and gas by 45 per cent over the same timeframe, from 2019 levels, according to the report. Far higher cuts in fossil fuel use would be needed in scenarios without CCS, with fossil fuel use having to be brought down to minimal levels by mid-century.
As such, fossil fuels face huge stranded asset risk as high as between $1-4tr by 2050, with the report warning that even 2C warming scenarios are likely to leave a substantial amount of unburned fossil fuels. While oil and gas are sectors are likely to face the biggest stranded asset risks by mid-century, the coal sector is likely to face major stranded asset risks even sooner, and likely before 2030, it warns.
Investment is also currently well below the level needed to drive down fossil fuel use and scale up clean technologies, with financial flows presently between three to six times lower than levels needed by 2030 to limit global warming to below 2C, the report estimates. But it also stresses that the world already has sufficient global capital and liquidity to close those investment gaps, as long as governments provide clear signals and stronger alignment of public finance and policies.
Professor Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC working group III, said transformative action in the current decade across every sector and country was mission critical to avoiding the worst climate scenarios in future.
“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” he said. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
Today’s landmark findings comprises the third and final part of a trilogy of reports from the IPCC over the past year, with the most recent underscoring the sheer scale of the damage being done to the planet by the world’s continued reliance on fossil fuels.
UN Secretary General António Guterres offered a scathing assessment of global energy policies to date, the lack of action to decarbonise, and the “litany of broken promises” contained in today’s “damning” report.
“It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world,” he said. “We are on a fast track to climate disaster: major cities under water; unprecedented heatwaves; terrifying storms; widespread water shortages; the extinction of a million species of plants and animals. This is not fiction or exaggeration.”
He also hit out at some governments and business leaders for “saying one thing but doing another”. “Simply put, they are lying – and the results will be catastrophic,” said Guterres. “This is a climate emergency. Climate scientists warn that we are already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate impacts. But high-emitting governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye; they are adding fuel to the flames. They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security, and greater price stability.”
Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is “moral and economic madness” that is set to lead to stranded assets, he said. “But it doesn’t have to be this way,” Guterres added. “A shift to renewables will mend our broken global energy mix and offer hope to millions of people suffering climate impacts today. Climate promises and plans must be turned into reality and action, now. It is time to stop burning our planet, and start investing in the abundant renewable energy all around us.”
COP26 President Alok Sharma said the report made clear that the window for keeping 1.5C alive was “closing alarmingly fast”, but that the world also had the policy expertise and technologies to take the action that is needed.
“The warning lights are yet again flashing bright red on the climate dashboard and it is high time for governments to sit up and act before it is too late,” he said. “But this report also gives hope that the rate of growth in emissions is slowing and that thanks to the falling cost of renewables and technological innovation it is possible to transition to a cleaner future.”
He urged countries to come forward this year – particularly richer nations in the G20 – with more ambitious national climate commitments ahead of the COP27 summit in Egypt later in 2022.
“We know that a net zero economy presents huge opportunities for growth and the creation of good green jobs and so countries and companies need to accelerate that transition,” he added.