World still can avert climate change disaster, UN says
Good news and bad in new report from IPCC: time is short!
There was some good news but also plenty of warnings in the latest report from the world’s leading authority on climate change.
According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report released April 4, there is still time to avert a climate disaster.
But the window of opportunity is short, and getting shorter.
The good news is that humanity now has the tools to change the trajectory, and these tools are getting cheaper all the time.
The question remains – as it has for many years – whether there is the political will to make the necessary changes in the time left.
The report does not address this. But it is most certainly the key takeaway from its findings.
In my neighborhood and probably yours, we did not really need the IPCC report to remind us about global warming.
Just a few days before it was released the National Weather Service reported that the January-March period in California (usually the rainy season) was the driest such period “by a huge margin” in 101 years of record-keeping.
This week, record-breaking heat was recorded in much of the region.
The urgency of the situation was highlighted in remarks about the IPCC report by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, who said: “This is a climate emergency.”
Guterres faulted rich countries and wealthy corporations who are not taking climate change sufficiently seriously.
“They are adding fuel to the flames,” he said. “They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security and greater price stability.”
Approved by 195 countries, the third installment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment report titled “Mitigation of Climate Change” actually focused on the positive steps being taken to address global warming.
“The Working Group III report provides an updated global assessment of climate change mitigation progress and pledges, and examines the sources of global emissions,” it says in its summary. “It explains developments in emission reduction and mitigation efforts, assessing the impact of national climate pledges in relation to long-term emissions goals.”
A statement accompanying the report is actually quite optimistic in saying “We can halve emissions by 2030” but then lists many caveats.
“In 2010-2019 average annual global greenhouse gas emissions were at their highest levels in human history, but the rate of growth has slowed,” the statement says. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach. However, there is increasing evidence of climate action [working],” said the scientists who wrote the report.
Among its most positive findings was that the cost of renewable energy has dropped dramatically over the past decade.
“Since 2010, there have been sustained decreases of up to 85% in the costs of solar and wind energy, and batteries. An increasing range of policies and laws have enhanced energy efficiency, reduced rates of deforestation and accelerated the deployment of renewable energy.”
But then it warns that implementation is lacking.
“Limiting global warming will require major transitions in the energy sector. This will involve a substantial reduction in fossil fuel use, widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency, and use of alternative fuels (such as hydrogen).”
Adequate adoption of these new energy resources over the next decade will be crucial.
“Having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behavior can result in a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This offers significant untapped potential,” said IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Priyadarshi Shukla.
But the urgency of the situation was emphasized by another Co-Chair, Jim Skea.
“It’s now or never if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” said Skea. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
This IPCC assessment shows that limiting warming to around 2°C (3.6°F) still requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by a quarter by 2030. (emphasis added)
The global temperature will stabilize when carbon dioxide emissions reach net zero. For 1.5°C (2.7°F), this means achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions globally in the early 2050s; for 2°C (3.6°F), it is in the early 2070s.
The new IPCC report was widely covered in the academic press and other media outlets.
One of the best reports was IPCC Finds World Still Has a Chance To Avert Worst of Climate Change which began by emphasizing the positive:
“The world has its best chance yet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly, but hard and fast cuts are needed across all sectors and nations to hold warming to safe levels, the global authority on climate change says.”
The IPCC report “says opportunities to affordably cut global emissions have risen sharply since the last assessment of this kind in 2014. But the need to act has also become far more urgent.”
That is both optimistic and alarming.
The good news: Growth in greenhouse gas emissions has slowed to 1.3% in the last 10 years compared with 2.1% in the previous decade.
The bad news: Even this rate of increase would result in global warming of between 2.2º C and 3.5º C by the end of the century.
The report noted that to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement – 1.5º degrees of warming by 2100 – emissions must be cut in half within a decade and reach net zero by 2050.
Citing experts who contributed to the report, it then lists some of the highlights:
Earth remains on “Red Alert” – if the current trajectory is not changed, we’ll shoot past 1.5º C of warming and be well on the way to 2.0º C.
Some trends like the plunging costs of renewables are encouraging, but not happening fast enough.
A big problem: A shortfall in global climate finance; in particular, high-income countries missed their 2020 target to raise $US100 billion per year to help poorer nations meet their climate goals.
Overall, the voluntary Paris Agreement seems to be working “albeit slowly” – it has encouraged nations to make more ambitious emissions pledges. It has also enhanced transparency, enabling outside groups, such as those in civil society, to assess countries’ progress.
An article about the report in The Guardian captured its essence in the headline: IPCC report: ‘now or never’ if world is to stave off climate disaster.
“The world can still hope to stave off the worst ravages of climate breakdown but only through a “now or never” dash to a low-carbon economy and society, scientists have said in what is in effect a final warning for governments on the climate,” the report said.
It notes the “Red Alert” that greenhouse gas emissions “must peak” in three years and be cut in half this decade. That’s a tall order.
“But the chances were narrow and the world was failing to make the changes needed, the body of the world’s leading climate scientists warned. Temperatures will soar to more than 3ºC, with catastrophic consequences, unless policies and actions are urgently strengthened.”
You can tell that the message on climate change was virtually unanimous.
In case we needed a reminder, two other items in the news the same week as the IPCC report was released served the purpose well.
The first, Storms batter aging power grid as climate disasters spread, from Associated Press was a warning and reminder.
“Power outages from severe weather have doubled over the past two decades across the U.S., as a warming climate stirs more destructive storms that cripple broad segments of the nation’s aging electrical grid,” the report said.
The problem is widespread and severe.
“Forty states are experiencing longer outages — and the problem is most acute in regions seeing more extreme weather, U.S. Department of Energy data shows. The blackouts can be harmful and even deadly for the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable communities.”
Maintenance expenses for utilities are skyrocketing (they put California’s largest electric utility into bankruptcy two years ago after massive fires caused by downed power lines) and that means costs to consumers are rising, the report said.
A few days earlier we learned the mega-drought afflicting our state has returned with a vengeance.
California snowpack is critically low, signaling another year of devastating drought, CNN and others reported.
“Snowpack in the California Sierra this winter is just 38% of normal, California water officials said, in the latest sign the state's drought is growing more devastating by the month,” the report said.
The California Department of Water Resources found the snow depth was just 2.5 inches. The average April 1 snow depth is 66.5 inches at the location it is measured every year, officials said.
More important, the snow contained only the equivalent of one inch of water – just 4% of the average for April.
This was one reason California Gov. Gavin Newsom this week urged Californians to cut water use by 15%, and if voluntary cuts are not met, mandatory ones are sure to follow.
Climate change is no longer a problem affecting only distant communities at some point in the future. It’s quite clear, both from the new IPCC report and extreme weather phenomena occurring routinely in locations everywhere that it is under way now and everywhere.
The alarm has been sounded by those with the best scientific minds. The new United Nations report is both a warning and a road map for what needs to be done.
It cannot be denied or avoided. It’s an existential question for each of us – and the world.
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