IPCC: Politics, Not Tech or Money, Blocking Climate Action

CWhile it would have been relatively easy and cost-effective to cut greenhouse gas emissions, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, financial and government bodies continue to support the fossil fuels industry. That’s the conclusion of a landmark report published 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 preindustrial era—a threshold after which the impacts of climate change become catastrophic and irreversible. Since the Paris Agreement, this is the IPCC’s first report on mitigation. It is part of a package of three reports—the other two focused on the state of climate science and adaptation—published every seven years by the IPCC.

But the IPCC admits the 1.5°C target set under the Paris Agreement now looks unlikely. Policies implemented by the end of 2020 put the world on a path to 3.2°C of warming. And even government pledges on reducing emissions, made in the run up to last year’s U.N. climate summit and have yet to be fully enacted, would overshoot the 1.5°C target, the IPCC said.

Countries accounting for more than 80% of global GDP have pledged to reach net zero emissions by around mid-century—this is the point at which they are putting less greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than they remove.. To offset future fossil fuel use, many countries plan to heavily depend on the still-developing technologies of carbon capture or large-scale tree planting to reduce emissions. And questions over governments’ reliance on these solutions versus the need for policies to phase-out fossil fuels were a key sticking point as negotiations delayed the release of the report.

In stark terms, the IPCC report shows how important it is to reduce fossil fuel consumption in order to protect our climate. The global consumption of oil, coal and gas would be reduced by 95% and 60% respectively in 2050 than it was in 2019, according to the IPCC report. It has proven difficult for nations whose economy is heavily dependent upon oil and natural gas to embrace the imperative to reduce their use of these fuels.

“Some government and business leaders are saying one thing—but doing another,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres after the report’s publication. “Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”

Global greenhouse gas emissions would need to peak by 2025 and fall by 43% by 2030, and by 84% by 2050, to achieve the 1.5°C goal, the report says, with wealthier countries making swift, substantial cuts. It would be a quick turnaround of the current trend. In 2021, after the recovery from COVID-19, the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions increased by 6% to 36.3 billion tons. This was according to International Energy Agency. The increase came despite widespread talk by governments and businesses of leading a “green recovery” from the pandemic to funnel money towards non-polluting industries.

It is possible to provide power for the entire world using non-polluting sources of energy, according to the report. According to the report, solar and wind power unit costs have fallen by 55% and 85% respectively since 2010. Lithium-ion batteries that can store renewable energy are now 15% cheaper than a decade ago. The IPCC estimates that renewables will need six times the funding required to reach climate goals by 2030. But, there must be enough public and private financing to achieve that goal.

“There’s no shortage of money in the world,” says Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. Getting that money to the right place, he adds “requires policymakers to act on the information in front of them, and industries to start making the kind of investments that are necessary to really serve their customers’ needs into the future.”

According to the report, the problem is mostly political. Failure to put in place policies to discourage fossil fuel investment and fear of rising energy prices short-term means that governments as well as private investors continue to funnel more money toward fossil fuels rather than to renewables or other solutions for climate change. Ending public subsidies for fossil-fuels alone “could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 10% by 2030,” the IPCC claims.

“Governments are well aware that [renewables] are often the cheapest form of energy, but they’re stuck in the political inertia behind the fossil fuel economy,” says Tom Evans, a researcher on geopolitics, climate diplomacy, and security at European climate think tank E3G. “Trying to stop that train crash is why you see millions of people taking to the streets and protesting about climate change.”

It is suggested that the money spent on fossil fuel-industry policies could be used by the government to offset the rising costs of fuel for people on low incomes. Many activists and civil society organizations argue that the west’s shift away fossil fuels can also be used to combat swings in oil prices that result from conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine. “The IPCC’s conclusions should offer a really clear way forward that climate action is the solution to rising energy bills and reliance on Russian oil and gas,” Evans says.

Monday’s report places greater emphasis than past IPCC reports on the importance of phasing out coal, oil, and gas. According to the IPCC’s 2014 mitigation report, fossil fuels were a significant part of energy in many countries. Carbon removal technologies—including both natural carbon sinks like forests, and sophisticated machines that suck carbon out of the atmosphere—were projected to play a key role in countering emissions from fossil fuels.

The IPCC has now stated that all investments in oil and coal must be stopped. It also recommends that existing fossil fuel infrastructure should be abandoned. This will help to limit global warming. “Projected cumulative future CO2 emissions over the lifetime of existing and currently planned fossil fuel infrastructure without additional abatement exceed the total cumulative net CO2 emissions in pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot,” the report says.

To offset carbon emissions from sectors such as steel, chemical production, aviation and agriculture that are difficult to decarbonize, carbon capture and storage will be necessary. Nature restoration and conservation of carbon will also be required. But they should not be considered a substitute for cutting fossil fuel use, the IPCC says, due to “technological, economic, institutional, ecological-environmental and socio-cultural barriers” to using them on a large scale. The world’s existing carbon capture plants are capable of removing and storing just a few thousand metric tons of CO2 per year—far from the scale that’s needed. The IPCC warns that solutions that involve planting large numbers of trees to produce carbon storage, or bioenergy, could lead to conflicts over land, and potentially other negative consequences for communities.

“There is no silver bullet for solving climate change, but there is a smoking gun: fossil fuels,” says Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law. “You can feel the scientists’ frustration that mountains of evidence isn’t yet driving the radical action needed to meet global climate goals. They are watching the clock tick down 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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