At the Crossroads: A Dire Yet Encouraging Climate Report From the United Nations
“Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health,” the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in a new report. The report issued a dire warning about the pace of global warming but acknowledges that humans are making progress toward reversing climate change. “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”
The IPCC published its Synthesis Report that summarizes its research during the sixth climate assessment process, which will guide policy debates ahead of and at the Conference of Parties 28, which will take place in Dubai in November. A summary of findings across a wide range of research, the new report calls for an end to fossil fuel extraction to prevent humanity from overshooting its remaining carbon budget — the amount of CO2 that can be emitted before a catastrophic increase in global temperatures happens, which would lead to a collapse of civilization.
The IPCC lays out a collection of recommended steps to lower greenhouse gas levels and reach net-zero emissions before 2050, earlier than most governments have targeted. The critical step is a rapid wind-down of the use of fossil fuels, which the IPCC points out still receive more funding than climate adaptation and mitigation projects.
“Humanity is on thin ice – and that ice is melting fast,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. “But today’s IPCC report is a how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb. It is a survival guide for humanity. As it shows, the 1.5-degree limit is achievable.”
According to the report, between 1850 and 2019, humanity spewed into the atmosphere four-fifths of the total carbon it can release without disastrous consequences. Average global land temperatures have climbed by an average of 1.59°C (2.82°F) since 1850, and the air over our oceans is only 0.88°C (1.58°F) warmer, because the water cools the air above. But the oceans, which function as a heat sink for the planet and its atmosphere will take longer to cool once we reach net-zero emissions, threatening centuries of sea level rise.
The IPCC writes that the remaining carbon budget allows for about 500 gigatons of CO2 to be released if we want to avoid warming over 1.5°C. At 2019 emissions levels, which were 59.1 gigatons, we have about 8.4 years of emissions left. During the pandemic, emissions fell to about 49.4 gigatons. If we maintain or lower emissions further, there’s a decade left before the worst irreversible consequences of climate change are expected.
Sea level rise caused by glacial melting in Greenland and Antarctica will become a perennial problem, reaching up to 1.01 meters (3.3 feet) by 2100. At this level, rising oceans would inundate many of the world’s ports, interrupting global supply chains for years as sea walls were built and port facilities raised to higher elevations.
The report also explains that between 3.3 billion and 3.6 billion people are in regions that will be heavily impacted by climate change, including increased incidence of drought, severe storms, extreme heat, and water shortages that will be 15 times worse than in other regions. Every additional increment of warming is predicted to multiply the severity of human suffering and mass extinctions of other species, and increase the chances of irreversible damage to the environment in which humans evolved.
According to the UN, carbon capture programs — both natural and technical — will be necessary to accelerate a return to pre-Industrial CO2 levels once net-zero emissions are achieved. Massive investments in climate adaptations, as well as in carbon removal and storage, will be necessary. Here, however, the report strikes a hopeful note, saying:
There are feasible adaptation options that support infrastructure resilience, reliable power systems and efficient water use for existing and new energy generation systems. Energy generation diversification (e.g., via wind, solar, small scale hydropower) and demand-side management (e.g., storage and energy efficiency improvements) can increase energy reliability and reduce vulnerabilities to climate change.
The report can be summarized briefly but the work it describes may take decades or centuries, depending on how bad we let carbon emissions get. If we can minimize our extraction of virgin resources from the planet by reusing what we have already taken out of the ground, powering our industries with solar energy (and wind, which is driven by solar activity), we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change and start to reverse the damage. It is a multi-generational project that today’s living generations can make real with individual and collective decisions to create change. The IPCC points to encouraging signs of progress but expresses concern about whether there is the political will to make the investments necessary.
The Steps We Can Take Together
The hopeful will take encouragement from the report, which quantifies the potential emissions reductions from successful changes in lifestyles.
If we shift to solar and wind energy, and connect that generation capacity to a resilient modern electrical grid, humans can reduce their energy-related CO2 emissions by 73%. Secretary-General Guterres suggests that coal should be phased out by 2030 in advanced economies and sets a 2040 end date for coal burning worldwide, a goal China and other countries are ignoring as they approve new coal projects.
By shifting to a plant-centric diet and reducing food waste dramatically, food-related emissions would fall by as much as 44%. The IPPC suggests consumers can drive this transition by shifting to healthier diets, choosing sustainably produced produce and proteins, and supporting reforestation and ecosystem restoration. In particular, regenerative agricultural practices, which restore complex soil systems with no-till strategies, would contribute to capturing gigatons of CO2 naturally.
Changing our preferences in the use of wood and paper will contribute to preserving old growth forests, which are more efficient carbon sinks than restored forests. A rule of thumb for paper use would, as with plastic, focus on avoiding single-use forms of paper, from the bathroom to packaging, as well as at home and in the office.
Switching to electric vehicles for personal and business use would eliminate 67% of transportation-related emissions.
Upgrading buildings with improved insulation and efficient heating and cooling systems could reduce emissions from our built environment by 66%. Unfortunately, the construction sector’s emissions have been rising to new historic highs since the pandemic began.
The report suggests that electrifying manufacturing and reducing waste can eliminate 29% of human industrial emissions. In another recent study, the consultancies Deloitte and Circle Economy argue that making our economy circular by reusing all the materials we use in manufacturing can reduce the overall environmental impact of modern living by 30%.
The Good News
In addition to the dire warnings, the IPCC points to significant progress among governments that have agreed to sweeping environmental treaties in recent months, as well as the improving environmental performance in parts of the private sector.
“Feasible, effective, and low-cost options for mitigation and adaptation are already available” to convert to low- and zero-emissions technologies, improve the efficiency and resilience of human infrastructures, and to address the socioeconomic challenges that come with a rapid transition to a new form of energy.
And others share that optimism. Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson said during a Green Change of Marin County webinar in January that “If I’d written [about the Montreal Biodiversity agreement] as happening in a science fiction novel by the year 2023, no one would have believed it, but it happened in 2022. Things are happening that I would not have believed would have happened when I wrote Ministry for the Future in 2019.” There is good news, and it’s building.
The new IPCC report will alarm those who have not been paying close attention to the state of the Earth’s climate. But the signs of progress reported in the Sixth Synthesis Report are encouraging. We need to build on that momentum by pressing harder for our cities and the companies we rely on to make rapid improvements in their environmental performance. The work is far from done. Each of us can add our voices to those of the scientists and policymakers working with the United Nations, and call for more investment in a green, prosperous world we can hand down to future generations.