In the just-released third installment of its Sixth Assessment Report (the first two volumes covered climate change causes and impacts), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summarizes the latest scientific research on efforts to mitigate climate change. Written by 278 authors from 65 countries, the new report can be summarized in one word: “urgency.”
To meet the Paris targets, the IPCC says that global emissions must peak immediately; that governments have not yet implemented sufficient policies to make that happen; and that continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure would create additional stranded assets potentially amounting to trillions of dollars in lost investments.
It’s a bleak picture, but the report also includes a hopeful vision. With a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels and transition toward a sustainable world, governments still have time to mitigate the worst of the climate change impacts while reaping many associated benefits – a stronger economy, cleaner air, energy security and price stability, healthier people, fewer premature deaths, and less food and water insecurity, to name a few. And the rapid transition remains technically feasible. “Only” the political will is lacking, but it’s a big only.
The sooner and more quickly governments act, the better the future outlook becomes. But so far, most governments are not acting with the requisite urgency to meet the Paris climate target of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than pre-industrial temperatures. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres put it bluntly in this Tweet:
Ambitious climate action benefits health and economy
One of the key points from the IPCC report: Meeting the Paris target would yield the best outcomes not only for the climate, but also for the economy and people’s health. The document notes that in pathways to limit global warming to less than 2°C,
The corresponding average reduction in annual global GDP growth over 2020-2050 is 0.04-0.09 percentage points … even without accounting for co-benefits of mitigation on other sustainable development dimensions, the global benefits of pathways likely to limit warming to 2°C outweigh global mitigation costs over the 21st century.
In other words, the financial investments needed to curb global warming and meet the Paris targets are cost-effective – cheaper than the extreme weather damages that will result if governments don’t make those investments. And making the transition to a low-carbon economy yield substantial economic and health benefits as a result of cleaner air, healthier people, and avoided premature deaths that result from phasing out fossil fuels.
The IPCC emphasizes that more aggressive climate policy scenarios involve “higher up-front investments, but bring long-term gains for the economy, as well as earlier benefits of avoided climate change impacts.” The report includes a key summary of climate solutions that can be implemented at less cost than the status quo (blue in the chart below) or at relatively low costs (orange shades). The price of wind and solar energy in particular have plummeted below those of fossil fuels, and efficiency measures can also save money.
Land conservation initiatives to help remove carbon from the atmosphere can also yield various co-benefits: improved biodiversity; ecosystem services; food and water security; and land tenure and land-use rights of Indigenous peoples, local communities, and small landowners. The IPCC concludes that carbon removal solutions will be needed to meet the Paris targets, but cautions that they must be deployed in a smart, sustainable way. For example, the report warns that widespread planting of monoculture crops for use as biofuels and other bio-based products can displace food crops and lead to increased food insecurity.
Governments and institutions are falling short
So far, governments are not on track to meet the Paris targets. The IPCC reports that global human greenhouse gas emissions reached 59 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent in 2019, up 12% from 2010 and 54% from 1990. The good news is that the rate of increase has slowed, from 2.1% per year in the 2000s to 1.3% per year in the 2010s. The bad news is that to meet the Paris targets, global emissions must peak immediately and begin to decline before 2030.
But in the absence of new climate policies, the report projects that emissions will instead continue to rise over the coming decade (red line in the figure below). Even including both unconditional and conditional national climate pledges (navy line below), the international community still would fall far short of the emissions cuts needed to stay on track with the Paris targets by 2030. Erasing the emissions gap would thus require steep fossil fuel reductions in decades beyond 2030.
The IPCC reports that public and private climate investments also are falling short of what’s needed, and fossil fuel financing persists. Climate financial flows, it warns, must rise three to six times higher than current levels by 2030 to meet the Paris targets.
Public and private finance flows for fossil fuels are still greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation … There is a climate financing gap which reflects a persistent misallocation of global capital. Persistently high levels of both public and private fossil-fuel related financing continue to be of major concern despite promising recent commitments.
More fossil fuel investments mean more stranded assets
Meanwhile, in response to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, many countries (including the U.S. and members of the E.U.) plan to expand their fossil fuel infrastructure to help reduce international reliance on Russian oil and gas. But the IPCC report warns that estimated future emissions from already existing fossil fuel infrastructure alone will exceed the remaining 1.5°C carbon budget, and that adding in infrastructure now in the planning stages would eat nearly all of the remaining 2°C budget. The IPCC thus warns that the goals of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and preserving a stable climate are incompatible. From the report:
Decommissioning and reduced utilisation of existing fossil fuel installations in the power sector as well as cancellation of new installations are required to align future CO2 emissions from the power sector with projections in these pathways … The combined global discounted value of the unburned fossil fuels and stranded fossil fuel infrastructure has been projected to be around 1–4 trillion dollars from 2015 to 2050 to limit global warming to approximately 2°C, and it will be higher if global warming is limited to approximately 1.5°C.
U.N. Environment Programme Executive Director Inger Andersen said an opportunity to transition to a sustainable economy “did present itself when countries rolled off their docket stimulus packages to help kickstart economies when we faced the COVID-19 pandemic. But on the ‘green scorecard’, we failed, loud and clear. Once again, we now today find ourselves with an opportunity for some, as countries seek out alternative sources of energy … as we rethink hydrocarbon supplies and our dependence on fossil fuels, the solution has to be to kickstart the transition to renewable and cleaner sources of energy.”
The IPCC Working Group III mitigation report has been issued as the U.S. Congress has a rare and fleeting window in which a very narrow legislative majority has shown some willingness and ability to pass major climate investments, and when some European leaders are exploring options to reduce or perhaps even eliminate their reliance on Russian fossil fuels. Where that may actually lead remains uncertain.