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Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Alamy Wind turbines in Germany with a coal extractor in the background
# CLIMATE CRISIS
'We're at a crossroads': Major UN climate report charts pathways to save the planet
The latest IPCC report says removing fossil fuel subsidies would reduce emissions and benefit the environment.

THE WORLD HAS the tools and knowledge to combat the climate crisis – it just needs to turn them into action, with less than three years to halt the rise carbon emissions.

That’s the message from an international report released today by the United Nations on climate change and how to stop it to save the planet.

Analysing scientific research from around the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by 40% to 70% by 2050 if the right policies, infrastructure and technology are in place. 

The report outlines that removing fossil fuel subsidies would reduce emissions and benefit the environment and sustainable development.

It lists several mitigation options that it describes as “technically viable”, “increasingly cost-effective” and “generally supported by the public”.

Those are:

  • solar energy
  • wind energy
  • electrification of urban systems
  • urban green infrastructure
  • energy efficiency
  • demand-side management
  • improved forest and crop/grassland management
  • reduced food waste and loss.

However, almost all mitigation options face institutional barriers that must be addressed to allow them to be implemented at a large scale.

The feasibility of different options varies depending on the time and place – for instance, the use of geothermal energy is more suited to some areas than others.

Today’s report is the third and final part of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report (AR6), which has compiled and assessed the newest climate science to give policymakers an up-to-date picture of the current state of the climate.

In a statement, IPCC chair Dr Hoesung Lee said: “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future.”

“We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming,” he said.

“I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries. 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.”

How the report was compiled

The IPCC’s work is done by hundreds of scientists and then approved by governments around the world.

Over the last two weeks, the details of the report’s summary for policymakers were finalised over video conferences before its release, alongside the full report, to the public later today.

The process, which was due to end on Friday, stretched into the weekend and only reached a conclusion late yesterday evening. Consequently, the report’s release, which was scheduled for this morning, was pushed to 4pm.

The 2,800-page report documents “a litany of broken climate promises”, said UN chief Antonio Guterres.

“Some government and business leaders are saying one thing – but doing another,” Guterres said.

“Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.” 

The report outlines that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise during 2010 to 2019 and the average annual emissions during those years were higher than in any previous decade.

However, the rate of growth was lower than it was between 2000 and 2009.

It notes that since the last cycle of IPCC reports in 2014, policies and laws addressing climate mitigation have been consistently expanded, avoiding emissions that would otherwise have been produced.

Paris Climate Agreement

But progress on finance for meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement – that is, to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius and to try to limit it to 1.5 – is still slow.

Every country that signed up to the Paris Agreement, including Ireland, was required to adopt a Nationally Determined Contribution – a plan to cut emissions in line with the deal.

Today’s report says countries’ current NDCs make it likely that warming will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius during the 21st century. Keeping it below 2 degrees will require a rapid acceleration of mitigation efforts after 2030.

It’s expected that climate policies that were implemented by the end of 2020 will not reduce emissions to the level that was indicated in the NDCs.

To achieve that target, the report said carbon emissions need to drop 43% by 2030 and 84% by 2025.

“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London and co-chair of the working group behind the report.

Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.

Fossil fuels and emissions

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector requires major transitions, including a substantial reduction in fossil fuels, the report outlines.

Continuing to install unabated fossil fuel infrastructure would “lock- in” greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the world needs to use more low-emission energy sources and improve energy efficiency.

The report says removing fossil fuel subsidies would reduce emissions and benefit the environment.

“Removing fossil fuel subsidies would reduce emissions, improve public revenue and macroeconomic performance, and yield other environmental and sustainable development benefits,” the summary for policymakers says.

“Subsidy removal may have adverse distributional impacts especially on the most economically vulnerable groups which, in some cases can be mitigated by measures such as redistributing revenue saved, all of which depend on national circumstances.

“Fossil fuel subsidy removal is projected by various studies to reduce global CO2 emissions by 1 -4%, and greenhouse gas emissions by up to 10% by 2030, varying across regions.”

Climate activists have long called for ending fossil fuel subsidies, but some countries that benefit financially continually push back.

Drafts of an international climate deal at COP26 in November gradually weakened down a proposed commitment to accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.

In the industrial sector, reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions will be challenging, but not impossible. It’ll require coordinated action to promote mitigation options like energy efficiency, circular material flows (ie re-use cycles), abatement technologies and transformational changes in production processes.

Meanwhile, urban areas can significantly reduce emissions by reducing or changing energy and material consumption; electrification; and enhancing carbon uptake and storage (capturing emissions and preventing them from polluting the atmosphere).

In the transport sector, policies that firstly focus on demand for transport can reduce its emissions in developed countries and limit emissions growth in developing countries.

Electric vehicles powered by low-emissions electricity and sustainable biofuels will also be useful tools for reducing emissions in land-based transport.

Many mitigation measures in the transport would have additional benefits like better air quality, health, equitable access to transport services and reduced congestion.

It describes the use of carbon dioxide removal technology to counter emissions that will be difficult to target as “unavoidable” if net-zero emissions are to be achieved. 

Importantly, it’s expected that the global economic benefit of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius would be higher than the cost of mitigation measures.

The costs of some renewable energy sources and batteries for electric vehicles have dropped while the use of them has risen.

SPM3 IPCC IPCC

Limited access to economic, social and institutional resources can often mean people are more vulnerable to climate risks and less able to adapt to protect themselves, especially in developing countries.

The report says the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted under the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can be used as a basis for evaluating climate action in the context of sustainable development.

International cooperation will be critical to achieving ambitious climate mitigation goals, the report outlines.

Individual action

In addition to government policies, investments and regulations that will propel emissions cuts, the IPCC made clear that individuals can also make a big difference.

Cutting back on long-haul flights, switching to plant-based diets, climate-proofing buildings and other ways of cutting the consumption that drives energy demand could reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40-70% by 2050.

Those with the most also pollute the most, the report said. Households whose income is in the top 10% globally – two thirds of whom are in developed countries – emit up to 45% of carbon pollution.

“Individuals with high socio-economic status contribute disproportionately to emissions and have the highest potential for emissions reductions – as citizens, investors, consumers, role models and professionals,” the IPCC said. 

The first report of this IPCC cycle, published back in August 2021, covered the physical science of climate change.

It outlined that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was higher in 2019 than any other time in at least two million years and that the scale of recent changes to the climate system are unprecedented.

And the second report, which focused on climate impacts, vulnerabilities, and adaptation and came out a little over a month ago, explained how climate change is disrupting people’s lives in multiple ways across various regions of the world.

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