The IPCC expert panel has just published the last part of its 6th report, which focuses particularly on greenhouse gas emissions and solutions to reduce them. While previous parts of it found that global warming is speeding up and populations increasingly vulnerable, this last part issues a wake-up call about just how urgent it is to take action.
What is the IPCC?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set up in 1988, brings together 195 member states to study the impact of human activity on global warming. It publishes scientific reports with findings aimed at policymakers and the general public. While these findings sound the alarm, they also help countries to put measures in place to tackle global warming. The scientists who make up the IPCC come from a variety of backgrounds including economics, science, energy, etc. These disciplines are split into Working Groups (WG) 1, 2 and 3, each of which provides a part of each report. Working Group 1 studies scientific and physical aspects, and analyses past, present and future data. Working Group 2 focuses on the vulnerability of our modern societies. It also looks at ecosystems and socio-economic systems in the face of global warming and its consequences in terms of the adaptations that it entails. Lastly, Working Group 3 focuses on techniques and solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are to blame for climate change. The 5th report showed the huge impact that a temperature increase of 1.5°C would have.
Why are the IPCC reports valuable ?
The Working Group 3 report, published this past April (2022), pertains to solutions and recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and thus limiting global warming to +1.5°. This figure was set by the various states when the Paris Agreement was reached, in 2015.
These IPCC reports are valuable because they come at a time when we are running out of time to address the issue. They deliver home truths that are sometimes disturbing but underline the urgency of the situation.
They are read by policymakers, which gives them considerable impact on environmental decisions. The undisputed expertise of these reports explains why governments rely on their data and follow up on their findings. Moreover, these reports are relayed in the press. Summarised and put into layman’s terms, they inform the public and help to raise awareness. Part 3 of the latest report presents the solutions needed to avoid the climatic, environmental and social catastrophe that is already upon us.
Latest IPCC report: urgent !
This last part of the IPCC’s latest report was written by some 300 experts based on a review of around 18,000 scientific papers. The report comprises three documents: a summary aimed at policymakers, a technical summary and a full report made up of 17 chapters. These are Introduction, Emission factors, Long-term pathways, Short-term pathways, Social aspects, Energy, Agriculture, Cities, Buildings, Transport, Industry, Cross-sectoral perspectives, Policy & corporate, International cooperation, Finance, Innovation and Accelerating transition. This report raises the alarm, stressing that we are heading in a direction that will not allow us to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. So we must implement worldwide cross-sectoral policies led by all possible actors at all possible levels, global and regional alike. The only way to possibly meet our targets is to make profound changes and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, every year that passes without climate risks being reduced makes matters worse and has negative (and costly) consequences on society.
Some nations are still struggling to apply the brakes. This is evidenced by the fact that 17% of all greenhouse gases emitted since 1850 have been emitted in the last 10 years, and emissions are still increasing. It is clear that the current policies are not enough to hope to reach the +1.5°C threshold. To stay below the +2°C threshold, we would need to reduce our emissions by 37% within 10 years!
How do we reduce emissions of greenhouse gases ?
Greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane and nitrous oxide sit above the Earth like a cloud that acts like a lid. By preventing infrared radiation (and the heat therefrom) from passing through them into the atmosphere, they are to blame for global warming. Yet those emissions are still rising. The report shows that the most prosperous populations are the biggest culprits because of their high carbon proliferation. It says that 10% of the world’s population emits 36-45% of greenhouse gases. In underdeveloped countries, the average person emits 1.7 tonnes of CO2 per year, versus… 13 tonnes in developed countries! The experts also stressed the need to refrain from developing the use of fossil resources (gas, oil and coal), which are to blame for greenhouse gas emissions. And also, most importantly, to stop using certain machines and infrastructures which, if we continue to use them as we do currently without changing anything, will take us over the +1.5°C mark. The report goes on to say that to stay below it, we need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030…
A target that we will not meet unless we change course
To reach the +1.5°C target, the implementation of comprehensive climate policies and the rapid development of low-carbon systems are essential.
Unfortunately, since countries have not changed in time, and huge effort will be required to change course, it is less and less likely that this will happen, says the report. It stresses that nonetheless we must not give up, even though the damage beyond +1.5°C will be considerable and partly irreversible. Limiting the rise in temperature to below 2°C is preferable in any case. But to stop at +2°, our emissions must be cut by a third. The report states that carbon tax would be a useful tool as long as it has no impact on employment or GDP. To achieve this, we would also need to stop investing in coal, oil and gas, ‘decarbonise’ electricity generation and switch to electricity as much as possible to reduce CO2 emissions.
How do we go about changing our behavior ?
For the first time, the IPCC devotes a chapter to social and societal issues. The experts explain that we must change consumer habits because technological progress alone will not be enough to address them. All the more since it is possible to change behaviour without cutting into convenience. The report proposes embracing the Avoid-Shift-Improve trio. By applying this principle to all sectors, it would be possible to significantly reduce emissions. For private individuals, this means: reducing the use of planes and cars in favour of public transport, walking or cycling; reducing meat consumption; modulating the use of heating and air conditioning; and improving the energy efficiency of buildings. In the transport sector, it’s worth noting that although cars in particular are increasingly going electric, the use of fossil fuels in aviation and shipping remains a weak point in the ongoing decarbonisation process. The IPCC experts surmise that biofuels and synthetic fuels will still be used too little and kerosene too much to make for a sufficient reduction in emissions from this sector by 2050. As for food, meat consumption must be reduced because methane (given off by livestock) heats the atmosphere up 80 times more than carbon dioxide emissions do!
The report stresses that in order to change people’s habits we need to use societal and economic levers. It warns of the ricochet effect of circular economy savings, which might end up being reinvested in products whose production emits greenhouse gases. The IPCC experts also stressed the need to embrace frugality in everyday life, i.e. a lifestyle that consumes as little energy as possible, for private individuals and businesses alike. This is particularly true of the construction sector. Because it accounted for 21% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, due to the systems used and the production methods of the materials used. The report points out the merit of combined construction and renovation approaches to move towards low-carbon buildings. The report also showed that social justice is a key element in managing the negative impact of global warming. Lastly, the food sector also accounts for a large proportion of emissions worldwide. Change is required at all stages in the production process, including end-of-life management, i.e. waste management.
How do we move away from fossil fuels and absorb CO2 ?
The report shows that we must overhaul our energy systems and reduce the use of fossil fuels (gas, coal and oil) as much as possible since they are to blame for greenhouse gas emissions. However, it highlights the financial aspect of it. While there is strong investment in fossil fuels, energy transition sectors attract much less. So the idea is to tax CO2 emissions, which could be a strong enough measure to drastically reduce them, and also to direct capital towards energy transition. As the use of electricity from renewable sources grows, experts warn of the risk of not looking beyond them. The report also lists the levers for reducing emissions, such as increasing uptake of electric cars and heat pumps, shutting down coal-fired power stations, using biomass and carbon capture and storage. For example, farming is a lever sector. Its balancing act is about both reducing its own CO2 emissions and most importantly implementing CO2 absorption techniques via “carbon intake” measures such as reforestation. The latter has many ecological merits in terms of offsetting emissions, but these are not enough to achieve the necessary carbon neutraliy. The sea is another natural ‘carbon intake’, and developing plankton to capture CO2 would help maintain this huge carbon dioxide reservoir.
Urbanisation must be overhauled
Urbanisation is to blame for a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet it is still increasing at the expense of nature. Transformation and control of urban development are promising levers for reining in global warming. Some techniques aim to achieve lean development that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Others could increase the density of cohabitation for more compact growth. Total and absolute transformation will nevertheless be necessary to achieve low or zero emissions, and the report recommends three ways of getting there. They are: systemic reduction in energy consumption; transition to more electric systems; and integration of carbon absorption. Given the concentration of activity and population in cities, there is a lot of room for these changes to develop.
This last part of the IPCC’s 6th report is definitely the most comprehensive and most valuable, with its clear-cut recommendations. We must change our ways, and fast. But most importantly, the report stresses the need for global, transversal, global action, including that on financial aspects, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The experts point to the fact that taking action has the most merit, while placing the principles of fairness and social justice front and centre in the debate. However, for decarbonisation to be effective on a global scale, international cooperation and transversal action are needed. Experts are clear that past agreements are not yet enough to bring about the necessary change.