With the options for holding global warming to 1.5°C quickly closing, countries must immediately phase down fossil fuel production, embrace low-carbon technologies that are already practical and affordable, mobilize citizens around the benefits of decarbonization, and increase low-carbon financing three- to six-fold, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes in a 2,913-page report released yesterday.
Global greenhouse gas emissions hit an estimated 59 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide or equivalent (CO2e) in 2019, 12% higher than in 2010 and 54% higher than in 1990, the IPCC says in its shorter Summary for Policy Makers (SPM). While the annual rate of increase was lower between 2010 and 2019 than in the previous decade, emissions were still rising rather than rapidly declining, producing the “highest increase in average decadal emissions on record”.
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Emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution stand at an unfathomable 2,400 billion tonnes, 42% of them occurring since 1990 and 17% in just 10 years, between 2010 and 2019. That leaves a carbon budget of just 500 gigatonnes—less than a decade at current emission rates—to blow the remaining carbon budget that would give humanity a 50-50 chance of averting the worst impacts of the climate emergency by holding average warming to 1.5°C.
To keep 1.5° alive, global emissions must peak by 2025, the report says. For two-thirds odds of hitting a 2.0°C target, the available carbon budget is just 1,150 Gt, the IPCC writes. Based on current trends, average global warming is on its way to 3.2°C by 2100.
“I don’t have words to explain. ‘Concerning’ is not enough. This is frankly a terrifying report,” former UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres told Bloomberg Green.
“It’s not really about megatonnes” of emissions, she added. “It is fundamentally about the long-term well-being of the entire web of life on this planet.”
The report cites fossil fuels and other industries as the source of the “largest growth in absolute emissions” through 2019, followed by methane emissions that also trace back largely to fossil fuels. While climate pollution has increased across all human activities since 1990, a chart in the SPM shows carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and industry growing by two-thirds and increasing from 59 to 64% of global emissions.
That’s partly because the industry’s limited but highly-touted gains in reducing its emissions per unit of oil or gas extracted “have been less than emissions increases from rising global activity levels in industry, energy supply, transport, agriculture, and buildings,” the IPCC says.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the report a “litany of broken climate promises” and a “file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.” With the Earth “already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate impacts,” he said, “this is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies. We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5° limit agreed in Paris.”
Guterres added that “some government and business leaders are saying one thing—but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”
Overshooting the Carbon Budget
Even in a heavily politicized, negotiated text that could only be published as a consensus of all participating countries, including the world’s biggest oil, gas, and coal producers, the IPCC points squarely at fossil fuels as a product that will single-handedly exceed the remaining carbon budget to keep average warming at 1.5°C, just with existing and planned infrastructure. That activity would be “approximately equal” to the available carbon budget for a 2.0°C limit.
The report talks about the annual emission reductions implied by countries’ commitments under the Paris agreement, including an “unprecedented acceleration” between 2030 and 2050. But it warns that “continued investments in unabated high-emitting infrastructure and limited development and deployment of low-emitting alternatives prior to 2030 would act as barriers to this acceleration” and increase the risk of missing carbon reduction targets that would otherwise by attainable.
“Such overshoot pathways imply increased climate-related risk, and are subject to increased feasibility concerns and greater social and environmental risks” compared to limiting warming to 1.5°C with little or no overshoot.
But that definition of the problem also points to the solution. “Decommissioning and reduced utilization of existing fossil fuel-based power sector infrastructure, retrofitting existing installations with CCS [carbon capture and storage], switches to low-carbon fuels, and cancellation of new coal installations without CCS are major options” to keep future emissions under control.
That reference to CCS assumes technology that can capture 95% of power plant emissions—a target that is far from what today’s systems can achieve. Elsewhere, the report acknowledges that the CCS options widely touted by fossil industry boosters would need further subsidies, research, and development to be able to scale up.
“The IPCC has repeatedly cautioned against over-reliance on speculative technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) and large-scale carbon dioxide removal, including direct air capture (DAC) and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which are unproven at scale, risky to humans and nature, and may simply not work to reduce emissions or limit temperature rise,” the U.S. Center for. International Environmental Law said in its response to the report.
“Yet, following protracted and politicized negotiations, the Summary for Policy Makers… deemphasizes these core scientific messages, leaving the door open to pathways that dangerously overshoot the 1.5°C limit and overwhelmingly rely on technologies that pose grave threats to people and the environment.”
The Path to Faster Emission Cuts
It isn’t as though the riskiest, highest-carbon options are the only ones available.
Of the multiple future emissions pathways in the report, the ones that most effectively limit average warming to 1.5°C—with lower odds of temporarily overshooting that threshold and risking deeper, permanent climate impacts—all involve bigger, faster emission cuts through 2030, the IPCC says. Those scenarios also rely less heavily on different forms of carbon dioxide removal.
“Deep GHG emissions reductions by 2030 and 2040, particularly reductions of methane emissions, lower peak warming, reduce the likelihood of overshooting warming limits, and lead to less reliance on net negative CO2 emissions that reverse warming in the latter half of the century,” the authors state. “Reaching and sustaining global net-zero GHG emissions results in a gradual decline in warming.”
Those emission reductions also pay for themselves.
“The aggregate effects of climate change mitigation on global GDP are small compared to global projected GDP growth,” the IPCC says, even in economic models that factor in the costs of climate change mitigation but not the climate impacts or adaptation costs it avoids. The first tier of emissions reduction options actually save money, while “economic benefits from avoiding damages from climate change, and from reduced adaptation costs, increase with the stringency of mitigation.”
And yet, the report warns that countries’ efforts to reduce emissions have been lagging since the IPCC released its landmark 1.5°C pathways report in 2018, and that failure to adequately cut emissions in one sector or industry will force the rest to take up the slack. To hold onto a 50-50 chance of hitting the 1.5°C target, the report has coal, oil, and gas use falling by about 95%, 60%, and 45% between 2019 and 2050 if fossils can get carbon capture to work the way they want it to—or 100%, 60%, and 70% if not.
“In these global modelled pathways, in 2050 almost all electricity is supplied from zero- or low-carbon sources, such as renewables or fossil fuels with CCS, combined with increased electrification of energy demand,” the report states.
The literature also shows the potential for a 40 to 70% emissions reduction in the “end use sectors” that consume energy and produce emissions—the systems that meet basic needs like mobility, shelter, water, sanitation, and nutrition—between 2020 and 2050. While that potential “differs between and within regions,” the IPCC says countries could reduce energy demand by up to 45%, avoid up to 30% of emissions in end use sectors (residential, commercial, industrial, and transport), and help consumers adopt sustainable, healthy diets, reduce food waste, and reduce the emissions footprint of buildings and transport.
The potential and the responsibility fall first and most on the 10% of the world’s households that contribute 34 to 45% of consumer emissions.
Financing Feeds the Crisis
But there’s a wide gap between that potential and today’s reality.
The IPCC report landed less than a week after this year’s Banking on Climate Chaos report concluded that the world’s 60 biggest banks have invested US$4.6 trillion in fossil fuel projects in the six years since the Paris climate agreement was signed, and on the same day that colossal fossil ExxonMobil said its quarterly profits could exceed US$9.3 billion.
To counter that avalanche of financial activity, the IPCC says funding for emission reductions and climate change adaptation increased 60% from 2013/14 to 2019/20. But “average growth has slowed since 2018,” mitigation efforts have received more attention than adaptation, and the available funds haven’t been distributed evenly across regions of the world or sectors. The world’s richest countries also famously failed to make good on their longstanding promise to deliver US$100 billion in annual climate finance to the developing world by 2020.
To date, “public and private finance flows for fossil fuels are still greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation,” the report says. And while interest in green bonds and other sustainable finance products is on the rise, “challenges remain, in particular around integrity and additionality, as well as the limited applicability of these markets to many developing countries.”
To keep a 1.5 or even 2°C target within reach, emissions reduction financing from the public and private sectors will have to increase three- to six-fold through the end of this decade, the report says. The IPCC lists faster, better financial flows, from both rich countries and the private sector, as a “critical enabler to enhance mitigation action and address inequities in access” for the developing world.
“There is sufficient global capital and liquidity to close global investment gaps, given the size of the global financial system, but there are barriers to redirect capital to climate action both within and outside the global financial sector, and in the macroeconomic headwinds facing developing regions,” the report states. Barriers include “inadequate assessment of climate-related risks and investment opportunities, regional mismatch between available capital and investment needs, home bias factors, country indebtedness levels, economic vulnerability, and limited institutional capacities.”
No New Fossil Infrastructure
Within minutes of the IPCC release, advocates were connecting the report’s findings with upcoming decisions on new fossil fuel infrastructure, with Conor Curtis, digital communications coordinator at the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, linking the very limited remaining carbon budget with the upcoming federal decision on the proposed Bay du Nord oil and gas development off the Newfoundland coast.
“What the IPCC showed today is that there is no such thing as green oil,” and “there can be no expansion of oil and gas production through projects like Bay du Nord if we are to reach climate targets,” he said in an email. “If the federal government approves this project, they will lock Newfoundland and Labrador further into dependence on oil and gas at a time when a transition to a green economy is needed instead.”
While “green oil production” is precisely what fossil lobbyists have been promising at Bay du Nord, Curtis contended last week that the project “is a poor investment, both environmentally and economically,” with emissions equivalent to seven to 10 million additional internal combustion cars. “We are on track to miss our national climate targets already and this project would make those targets impossible,” he said.
Julia Levin, senior climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence Canada, pointed to her organization’s report last week on the poor performance of CCS to date.
“We can still ensure a safer and healthier world, but the only route to doing so is quickly ending the production and use of fossil fuels,” Levin said in a statement. “Decades of obstruction by the fossil fuel industry and inaction by governments have led us to the brink of catastrophe. And those same forces are now advancing dangerous distractions like carbon capture and fossil hydrogen. Relying on unproven and speculative techno-fixes would be gambling with our lives. Instead, we must turn the tides and break free from our harmful addiction to fossil fuels.”
Sir David King, chair of the UK’s Climate Crisis Advisory Group, said he welcomed the report but declared himself “disheartened that it does not convey the true sense of urgency that is needed,” with the science showing “no chance that we can stay below 1.5°C or even 2°C without a major transition in attitudes and global systems.” He called for an “equitable and orderly roadmap for the transition away from fossil fuels,” along with “immediate and significant action from the global North to rebuild trust with the rest of the world” and significantly more resources for carbon dioxide removal (CDR).
The IPCC concludes that CDR is unavoidable to hit net-zero emissions, but covers wildly varying estimates of how much removal will be required, from which technologies, and how soon. The answers will depend on how quickly countries take up the range of other emissions reduction options available to them.
“CDR methods vary in terms of their maturity, removal process, time scale of carbon storage, storage medium, mitigation potential, cost, co-benefits, impacts and risks, and governance requirements,” the report states. “Reforestation, improved forest management, soil carbon sequestration, peatland restoration, and blue carbon management are examples of methods that can enhance biodiversity and ecosystem functions, employment and local livelihoods, depending on context.”
But “in contrast, afforestation or production of biomass crops for BECCS or biochar, when poorly implemented, can have adverse socio-economic and environmental impacts, including on biodiversity, food and water security, local livelihoods, and on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, especially if implemented at large scales and where land tenure is insecure.”
The report casts carbon capture and subsurface injection as a “mature technology” in the oil and gas sector—which might not explain why Canadian fossil execs are demanding C$50 billion in taxpayer subsidies to develop that and other technologies through 2050. It states that CCS “is less mature in the power sector, as well as in cement and chemicals production, where it is a critical mitigation option,” adding that deployment falls far short of what modellers say is needed to hit a 1.5 or 2°C limit.
Solutions in All Directions
The wider range of solutions in the report spans every part of the economy and society.
So far, the IPCC estimates that 18 countries have sustained emissions reductions for more than a decade, with some of them cutting their carbon pollution by one-third or more. It points to stunning cost reductions of up to 85% in renewable energy and energy storage technologies that hold potential for a new round of rapid decarbonization. And it echoes frequent arguments from energy transition advocates that smaller, distributed technologies like wind, solar, batteries, and energy efficiency devices can scale up and cut costs faster than large, centralized systems that rely on fossil fuels, nuclear generation, or CCS.
“The unit costs of several low-emission technologies have fallen continuously since 2010,” and “innovation policy packages have enabled these cost reductions and supported global adoption,” the report says. But “in comparison to modular small-unit size technologies, the empirical record shows that multiple large-scale mitigation technologies, with fewer opportunities for learning, have seen minimal cost reductions and their adoption has grown slowly.”
The report devotes whole chapters to the energy-saving, electrification, and decarbonization options available in specific sectors:
• In energy, it charts a course to “major transitions, including a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use, the deployment of low-emission energy sources, switching to alternative energy carriers, and energy efficiency and conservation,” with corresponding improvements in areas like air quality and health. It warns that stranded fossil assets in the sector could total $1 to $4 trillion by 2050 in a 2°C scenario, more with a 1.5° target, while giving coverage to the various CCS options with which fossil companies hope to extend the operating life of their systems.
• In industry, it says a “challenging but possible” target of net-zero emissions will depend on “coordinated action throughout value chains to promote all mitigation options, including demand management, energy and materials efficiency, circular material flows, as well as abatement technologies and transformational changes in production processes.” It looks at specific options in heavy industries like steel, cement, plastics, primary metals, and chemicals, with hydrogen emerging as an opportunity for some sectors, and lists a wide range of policies—from greenhouse gas accounting and standards, to materials and energy efficiency, to low-emissions energy and abatement technologies, to just transition planning—that will be needed along the way.
• Cities have accounted for a large share of recent increases in carbon and methane pollution, and modelling shows those emissions continuing to rise through 2050, but the IPCC says many communities are stepping up with net-zero targets. Their emissions could be almost completely wiped out, falling to three billion tonnes in 2050 compared to projections of 34 to 40 gigatonnes, through a mix of “ambitious and immediate mitigation efforts, including high levels of electrification and improved energy and material efficiency.” That potential “will vary depending on a city’s land use, spatial form, development level, and state of urbanization,” the report says, but municipalities have a wide suite of strategies to choose from, beginning with building retrofits, densification, support for walking, biking, and transit, co-locating jobs and housing, and enhancing natural carbon uptake with bio-based materials, permeable surfaces, green roofs, and green spaces.
• Building retrofits and new construction can “combine ambitious sufficiency, efficiency, and renewable energy measures” to approach net-zero emissions by 2050, provided that the right policy packages are well implemented and barriers to decarbonization are removed. But the stakes are high, the IPCC warns. “Low ambitious policies increase the risk of lock-in carbon in buildings for decades,” the summary says. But “well-designed and effectively implemented mitigation interventions, in both new buildings and existing ones if retrofitted, have significant potential to contribute to achieving SDGs in all regions while adapting buildings to future climate.”
• In transportation, “electric vehicles powered by low-emissions electricity offer the largest decarbonization potential for land-based transport,” the report says. The IPCC has sustainable biofuels delivering some benefit in vehicles over the short and medium term, while biofuels, hydrogen, and their derivatives help reduce emissions in shipping, aviation, and heavy trucking. The available literature suggests it’s unlikely that transport will hit zero emissions by 2100, so that some form of negative emissions will be needed to offset the rest. But changes in urban form, along with pricing systems to shift consumer behaviour, could reduce transport sector emissions in developed countries and limit their growth in developing ones. Investments in transit, biking, and pedestrian infrastructure “can further support the shift to less GHG-intensive transport modes,” while “combinations of systemic changes including, teleworking, digitalization, dematerialization, supply chain management, and smart and shared mobility may reduce demand for passenger and freight services across land, air, and sea.”
• Actions in agriculture, forestry, and land use—a sector that the report abbreviates as “AFOLU”—can “deliver large-scale GHG emission reductions and enhanced removals, but cannot fully compensate for delayed action in other sectors,” the report states. The IPCC sees benefits to specific countries in areas like biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and livelihoods. But “barriers to implementation and trade-offs may result from the impacts of climate change, competing demands on land, conflicts with food security and livelihoods, the complexity of land ownership and management systems, and cultural aspects.”
The IPCC stresses that the gains available through low-carbon technologies have not been equally available to all countries and world regions. In some places, “policy packages tailored to national contexts and technological characteristics have been effective in supporting low-emission innovation and technology diffusion,” the IPCC says. But “adoption of low-emission technologies lags in most developing countries, particularly least developed ones, due in part to weaker enabling conditions, including limited finance, technology development, and transfer, and capacity.”
While low-emission technology with the right enabling conditions can “reinforce development benefits” and “ create feedbacks towards greater public support for policy”, the report adds, the wrong approach can drive low-wage employment and leave countries dependent on foreign experts and suppliers.