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The year’s top insights from climate science draw a familiar but urgent conclusion: that every pathway to holding global warming to the 1.5°C target in the 2015 Paris agreement depends on phasing out fossil fuels.
That was the conclusion of a weekend media briefing in which a team of climate scientists distilled the 10 most critical findings that should guide negotiations at this year’s UN climate summit, COP28, now under way in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The session took place just hours after a video circulated of COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber asserting there is “no science” connecting a fossil fuel phaseout to holding average global warming to 1.5°C.
The comment shocked scientists and advocates alike, prompting Al Jaber to insist his recorded statement was misrepresented and misinterpreted. “I have said over and over that the phase down and the phase out of fossil fuel is inevitable,” he told reporters on Monday. “In fact, it is essential… it needs to be orderly, fair, just, and responsible.”
That’s a line that scientists, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the United Nations body responsible for climate science—will find more agreeable.
The IPCC’s latest assessment report includes a “family” of 115 scenarios that can “hold 1.5°C after overshoot,” Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told the media briefing. “In order to hold that overshoot requires that we keep within the 250 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide,” and “the only way to do that is to phase out fossil fuels by 2050.”
That conclusion “is in all those scenarios and is very clearly stated in the assessment,” he added.
And it points to the first takeaway in Potsdam’s new insights in climate science report: that the world is unavoidably set to surpass a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures, but ambitious and effective policies can rein that overshoot back to the target by 2100.
“To return to 1.5°C by the end of the century requires that we do everything right, phasing out fossil fuels, transforming the global food system, maintaining all the carbon sinks and stocks on land and in the ocean, and scaling carbon dioxide removal—everything has to happen simultaneously,” Rockström said.
The second conclusion is that “we have very strong scientific evidence that we need to phase out fossil fuels.”
Insights three and four conclude there is no choice but to scale up carbon dioxide removal, and that natural carbon sinks are too risky to rely on as a permanent strategy.
The report emphasizes that the climate and biodiversity crises are interlinked and need to be addressed through joint governance. The report authors recommend aligning the work of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity, and distributing wealthy countries’ US$100 billion per year in international climate financing with “nature-positive safeguards and outcomes.”
While communities are already seeing a rise in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, compound events are also amplifying climate risk and uncertainty, Rockström added, and mountain glacier loss is accelerating. Asked whether such glacier mass loss can be slowed, panelist Dr. Aditi Mukherji, director of climate adaptation and mitigation impact action platform at the CGIAR partnership, was not optimistic. “These are very slow processes,” he explained, “and given the level of warming that we are already committed towards, it’s almost inevitable that these glaciers will melt in the near future.”
Against that backdrop, the report warned that human immobility in places experiencing climate change impacts can exacerbate local challenges—compared to those who can leave. Scientists say those risks and costs must be included in deliberations on loss and damage funding, and institutional barriers to safe, orderly migration must be eliminated—even as climate change adaptation policy reduces the need to move.
The panel presented new tools to operationalize justice for more effective climate adaptation, with an emphasis on locally solutions. “Adaptation planning and implementation still neglect conceptualizations of adaptation justice and the most vulnerable and marginalized people—who are also the most heavily impacted by climate change,” the report authors note [pdf]. They highlight three recent conceptual advances for front-line adaptation justice: an adaptation justice index, adaptation rationales, and locally-led adaptation.
In a separate report, the Potsdam Institute explains how global warming can be limited to 1.5°C by 2100 while ensuring equity and fairness through broad carbon pricing combined with redistributive policies.
The last of the 10 insights from climate science: food systems need to be shifted from “a source of emissions to becoming part of the solution,” said Rockström. To get that done, “historical and persistent injustices, socio-economic conditions, regional disparities in geography, culture and technological readiness, and power imbalances in food systems governance” must all be factored in, the report authors explain.