It's not too late to stave off the climate crisis, U.N. report finds. Here's how
The world still has time to avoid the most extreme dangers of climate change, but only if nations cut greenhouse gas pollution much faster from nearly every aspect of human activity, according to a landmark international climate science report.
The technology and solutions are available to rein in emissions, but the world is rapidly running out of time to deploy them, the report notes.
"It's now or never," says Jim Skea, professor of sustainable energy at Imperial College London and one of the co-chairs overseeing the report. "Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible. "
The report issued on Monday is the latest by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body that brings together the world's researchers to assess the prevailing science on planetary warming. The new report looks at worldwide efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and recommends next steps to keep global average temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels.
Nations and industries need to make faster, deeper cuts to heat-trapping pollution. Average annual greenhouse gasses in the last decade were the highest in human history, which means the world is not on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the report says. With warming beyond that level, the planet will see increasingly dangerous heat waves, floods and storms that would affect millions of people, especially the most vulnerable.
As a crucial near-term step, "substantial reduction" in the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas would need to happen, the report finds. By 2050, low-carbon energy like solar and wind power will need to supply the majority of the world's energy.
Experts say this report, part of a scientific assessment done roughly every seven years by the IPCC, is likely the last to be published while the key goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible.
The report's final summary was adopted after marathon negotiations among the 195 member countries of the IPCC. Some countries wanted to see more support for fossil fuel use in developing countries, as well as larger demands on developed nations to reduce emissions. Industrialized nations are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses, with the United States being the largest polluter over time.
The report builds on the dire warnings of two others also released in the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report. The first documented how heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels were the "unequivocal" cause of rising temperatures. The second, released in late February, showed how billions of people around the globe are at risk of more extreme disasters.
This latest report comes amidst a renewed push for oil and gas drilling, as the war in Ukraine drives a spike in oil prices. Carbon emissions already roared back to their highest levels ever in 2021, rebounding after a decline during the pandemic.
"The truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech. "Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness."
#1 - Grow renewable energy. It's cheap enough
The report lays out what scientists consider to be the most effective steps to reducing emissions fast. The clearest is accelerating the use of renewable energy and cutting fossil fuels. The cost of solar energy has plummeted by 85 percent since 2010, according to the report. Batteries have fallen by the same amount, a key technology for storing solar and wind power so it can be used when it's dark or the wind isn't blowing.
That makes low-carbon energy sources more economically viable than fossil fuels in many cases, the report finds. They also improve public health, since renewable energy doesn't produce air pollution. Still, renewables are not being deployed fast enough, especially in developing countries.
In order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world's energy supply would need to reach net-zero as soon as 2050, which means if the sector is still producing emissions, those emissions are captured in some way before reaching the atmosphere. That's because other areas, like heavy industry and transportation, would likely take longer to fully cut their emissions.
Continuing the world's existing fossil fuel energy projects at their current pace, as well as developing new ones, puts the energy sector nowhere near that necessary trajectory. The emissions from fossil fuel use would be almost double the amount needed to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And as renewable energy grows, trillions of dollars of fossil fuel infrastructure risks becoming "stranded", or worthless, as governments shift to cleaner energy sources.
"The sobering conclusion is that, although we have all the tools we need, emissions would need to decrease immediately and at a much larger scale than they have been," Stephanie Roe, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report and Global Climate and Energy Lead Scientist at the World Wildlife Fund.
#2 - We'll probably need to suck carbon emissions out of the air
Even if the world rapidly transforms where its energy comes from, some aspects of modern life will take longer to shift from fossil fuel use, like airplanes, shipping and heavy industry. Gas-powered cars being bought today will also remain on the road for potentially decades.
New technology could eventually transition those industries and vehicles away from fossil fuels. But the delay means that to avoid extreme warming, countries and companies will likely have to remove some of the carbon dioxide emissions that are already in the atmosphere, the report finds.
The most tried and tested method uses Mother Nature. Plants and soils are carbon sponges. So restoring forests and wetlands can help soak up emissions, providing a relatively low cost way of making up for emissions from other sources.
The report also points to more cutting-edge approaches, like using technology to suck carbon emissions directly from the air. That process could potentially use large amounts of energy, which would negate its climate usefulness. Some climate activists also worry it could amount to a free pass for the fossil fuel industry to keep operating and pumping out greenhouse gas emissions. The technology has a long way to go before it could make a large impact on the atmosphere, the report concludes.
#3 - Your decisions matter to slowing climate change
Changing the way humans work, live and eat in cities and buildings can have a major impact on reducing emissions, as much as 40 to 70 percent in some of those sectors, the report finds.
The report is not just talking about recycling. Redesigning and zoning cities so people live closer to where they work and can walk and bike could reduce transportation emissions by as much as a third, the report says. Electric cars that are charged with renewable energy from the grid would reduce fossil fuel use. Making buildings more energy efficient and using renewable energy like solar has a decades-long impact.
With many cities around the world still growing and urbanizing, building in a sustainable way is especially important in developing countries, the report finds. Cities are vulnerable to flooding and air pollution, as well as extreme heat waves made worse by the way pavement absorbs heat.
"There is a really amazing role that we can play, not just as consumers, but also as professionals," Roe says. "If you're a builder, if you're an urban planner, if you're an influencer or a role model, you have a role to play. And it's not about individual actions necessarily. It's about individual actions that make cascading impacts across society." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There's some good news about climate change out today in a landmark report from hundreds of scientists. It finds the world does have the technology and it does have the solutions it needs to cut emissions. But time is running out to use them. For more on this, we're joined now by NPR's Lauren Sommer from our climate team. Hey, Lauren.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right. So what are the big takeaways from this report?
SOMMER: So this is a major scientific assessment of climate change that happens once every seven years or so. And it's put out by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which includes scientists from all over the world. This part of the assessment really looks at one question. Can we reduce heat-trapping emissions fast enough? - because the goal is to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That's just under 3 degrees Fahrenheit. If it gets hotter than that, disasters get much more dangerous, like heatwaves and storms, and we basically lose entire ecosystems like coral reefs. But the report found there is still time to avoid that.
CHANG: OK. So walk us through some of the ways that that could happen. Like, what would need to be done?
SOMMER: So one of the biggest ways is to cut emissions by reducing the use of fossil fuels. The good news is that renewable energy has gotten a lot more affordable. The cost of solar, for example, came down 85% between 2010 and 2019. So in many cases, it's actually cheaper to build a renewable energy project than a fossil fuel power plant. But renewables are not growing fast enough, according to the report, especially in developing countries, where it's harder to get financing.
CHANG: Right. And there's been a new push for more oil and gas drilling in the last month due to the war in Ukraine - right? - like, since oil prices have spiked and European countries are trying to cut down their use of Russian natural gas.
SOMMER: Right. Yeah. And this report makes the point that those decisions to extract more fossil fuels will be locked in for decades. And from a climate point of view, the world can't afford it. You know, just operating the fossil fuel infrastructure that already exists today would put that 1.5 degree goal out of reach. And that's something that U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres emphasized when the report came out.
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ANTONIO GUTERRES: The truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness.
CHANG: I mean, so if the world does wean itself off of fossil fuels over the next few decades, would that even be enough, Lauren.
SOMMER: No, probably not. Emissions need to fall around 40% in the next eight years.
SOMMER: So incredibly fast. Yeah.
SOMMER: The report also says that means we'll probably need to pull carbon emissions out of the atmosphere to kind of soak up what's already warming the planet.
CHANG: Right. And is the technology even available to do that?
SOMMER: I mean, people are working on it. It's called direct air capture. It literally pulls carbon out of the air. The technology is still very new, and climate activists worry that focusing on it might give the fossil fuel industry kind of a free pass to keep operating. So a more tried and true method is actually using nature to soak up carbon. Trees and soils already do that. So restoring forests or restoring wetlands could be a big help, and it's pretty cost-effective.
CHANG: OK. And what about our everyday lives? Like, what actions can we take as individuals to make an actual difference, I mean, given the scale of this challenge?
SOMMER: Yeah. There's things we can do, and it's not just the obvious things like recycling. The report emphasizes that the way we live our lives kind of has a long-lasting impact on the climate. So if cities are designed to help more people live closer to where they work or maybe bike or walk, that takes a big chunk out of the emissions from transportation. Buildings could be much more efficient. Electric cars would help. Stephanie Roe, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report and a lead scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, told me that it's about community-level change.
STEPHANIE ROE: There is a really, really amazing role that we can play not just as consumers but also as professionals. If you're a builder, if you're an urban planner, if you're an influencer, you have a role to play.
SOMMER: And the top 10% of the wealthiest households worldwide are responsible for a third or more of the emissions related to consumption. So really, the report shows that change has to happen in all parts of society. And right now countries are not on track to make the changes that the science shows are necessary to avoid some of these really devastating impacts.
CHANG: That is NPR's Lauren Sommer. Thank you so much, Lauren.
SOMMER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.