IPCC: Politics, not technology or money, blockade of climate protection

CReducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst of climate change would be relatively cheap and technically feasible, but governments and financial institutions are not doing it as they continue to prop up the fossil fuel industry. That’s according to a landmark report released Monday by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report focuses on solutions that could limit average global warming to 1.5°C since the pre-industrial era – a threshold at which the effects of climate change become catastrophic and irreversible. This is the IPCC’s first mitigation-focused report since the signing of the Paris Agreement. It is part of a package of three reports – the other two focus on the state of the art of climate science and adaptation – published every seven years by the IPCC.

But the IPCC concedes that the 1.5°C target set in the Paris Agreement now seems unlikely. Policies implemented by the end of 2020 put the world on track for 3.2°C warming. And even the government commitments to reduce emissions made in the run-up to last year’s UN climate summit that have not yet been fully implemented would overshoot the 1.5-degree target, according to the IPCC.

Countries that account for more than 80% of global GDP have committed to reach net-zero emissions by around mid-century – the point at which they emit fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than they remove. Many governments plan to do this but rely heavily on evolving carbon capture technologies or planting trees on vast tracts of land to offset emissions from continued fossil fuel use for years to come. And questions about governments’ confidence in these solutions versus the need for action to phase out fossil fuels were a key sticking point as negotiations delayed the report’s release.

The IPCC report clearly shows how central the reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels must be for climate protection. By 2050, global consumption of coal, oil and gas would need to be 95%, 60% and 45% lower in 2050 than in 2019. This need to phase out oil and gas has become a reality for countries whose economies are , which proved difficult to accept, relied heavily on the export of these fuels.

“Some government and business leaders say one thing – but do another,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said after the report’s release. “Put simply, they lie. And the results will be disastrous.”

Global greenhouse gas emissions would need to peak by 2025 and fall by 43% by 2030 and 84% by 2050 to reach the 1.5 degree target, the report says, with wealthier countries needing to make rapid and significant savings . That would mean a quick reversal of our current trajectory: In 2021, as the global economy recovered from COVID-19, energy-related carbon emissions rose 6% to a record 36.3 billion tons, according to the International Energy Agency. The surge came despite widespread talk by governments and companies about embarking on a “green recovery” from the pandemic to channel money into green industries.

The good news, the report says, is that we can afford to power the world with clean energy sources. Unit costs for solar and wind power have fallen by 85% and 55%, respectively, since 2010, the report notes, and lithium-ion batteries, which can be used to store renewable energy, are now 85% cheaper than they were a decade ago . Renewable energy needs up to six times more funding by 2030 to meet climate targets, but the IPCC says there should be ample public and private funding to meet that goal.

“There is no shortage of money in the world,” says Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. Getting that money to the right place, he adds, “requires that policymakers act on the information they have and the industry begins to make the kind of investments necessary to meet the needs of their customers to really fulfill in the future.”

The problem, the report makes clear, is largely political. Failure to implement policies to discourage fossil fuel investments and fears of rising energy prices in the near term mean that both governments and private investors are still pouring more money into fossil fuels than into renewable energy and other climate change solutions. Simply ending public subsidies for fossil fuels “could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 10% by 2030,” claims the IPCC.

“Governments are aware of this [renewables] are often the cheapest form of energy, but they are stuck in the political inertia behind the fossil fuel economy,” says Tom Evans, researcher in geopolitics, climate diplomacy and security at European climate think tank E3G. “Trying to stop this train wreck is why millions of people are taking to the streets to protest climate change.”

The report suggests that money saved from measures to support the fossil fuel industry could be used to counteract the impact of rising fuel prices on low-income people. Civil society groups and activists have argued that moving away from fossil fuels will also help Western societies counteract energy price swings caused by conflicts such as the current war in Ukraine. “The IPCC conclusions should provide a really clear way forward that climate action is the solution to rising energy bills and dependence on Russian oil and gas,” Evans says.

Monday’s report put more emphasis than previous IPCC reports on the importance of phasing out coal, oil and gas. In the previous mitigation report from 2014, the IPCC assumed that fossil fuels would make up a large proportion of the energy mix in many countries. Carbon removal technologies – including both natural carbon sinks such as forests and sophisticated machines that suck carbon from the atmosphere – should play a key role in tackling emissions from fossil fuels.

But the IPCC now says the world must halt all new investment in coal, oil and gas, and even abandon some existing and already planned fossil fuel infrastructure, to keep global warming in check. “Projected cumulative future CO2 emissions over the life of existing and currently planned fossil fuel infrastructure without additional mitigation exceed total cumulative net CO2 emissions in pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot “, says the report.

Carbon capture and storage, and nature restoration, will continue to be required to offset emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as steel and chemical manufacturing, aviation and agriculture. However, they should not be seen as a substitute for reducing fossil fuel consumption, the IPCC says, because “technological, economic, institutional, ecological-environmental and socio-cultural barriers” exist to their large-scale use. The world’s existing carbon capture plants are capable of removing and storing just a few thousand tons of CO2 per year – far from the scale required. Meanwhile, solutions that involve planting large numbers of trees for carbon storage or bioenergy production may trigger land conflicts and other consequences for communities, the IPCC warns.

“There is no silver bullet to solving climate change, but there is one devastating weapon: fossil fuels,” says Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law. “One can sense the frustration of scientists that mountains of evidence are not yet driving the radical actions needed to meet global climate goals. You watch time tick by as governments and polluters continue to avoid making the bold changes in our energy, food and industrial systems that are our only route out of catastrophic climate change.”

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write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com.

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