UN report on climate crisis confirms the world already has solutions — but politics are getting in the way
The world is careening toward levels of global warming that will have irreversible impacts, a new landmark report says, but we already have the solutions — the only thing preventing us from taking advantage of them is political will and status-quo interests in fossil fuels.
The third and final installment of the sixth UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, published Monday, shows how renewable energy sources like wind and solar are now economically viable and becoming cheaper by the day.
But while the focus on solutions give the report an optimistic tone, it also serves as a reminder of how policies lag far behind science, technology and even economics.
UN Secretary General António Guterres called the report “a litany of broken promises” and “a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”
“The jury has reached a verdict. And it is damning,” Guterres said. “We are on a fast track to climate disaster.”
If the world doesn’t strengthen its policies toward renewable energy, global warming could blow through the 1.5 degree-Celsius threshold that scientists have warned of and surpass 3 degrees by the end of the century, the report’s scientists said. The planet is already around 1.1 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels.
The report was published as much of the world grapples with an energy crunch that has sent energy prices soaring. Russia’s war in Ukraine has also moved several countries, especially in Europe, to not only wean off Russian fossil fuel exports but to replace them in part with more renewable energy.
Here are the key takeaways.
Wind and solar are now economically viable replacements for fossil fuels
The cost of wind and solar energy have dropped dramatically in the past decade and are now competitive with coal and gas for electricity, the report shows. In some contexts, these renewable sources of energy are even cheaper than fossil fuels.
Many countries have ramped up the installation of wind turbines — both on and offshore — and solar panels, whether on buildings or in huge solar farms that can power entire communities.
And the amount of electricity generated by renewables is growing rapidly. A recent report by climate think tank Ember showed the world generated a record-setting 10% of its energy from wind and solar 2021. The International Energy Agency said in a recent report that renewable energy capacity grow by more than 60% by 2026, from 2020 levels.
While onshore wind and solar are now cost competitive with coal and natural gas for power, there are still huge upfront costs for installation which add to the inequities of the renewable energy transition, according to the report. For that reason, many developing countries — particularly in the Global South — lag behind in the adoption of solar and wind power.
In deliberations over Monday’s report, some developing countries were calling for rich nations to transfer more money to the Global South to help it pay for the transition, according to a source familiar with the talks. Those countries argued that wealthy nations were historically more responsible for climate change and should shoulder more of the financial burden.
We need to ditch fossil fuels — and fast
To limit warming to 1.5 degrees, or even 2 degrees, the world’s energy systems must rapidly decarbonize, the report’s authors say. Ending fossil fuel subsidies could also reduce emissions by up to 10% by 2030.
The report was published after marathon talks between global representatives went well into Sunday night, during which fossil fuel-producing nations opposed to a declarative call to end the use of coal, oil and gas in the near future, a source familiar with the talks told CNN, without naming particular nations.
“We cannot run our fossil fuel-based infrastructures anymore the way we did,” said Jan Christoph Minx, a climate researcher and a lead author on the report, at a news conference. “The big message coming from here is we need to end the age of fossil fuel. And we don’t only need to end it, but we need to end it very quickly.”
By 2050, electricity should contribute very little to greenhouse gas emissions, the report concludes. If the world builds new fossil fuel infrastructure, it’s at serious risk of locking in the use of coal, oil and gas for decades to come, which will undermine efforts to contain global warming.
But even continuing to operate existing fossil fuel infrastructure puts the world off track for staying under 1.5 degrees.
Any newly built fossil fuel projects risk becoming “stranded assets,” or being abandoned, the report concludes, which carries massive financial risk. The estimated losses from stranded fossil fuel infrastructure is projected to be between $1 trillion and $4 trillion, from 2015 to 2050, in a scenario where the world limits global warming to 2 degrees.
But the report does leave room for continued fossil fuel use that utilizes carbon capture and storage — or CCS — a process in which the emissions from coal, oil and gas are captured and stored. The report’s authors say this is only viable if the vast majority of emissions are captured.
CCS is highly controversial given it will allow the continued use of fossil fuels, even when more economical renewable sources are available. And studies have questioned how much greenhouse gas the CCS process can really capture.
We’re going to have to suck CO2 out of the air
As we slash emissions, the report’s scientists say we also need to start removing the carbon dioxide (CO2) that’s already in the air.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) can be achieved by planting trees and restoring forests and grasslands, but scientist say we must think beyond that. Some critical forests, because of human activity, are already transitioning from absorbing carbon dioxide to emitting it.
“We’re already using planting trees and taking up soil carbon as as greenhouse gas removal technologies, but they are obviously limited in scope,” said Jo House, a climate researcher and lead author on the report. “There’s only so much land and you can’t expect the land to mop up all the fossil fuel emissions.”
Some companies are developing machines that essentially act as giant vacuums, pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, but so far these technologies operate at a very small scale.
Another way to achieve this is ocean fertilization, where nutrients are added to the upper layers of water to encourage plankton blooms, which absorb carbon dioxide from the air. That been proven to work, but the method has not been studied for long enough to understand whether side effects (like toxic algae blooms) may outweigh the benefits.
Despite limited research and technology development in CDR, the report’s authors say the world must remove as much carbon dioxide from the air as possible — while reducing emissions — if warming is to be limited to 1.5 or even 2 degrees.
“[The report] foresees that in addition to making this pivot to clean energy, that the opportunity is also going to be to remove, through various means, some of the pollution that’s already in the system or that’s already being poured into the system now,” Pete Ogden, the UN Foundation’s vice president for energy, climate, and the environment, told CNN. “Particularly carbon dioxide, because it is so long lasting that to turn the ship around, we really need to use all the tools we can.”
Slashing methane is a quick way to turn down the heat
The bulk of human-induced climate change comes from carbon dioxide, but methane makes up around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the second-biggest contributor to climate change.
The gas has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 in the short term, and the first installment of the IPCC report published last year found slashing methane emissions was one of the fastest ways to turn down the heat.
Methane emissions can come from leaky oil, gas and coal infrastructure and mines. They also come from landfill and agricultural practices — and yes, even from flatulent cows. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher now than any time in at least 800,000 years.
“One of the biggest takeaways is that in order to minimize the temperature rise, which is getting higher, and from pushing ourselves over potential tipping points and irreversible impacts, we really need to make to pull hard on the lever of methane reduction,” Ogden said, “because that gives us a near-term opportunity to shave off some of the temperature rise.”
Last year, the United States and European Union announced a global pledge to reduce methane emissions by nearly 30% by the end of the decade. Since then, around 100 nations joined that pledge. China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has not yet joined.
Individuals could play an important role — but only with political support
Humans have been using fossil fuels to heat homes, cook food and fuel cars for decades. Over the course of more than a century, fossil fuels became entrenched in every aspect of the economy and people’s lives to the point that they’re often the only option available.
It’s this heavy reliance on coal, oil and fossil gas that is behind climate change. While individual choices and tracking your “carbon footprint” have been popular ways for people to respond to the crisis, there is a growing understanding that real change must come from reducing the availability of fossil fuels, not just the demand.
The way consumer choices are presented needs to shift dramatically, the report says, because it could help individuals adopt low carbon-intensive lifestyles — plant-based diets, food-waste reduction and renewable energy options, for example — without ultimately pinning all the onus on them.
Without support for these changes, the impact of individual action will be modest, the report shows.
People either “don’t have the technologies available or they can’t afford them,” House said. “So part of this is about the architecture of choices, about making choices available to people, so that they can take the decisions that they want to take, but in a sustainable and affordable way.”
The rich world’s financial contributions are falling short
The rate of climate finance — money that rich countries promised to provide developing countries to address the crisis — has slowed down, according to the report, while the financing of fossil fuels remains high.
Although climate finance policies have increased over the past several years, the report found wealthy nations must increase the flow of money to low-income nations beyond the existing $100 billion-a-year, promised under international climate agreements.
The least developed nations as well as small island nations have historically contributed less than 0.5% of global fossil fuel emissions, according to the report, yet they bear a disproportionate burden of the impacts of the climate crisis.
The money contributed thus far has mostly gone toward reducing those countries’ greenhouse emissions. More of it, scientists say, should go toward adaptation — finding ways to live with the change.
At the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, last year, developing nations complained that the world’s richest countries were failing to help them financially, despite having played a negligible role in causing the crisis.
Mohamed Adow, director of the climate energy think tank Power Shift Africa, said countries in Africa will play a fundamental role in “deciding whether the world avoids catastrophic climate change or not.”
“Africa could be the leading example in avoiding emissions by harnessing our abundant wind and solar energy,” Adow, who is not involved with the report, told CNN. “This will only be possible with significant financial support and technology sharing from richer nations, whose emissions have caused this crisis.”
This story has been updated with the report’s findings.
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