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A ‘liveable future’ depends on slashing emissions this decade, major climate report finds

But it will take a lot of work and tech to get there

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presents Part 3 of its new Assessment Report
04 April 2022, North Rhine-Westphalia, Jackerath: Wind turbines stand at the Garzweiler opencast lignite mine, with the Neurath lignite-fired power plant in the background. Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented a comprehensive overview of how man-made climate change can be limited.
Photo by Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images

The world needs to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half this decade, a landmark new United Nations report urges. To reach that goal, the globe needs to make a speedy shift to clean energy, reduce energy use, and deploy technologies that can trap some of our planet-heating carbon dioxide pollution, the report’s authors say.

“We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future,” Hoesung Lee, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel Panel on Climate Change, said in a press release. “We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”

Hundreds of leading climate scientists participated in the report, which outlines what’s needed to avoid all-out climate catastrophe. It boils down to one key call to action: “rapid and deep” reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors. It builds on previous research that finds that more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming would be devastating for people and wildlife around the world. We are alarmingly close to breaching that threshold. We could surpass it before 2030, today’s new report says.

But we could rewrite that grim future if big changes are made to cut emissions in half this decade. The longer-term goal is to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century in order to keep global average temperatures stable.

The technology needed to achieve those goals is already at our fingertips, according to the report. Costs for solar and wind power and batteries to store renewable energy have already dropped up to 85 percent since 2010. Similar price drops in electric vehicles would bring down pollution from tailpipes. Ultimately, the authors say, there also needs to be changes in everyday behavior in order to cut down on energy use in the first place. That means making cities easier to get around by walking, biking, or taking public transport. To do their part, investors can divest from fossil fuels, and consumers can simply consume less, an accompanying fact sheet says.

“Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at a press conference. “Such investments will soon be stranded assets, a blot on the landscape and a blight on investment portfolios.”

The report does, however, leave room for some continued fossil fuel if it is paired with more controversial climate tech. That includes carbon capture technologies, which scrub the greenhouse gas out of emissions before it can escape smokestacks. Turning to other technologies that pull CO2 out of the air is now “unavoidable,” the report says, if the world is to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Those tactics quickly drew criticism from some environmental advocates concerned that the technologies will prolong the dominance of fossil fuels. “Carbon capture and storage, for instance, cannot make coal clean, turn gas green, or render oil carbon-free,” Nikki Reisch, climate and energy program director at the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a statement. “Relying on speculative technologies that prolong the use of fossil fuels and purport to deliver emissions reductions or removals in the future, after temperature rise surpasses 1.5°C, will cost lives and inflict further irreversible harm.”

Today’s report is the third in a series of assessments on how climate change has already changed life on Earth. The first report released last August broke down how human activity has made extreme weather events even more dangerous, among other climate-related threats. The second report published in February found the need for “transformative changes in our behaviour and infrastructure” to adapt to climate change. You can read the third piece, released today, here.