Whether humanity can change course after decades of inaction is largely a question of collective resolve, according to the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Governments, businesses and individuals must summon the willpower to transform economies, embrace new habits and leave behind the age of fossil fuels — or face the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change.
Human carbon pollution has already pushed the planet into unprecedented territory, ravaging ecosystems, raising sea levels and exposing millions of people to new weather extremes. At the current rate of emissions, the world will burn through its remaining “carbon budget” by 2030 — putting the ambitious goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) irrevocably out of reach.
It is still technically possible, and even economically viable, for nations to curb carbon pollution on the scale that’s required, according to the United Nations-assembled panel of 278 top climate experts. However, the report’s authors write, it “cannot be achieved through incremental change.”
Monday’s report represents the IPCC’s first analysis of humanity’s remaining paths for climate action since the landmark Paris agreement, in which world leaders committed to prevent dangerous warming. The nearly 3,000-page document details how coordinated efforts to scale up renewable energy sources, overhaul transportation systems, restructure cities, improve agriculture and pull carbon from the air could put the planet on a more sustainable path while improving living standards around the globe.
“This report presents the best and most robust list of options to limit warming to 1.5 degrees,” said Eddy Pérez, the international climate diplomacy manager for Climate Action Network-Canada, who followed the approval process. “That, I feel, is why it took so long. It put countries in a position where they actually need to look at themselves and recognize their actions are inadequate.”
“We have been calling for urgent action for decades while emissions continue to rise,” Madeleine Diouf Sarr, head of the climate change division in Senegal’s Environment Ministry and chair of the Least Developed Countries group, which negotiates as a bloc at international climate talks, said in an email. “It’s time for implementation.”
If countries do not strengthen their emissions-cutting pledges before the upcoming U.N. climate conference in Egypt this fall, “we may well have to conclude that indeed 1.5 is gone,” said Jim Skea, a sustainable energy expert at Imperial College London and co-chair of the working group behind the report.
Collapsing ice sheets would raise sea levels at rates not seen in human history. Coral reefs could vanish, along with a growing number of animal species. Intensified disasters would wreak deadly chaos, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable communities. Parts of the Earth that currently slow the pace of warming — such as oceans that absorb excess heat — would become less able to help.
After decades of watching their warnings go unheeded, some experts wondered how the world would respond to Monday’s latest alarm bell, particularly as other urgent problems occupy people’s attention: the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, economic instability that has raised prices on consumer goods, and a brutal war in Ukraine that has upended the international order.
Conservative foundations, some backed by businesses, have promoted efforts to oppose climate policies, the authors write, while the U.S. oil industry has “underpinned the emergence of climate skepticism.” Financial institutions still fund fossil fuel projects more than renewable energy. And the media — both traditional news outlets and newer social media companies — have provided platforms for climate disinformation and presented “both sides” of debates long after the scientific consensus was unequivocal, the IPCC says.
This means coal use needs to be almost eliminated within 30 years, according to the IPCC. Gas dependence should be reduced by 45 percent, oil use must fall 60 percent by the middle of the century and humans must find near-term ways to slash emissions of potent, planet-heating methane. Some existing fossil fuel infrastructure will have to be decommissioned early or used at less than full capacity, the IPCC says. And even if those cuts occur, the world must also invest in strategies that remove carbon from the atmosphere to have a chance of meeting its climate goals.
The kind of transformation that might seem unimaginable can still happen, said Leon Clarke, a lead author of the report. Rapid technological transformation and a surge in climate activism are “changing our perceptions of what’s viable in the coming decade,” he said. “I think the hope has to come from that good news.”
Clarke, director of decarbonization pathways at the Bezos Earth Fund, pointed to dramatic improvements in clean energy technologies and other sustainability measures. The cost of solar energy and lithium-ion batteries has fallen 85 percent since 2010. Owning an electric vehicle is now cheaper than driving a traditional car if you factor in the lifetime costs of maintenance and fuel. (Fund creator Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Many climate initiatives would also deliver short-term benefits unconnected to the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. Reducing air pollution from burning fossil fuels would avert 2.4 million premature deaths every year, the IPCC says. Restoring ecosystems that help pull carbon out of the atmosphere benefits wildlife and people alike.
The report finds other good news from the world of climate policy: Some 56 countries that generate more than half of global carbon pollution have enacted legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. And more than 10,500 cities and nearly 250 regions that are home to more than 2 billion people have made voluntary climate pledges.
These commitments have not yet translated into emissions cuts on a global scale. But at least 18 countries have managed to reduce their carbon pollution for at least 10 years while their economies continued to grow. This proves that the world doesn’t have to choose between development and sustainability, said Patricia Romero Lankao, an environmental sociologist and lead author of the report.
“Individual behavioral change is insufficient” to alter the world’s warming trajectory, the report says, unless laws, institutions and cultural norms also shift. The report recommends passing “policy packages” aimed at wide swaths of the economy that can be more effective, enhancing cooperation between countries to help spread new technologies and protecting the most vulnerable people and places on the planet.
Even if the world does surpass its 1.5 degree Celsius target, scientists say, humanity’s safest path is to stay as close as possible to that ambitious goal. The impacts at 1.6 degrees Celsius of warming will still be less severe than at 1.7 degrees, and 1.7C is better than 1.8C or 1.9C or 2C. Every ton of carbon not emitted, every fraction of a degree of warming avoided, helps secure a less disastrous future.