The world is reeling toward levels of global warming that will have irreversible impacts, a new landmark report says, but we already have the solutions—the only thing preventing us from taking advantage of them is political will and status-quo interests in fossil fuels.
The third and final installment of the sixth UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, published Monday, shows how renewable energy sources like wind and solar are now economically viable and becoming cheaper by the day.
But while the focus on solutions gives the report an optimistic tone, it also reminds how policies lag far behind science, technology, and even economics.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the report “a litany of broken promises” and “a file of shame, cataloging the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”
“The jury has reached a verdict. And it is damning,” Guterres said. “We are on a fast track to climate change disaster.”
If the world doesn’t strengthen its policies toward renewable energy, global warming could blow through the 1.5 degree-Celsius threshold that scientists have warned of and surpass 3 degrees by the end of the century, the report said. The planet is already around 1.1 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels.
The report was published as much of the world grapples with an energy crunch that has soaring energy prices. Russia’s war in Ukraine has also moved several countries, especially in Europe, to wean off Russian fossil fuel exports and replace them in part with more renewable energy.
The key takeaways include:
Wind and solar are now economically viable replacements for fossil fuels: In deliberations over Monday’s report, some developing countries were calling for wealthy nations to transfer more money to the Global South to help it pay for the transition, according to a source familiar with the talks. Those countries argued that wealthy nations were historically more responsible for climate change and should shoulder more financial burden.
We need to ditch fossil fuels fast: Any newly built fossil fuel projects risk becoming “stranded assets” or being abandoned, the report concludes, which carries massive financial risk. The estimated losses from stranded fossil fuel infrastructure are projected to be between $1 trillion and $4 trillion from 2015 to 2050, in a scenario where the world limits global warming to 2 degrees.
But the report does leave room for continued fossil fuel use that utilizes carbon capture and storage — or CCS — a process in which the emissions from coal, oil, and gas are captured and stored. The report’s authors say this is only viable if most emissions are captured.
CCS is highly controversial, given it will allow the continued use of fossil fuels, even when more economical renewable sources are available. And studies have questioned how much greenhouse gas the CCS process can capture.
We’re going to have to suck CO2 out of the air: Despite limited research and technology development in CDR, the report’s authors say the world must remove as much carbon dioxide from the air as possible—while reducing emissions—if warming is to be limited to 1.5 or even 2 degrees.
“[The report] foresees that in addition to making this pivot to clean energy, that the opportunity is also going to be to remove, through various means, some of the pollutions that’s already in the system, or that’s already being poured into the system now,” Pete Ogden, the UN Foundation’s vice president for energy, climate, and the environment, told CNN. “Particularly carbon dioxide, because it is so long-lasting that we need to use all the tools we can to turn the ship around.”
Slashing methane is a quick way to turn down the heat: “One of the biggest takeaways is that to minimize the temperature rise, which is getting higher, and from pushing ourselves over potential tipping points and irreversible impacts, we need to make to pull hard on the lever of methane reduction,” Ogden said, “because that gives us a near-term opportunity to shave off some of the temperature rises.”
Last year, the United States and European Union announced a global pledge to reduce methane emissions by nearly 30% by the end of the decade. Since then, around 100 nations have joined that pledge. China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has not yet joined.