The fossil fuel age is effectively over. This is the message of the third major climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s apex climate science body. The report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation Of Climate Change, was released on 4 April , hard on the heels of two earlier reports: one in August last year that conclusively proved that human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are responsible for the climate crisis and another from February this year that analysed the impacts of climate change. The current report looks at the ways that the climate crisis can be averted. A final ‘synthesis’ report of the three will be published later this year, in time for the November COP27 climate summit in Cairo, Egypt.
There’s much to unpack from the nearly 3,000-page report, but the key takeaways are crystal clear. In order to keep global heating to below the danger mark of 1.5 degree Celsius above 1850 levels, fresh global emissions have to start declining by 2025, nearly halved in 2030 and brought close to zero by 2050. The report says that even in this best-case scenario, global heating will exceed the 1.5 degree mark, before stabilising. A temporary overshoot of the limit will still result in some irreversible results, like coral reefs dying, but this is still infinitely better than the current global trajectory of a horrific 3 degrees of warming by 2100.
“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F).” – #IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Jim Skea on the release of IPCC’s latest #ClimateReport on the mitigation of #climatechange.— IPCC (@IPCC_CH) April 4, 2022
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The report is also clear that the only way to do so is by drastically reducing fossil fuel use, and by not burning any new coal, oil or gas. IPCC stresses on the fact that the only alternative is large-scale electrification of industry and transportation, backed by renewable energy (RE). While the report nods towards mitigation methods such as carbon capture and storage, it underlines the fact that such technologies are still at an experimental stage and aren’t really an alternative to ditching fossil fuels.
The good news, the report states, that if the political will is there, then the energy transition can easily happen. The cost of key RE technologies have drastically reduced between 2010-2019: solar energy by 85%, wind energy by 55% and that of lithium-ion batteries by 85%. Moreover, as the global GDP is expected to double by 2050, the cost of halving emissions by 2030 would be merely 1-2% of this doubling. The report urges governments to consider the cost of transition as an investment in a better future, since successfully mitigating climate change will result in the world meeting most of its sustainable development goals.
The report also points at the marked inequality at the heart of climate mitigation. The report states: “Globally, the 10% of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute 34-45% of global consumption-based household GHG emissions…while the middle 40% contribute 40-53%, and the bottom 50% contribute 13-15%.” It also points out that while North Americans and Europeans have per capita GHG emissions of 19 tonnes and 9.2 tonnes a year respectively, for South Asians this is 2.6 tonnes. 46 Least Developed Countries (LDC) have contributed less than 0.4% of emissions since 1850. The 38 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that are most vulnerable to climate impacts, contribute a mere 0.5%. This makes it clear that the onus for most urgent mitigation lies with the global north. However, this framing doesn’t necessarily let any country off the hook with regards to shifting away from fossil fuels.
While the report underlines the urgency of this transition, it also recognises the huge gap between national and corporate net zero pledges and the reality. This was reiterated by the UN Secretary General António Guterres earlier this week, who said that the world is currently on a path to climate disaster and that the report is a “litany of broken climate promises…a file of shame cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world”. He further said that increasing fossil fuel production is not the answer. “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. Increasing fossil fuel production will only make matters worse. It is time to stop burning our planet, and start investing in the abundant renewable energy all around us.”