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‘At a crossroads’ to a liveable future: UN ‘file of shame’ urges rapid climate action

Image credit: Markus Spiske | Unsplash

Substantial reductions in the use of fossil fuels are needed to tackle the climate crisis, the third instalment of a crucial UN report has warned.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) science body has today released the third part of its sixth assessment report, spelling out how to cut emissions by switching to increasingly cheap renewables and fuels such as hydrogen, as well as energy efficiency, capturing carbon and planting trees.

The first "code red" part of the report, released in August 2021, was considered essential in sounding the "death knell" for fossil fuels. The second part, released in February this year and which followed the intense climate deliberations at COP26, was billed as "an atlas of human suffering".

Now the third and final part of the IPCC's report starkly positions humankind as being "at a crossroads". Meeting goals agreed by countries to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C or below 2°C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change requires rapid, deep and immediate greenhouse gas emissions cuts in all areas, it says.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres described the IPCC's report as a “file of shame”. Speaking at a press conference, Guterres said: “The jury has reached a verdict and it is damning. This report is a litany of broken climate promises.

“It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world. We are on a fast track to climate disaster: major cities under water; unprecedented heatwaves; terrifying storms; widespread water shortages; the extinction of a million species of plants and animals.

“This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies.”

He added that investing further in fossil fuel infrastructure is “moral and economic madness”.

The report, which draws on 18,000 studies and sources, pitches scientific findings on climate change into an already heated debate over energy supplies and costs prompted by rising oil and gas prices amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Fossil fuels are naturally once again in the firing line, with coal firmly in the climate crosshairs. The report posits that in order to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5°C, global use of coal must decline by 95 per cent by 2050 compared to 2019. Oil must also must be reduced by 60 per cent and gas by 45 per cent.

Almost all electricity will need to be supplied from clean sources, such as renewables, or fossil fuels fitted with carbon capture and storage. Continuing to install technology such as coal power plants without carbon capture and storage will “lock in” unmanageable fresh emissions. The report also states that simply removing global fossil fuel subsidies could reduce emissions by between 1-10 per cent by 2030.

A meeting to agree the 63-page summary of the report for policymakers, approved in a line-by-line process involving scientists and representatives of 195 countries, overran by more than two days as delegates wrangled over the text, which is now deemed to have been approved by governments.

Finding international agreement on climate change sparks fierce debate between countries that remain heavily reliant on fossil fuel use or revenues and those most vulnerable to rising temperatures beyond 1.5°C, which they warn would be a death sentence for their nations.

Within the UK, the current energy crisis has provoked clashes over whether to speed up the shift away from oil and gas with clean heating, renewables and insulation or to boost domestic fossil fuel supplies from the North Sea or fracking. The government is due to set out its new energy strategy on Thursday with expectations of support for offshore wind and new nuclear reactors, but not cheap onshore wind.

The UN's IPCC report finds there are still routes to curbing global warming to 1.5°C, but without immediate action it will be impossible to achieve. Report co-chair Jim Skea said: “It’s now or never if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

The world is well off track to make the necessary emissions cuts, with pollution continuing to rise and pushing temperatures towards dangerous levels. There is still more private and public money flowing into fossil fuels than into climate action.

The report says the costs of solar and batteries needed for electric vehicles have plunged by 85 per cent in the last decade and their deployment has soared, while wind power has fallen by 55 per cent in price.

Some countries have also brought in effective laws and policies that have led to falls in emissions. The report also finds that the economic benefits of cutting emissions exceed the cost of the action needed, while trillions of dollars of coal, oil and gas assets could become “stranded” as the world takes action to limit global warming.

The report also highlights how consumers can be encouraged to make green choices in eating more plant-based diets; heating homes; taking up walking and cycling; driving electric cars, and moving away from excessive consumption of 'status' goods and services. Meanwhile, cities can be made greener, more walkable and healthier by electrifying heating and transport and creating more green spaces. In rural areas, protecting, restoring and managing forests and other natural landscapes provides the biggest opportunity of cutting emissions from land.

The IPCC's full study, comprising the three instalments making up this sixth assessment, is the first of its kind since 2014.

The first set out a “code red” warning on what humans are doing to the planet, and the second detailed impacts of climate change and our options for – and limits to – adapting to rising temperatures.

The latest report finds that based on policies implemented up to the end of 2020, the world faces temperature rises of 3.2°C by 2100 and warming of 2.8°C, even if all the climate action pledges for the next decade are successfully delivered.

To give the world an even chance of limiting temperatures to 1.5°C, immediate action is needed, with 43 per cent cuts in greenhouse gases on 2019 levels by the end of this decade.

Emissions have to peak by between 2020 and before 2025 to limit warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, with rapid and deep reductions in the coming decades, including for methane which is produced through activities including farming and oil and gas production.

The report warns that measures to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are “unavoidable” if the world is to reduce emissions to zero overall by the second half of the century to meet the temperature goals. These measures, which range from restoring forests to developing technology that directly captures carbon from the air, can have risks of their own.

IPCC chairman Hoesung Lee said: “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”

Commenting on the report, Guterres said: “Climate promises and plans must be turned into reality and action now. It is time to stop burning our planet and start investing in the abundant renewable energy all around us.

“We owe a debt to young people, civil society and indigenous communities for sounding the alarm and holding leaders accountable. We need to build on their work to create a grassroots movement that cannot be ignored.

“If you live in a big city, a rural area, or a small island state, if you invest in the stock market, if you care about justice, and our children’s future, I am appealing directly to you.

“Demand that renewable energy is introduced now – at speed and at scale, demand an end to coal-fired power, demand an end to all fossil fuel subsidies.”

Report author Michael Grubb, from University College London, said: “Annual emissions over the past decade were the highest in history, but there is increased evidence of climate action in some areas, remarkable progress in low-carbon technologies and at least 18 countries with sustained emission reductions.

“There is clear economic and technical potential to meet the kind of reductions that would be needed, but we are a long way from being on track in terms of what is actually going on.”

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