The New IPCC Climate Report
It’s ‘now or never’ to limit warming!
After a contentious session where scientists and government officials went through the Working Group III’s contribution to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which assesses literature on the scientific, technological, environmental, economic and social aspects of mitigation of climate change, line by line before approving it, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published its guidance on what the world can do to avoid an extremely dangerous future. The report contends that even if all the policies to cut carbon that governments had put in place by the end of 2020 were fully implemented, the world would still warm by 3.2°C this century. That sort of temperature rise would see our planet hit by unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms and widespread water shortages. To avoid that fate, the world must keep the rise in temperatures at or under 1.5°C this century, say researchers. However, the silver lining in this dark cloud is that it can be done in a viable and financially sound manner.
What does the report say?
A common theme of all the IPCC reports in the recent years has been the emphasis on early action. A substantial part of the journey to a carbon-neutral world has to be made in the near term, in the next five or ten years. If that does not happen, there is little hope for restricting the global rise in temperatures. But the latest IPCC report, which is the third and the final part of its Sixth Assessment Report, has added further urgency to this warning. The near term is not five or 10 years from now, it is now.
The report is clear: To have any chance of restricting global temperature rise to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, the world must act now as it has only a narrow chance of achieving this goal and with the ongoing efforts, it is falling far behind on making the changes needed to transform the global economy to a low-carbon footing. Unless the global greenhouse gas emissions peaks by 2025, just three years from now, and is cut by at least 43 percent from current levels by 2030, the 1.5 degree target cannot be achieved, it says.
Overshooting 1.5°C is now “almost inevitable,” but the overshoot could be temporary and temperatures could be returned to 1.5°C by the end of this century, if countries seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically this decade.
That is a tough ask, considering that global emissions are still showing an increasing trend. Greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 are about 12 percent higher than in 2010. But the important thing is that it is not an impossible task. The latest IPCC report emphasises that strengthening of climate action to keep alive the 1.5 degree target was not just possible, but, to a large extent, also feasible and affordable.
Keeping temperatures down will require massive changes to energy production, industry, transport, our consumption patterns and the way we treat nature. To stay under 1.5°C, according to the IPCC, means that carbon emissions from everything that we do, buy, use or eat must peak by 2025, and tumble rapidly after that, reaching net-zero by the middle of this century. Technologies such as carbon dioxide removal are also likely to be needed to limit and reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, and the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050.
The report points out that nearly half the world’s current emissions can be cut by 2030 using only technologies that cost less than US$100 to reduce one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent. Examples of such technologies include large-scale deployment of renewables like solar or wind energy, carbon sequestration in soil, reduction in deforestation and improvement of energy efficiency. And, 25 percent of the current emissions can be reduced using technologies that cost less than US$ 20 per tonne of CO2. Such technologies include the shift to electric vehicles, lifestyle changes like adoption of cycles instead of motorized vehicles, and large-scale use of public transport.
The IPCC also notes the dramatic reduction in costs of some of these technologies in the last few years. The cost of solar energy or lithium ion batteries, for example, has come down by nearly 85 percent, while the cost of wind power has reduced by 55 percent since 2010. Large-scale adoption of these options can result in a significant reduction in current emissions.
What about fossil fuels?
The world is planning far too many new coal-fired power plants, gas installations, and other fossil fuel infrastructure to stay within the carbon budgets needed to meet the 1.5°C goal. While the IPCC holds open the door to technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) that could be used to neutralise emissions from new power plants, it makes it clear that the only realistic scenarios for keeping within 1.5°C in the long term involve effectively phasing out coal use.
Is it possible to take carbon dioxide out of the air?
Carbon capture and storage is the name given to technologies that take carbon dioxide from major sources, such as fossil fuel power plants, and then liquefy the gas to be pumped underground for long-term storage; for instance, in depleted oil or gas fields. This technology is likely to be expensive, and though it has been discussed for two decades, is currently only used at a small scale.
Another form of technology is direct air capture, which involves removing carbon from the atmosphere by chemical means. These technologies are experimental and in the early stages of development.
As the IPCC found that exceeding 1.5°C was “almost inevitable,” these “negative emissions” technologies are likely to be necessary to ensure that any temperature overshoot is temporary. But the IPCC was also clear that they cannot substitute for ending our dependence on fossil fuels now.
A major shift in energy sector will be required
Traditional sources of energy like oil, gas and coal would have to be almost completely abandoned over the next few decades if the climate goals have to be achieved. The IPCC report says that coal would need to be given up entirely by the year 2050, while the use of oil and gas need to be reduced by at least 60 and 70 percent respectively.
Considering the continued dependence on these fossil fuels, not just in the developing and least developed countries, but also in the developed world, this again is a difficult task. The campaign against coal has been gaining in strength in the last few years, and the setting up of a new coal-fired power plant makes global headlines. The new IPCC report is expected to make this campaign even stronger.
Will we need to change our lifestyles?
Yes. The IPCC has made it clear that everything will need to change: energy, buildings, transport, food and industry. This will include “demand management,” or reducing our consumption and demand for energy-intensive goods. Dietary changes, especially eating less meat, will be needed to reduce methane in particular. But there are vast inequalities in consumption – the 10% of biggest emitters account for a disproportionate amount of global emissions, and these people could still enjoy comfortable and even luxurious lifestyles while reducing their environmental impact.
The writer is a CSS aspirant.
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