It’s been more than three decades since the first major climate report came out from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the UN group of scientists that plows through all of the latest climate research. The newest report, based on thousands of studies, makes clear how slowly the world has acted on earlier warnings. Since the first report, we’ve emitted more than one trillion additional tons of CO2. We’re already living with impacts that are more severe than expected, from extreme heat and droughts to destructive flooding and hurricanes. And the planet is on track to heat up more than 1.5 degrees Celsius as soon as the next decade.
The report explains in detail how climate impacts are growing. But it also gives a roadmap for how society needs to transform, including an all-important shift away from fossil fuels and the rapid uptake of renewables, electrified buildings and vehicles, and energy efficiency.
“The climate time-bomb is ticking,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement Monday. “But today’s IPCC report is a how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb. It is a survival guide for humanity. As it shows, the 1.5-degree limit is achievable. But it will take a quantum leap in climate action.”
While we haven’t moved quickly enough, much of the technology that’s needed already exists, and could scale up much faster if we make that choice now. “We probably have almost everything we need to start to get on the path to net zero by 2050, if we have the political will and policies in place to do it,” says Robbie Orvis, a senior director at the energy and environmental policy firm Energy Innovation.
Solar and wind power are now cheaper than fossil fuels in most locations, for example, and the majority of new power installations this year will be renewable. In the U.S., the sticker price of electric cars could be as cheap as gas cars this year. It’s possible that supply chains could scale up enough for every new vehicle to be electric by 2035, something Orvis says is necessary to meet a goal of net zero by the middle of the century.
Some cities, like Paris, are redesigning themselves to make it easier to walk and bike. Homes and offices can shift from fossil fueled-appliances to heat pumps, electric water heaters, and induction stoves. Heavy industry is a bigger challenge, but around a third of industrial energy needs could be met by heat pumps now, and other new technology is on the verge of scaling up. To decarbonize cement, for example—an industry responsible for around 8% of global emissions, or three times more than aviation—startups are pioneering new processes, like Brimstone, a company that can make a carbon-negative cement that competes on price with the traditional product. Jet fuel can be made from captured CO2; chemicals can be made from sugar. Other startups are building new systems to pull CO2 from the atmosphere using crushed limestone or seaweed.
Of course, the fact that new solutions exist doesn’t mean they’ll replace the status quo. A climate action tracker from an initiative called Speed & Scale shows how far off course we are now; out of multiple objectives, from electrifying transportation to transforming the food system, only a few key results are on track.
But if we’ve collectively made bad decisions in the past, that can also change. “We are here because of the failure of government,” says Rachel Cleetus, a policy director at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. “And because of the obstruction from the fossil fuel industry. This is all about choices. It is still all about choices from here on out, and we can make a different choice—we do not have to stay on the current trajectory.”
In the U.S., the policies in the Inflation Reduction Act, including incentives to help Americans shift to electric appliances and cars, can help cut emissions by around 40% by 2030. Other policies, including new emissions standards from the EPA, and more support for decarbonizing industry, could help reach the Biden administration’s goal of cutting U.S. emissions roughly in half by that year. Globally, to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century—even if we overshoot that limit earlier, and then have to bring temperatures down—we have to cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
One-and-a-half degrees isn’t a magic number: Right now, with the planet around 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution, we’re already seeing catastrophic impacts. But each fraction of a degree matters. If warming hits two degrees, for example, 99% of the world’s coral reefs are likely to be lost. (1.5 degrees of warming would still be very bad, but could limit the destruction to around 70% of coral reefs.) Heat waves will get worse. More crops will fail. Tipping points like the loss of ice sheets and mountain glaciers will be more likely. And so it’s critical to fight for much faster decarbonization that what’s happening now.
“Unfortunately, we’re already three years into what’s called the decisive decade,” says Cleetus. “And we’re still continuing with the global emissions rise. We’re still continuing to see large-scale, long-lived fossil fuel projects be authorized, like the Willow Project. It is just at odds with what the science shows is necessary.”
Individuals have power, she says, to fight for better policies in their own communities, from support to help households electrify to better urban design. At the national level, citizens can pressure governments to move away from support for fossil fuels. (And while the problem is systemic, individual choices—like buying a heat pump when your furnace breaks—also matter.)
At the global level, Guterres has proposed a “climate solidarity pact” to the G20, asking the biggest emitters to speed up climate action. The pact’s “acceleration agenda” calls for developed countries to hit net zero by 2045, and developing countries to reach it as close as possible to 2050. It also calls for no new coal, net zero electricity in developed countries by 2035, shifting fossil fuel subsidies to a “just transition,” and asks oil and gas companies to make clear plans to phase down fossil fuels. Other industries, from shipping and aviation to agriculture, also need to have clear plans now to reach net zero.
“The transition must cover the entire economy,” Guterres said in his statement, saying that he looks forward to meeting with adopters of the new acceleration agenda at the Climate Ambition Summit this September in New York. “Partial pledges won’t cut it . . . We have never been better equipped to solve the climate challenge—but we must move into warp speed climate action now.”
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