Climate scientists have yet again rung the alarm. Unless we act quickly, we may not have a place to call home. Planet Earth may be gone in a lifetime. This frightening reality may be far from the consciousness of most, especially since we are bombarded with the triple crisis of the war in Ukraine, the Covid pandemic and the rising cost of living.
Despite the despair of mounting global problems, the release of the latest report from the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows some grounds for hope.
Unlike previous reports on the causes and effects of climate change, this one, though it does not go far enough offers possible solutions. The report summary is blunt and clear, and in many places speaks to realities that scientists and environmentalists have known for years but governments often avoided directly admitting.
First, the report acknowledged that North America and Europe have made the greatest contribution to the crisis we are living through, by producing by far the most carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution.
The IPCC shows that today the average North American emits 16 tons of carbon dioxide each year from fossil fuel use, compared to just 2 tonnes for the average African.
Consumption by the top 10% of households comprises over a third of global greenhouse gases, compared to 15% of these gases for the bottom 50% of households. Everyone now agrees that the climate crisis is driven by how the world’s wealthy currently live, consume and invest.
This is a virtual mind change compared to previous reports. The last IPCC summary on solutions in 2014 labelled population growth as one of ‘the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.’ Such dangerous misunderstandings are now abandoned. These old and misdirected arguments which blamed the poor for the world’s problems are hopefully permanently resting in the dustbin of history.
The new report also points to how far governments are from meeting their commitments signed under the Paris agreement in 2015 and reaffirmed in Glasgow last year. For example, Boris Johnson’s rhetoric of ‘keeping 1.5 alive’ in Glasgow, runs afoul of the
UK’s current climate policies and pledges will not limit global heating to 1.5C above pre- industrial levels, or keep it “well below” 2C, the dual Paris targets. The same conclusion holds true for most industrialised countries.
Without a drastic change in climate policies, the earth is on track for catastrophic 3C heating. In a world where half of the population is highly vulnerable to the climate crisis, that spells disaster. We are already spending millions on climate mitigation and adaptation. Sea defences at Sandy Bay and Georgetown offer proof of SVG vulnerability. Extreme heatwaves, floods, droughts, crop failures and economic disruptions far outside the normal tolerances of cities and towns will destroy lives and livelihoods globally.
The most heartening section of the report is on alternatives to fossil fuel use. The overarching solution to our energy needs is to electrify everything we can, from cooling buildings to transport, and power everything using clean renewables and storage. We have to rapidly move to clean technology.
Between 2010 and 2019, the report says that the cost of solar energy plummeted by
85%, wind energy by 55% and lithium-ion batteries by 85%. These are staggering figures that point to a radically reshaped energy future. There is a cheaper, cleaner way.
But the emissions problem is deeper than just failures to invest in low-carbon alternatives. The world already has enough existing and planned high-carbon infrastructure to take us to the climate point of no return. Coal-fired power stations have to go. Plans to open new oil fields must be cancelled.
The IPCC report is a manifesto for ending the fossil fuel age. It lends scientific support to those who are truly concerned about creating and maintaining a world that is livable and enjoyable. The licence for climate action has never been stronger.
There are also elements in the report that will be used by the fossil fuel industry to further delay climate action. Central to this is the discussion of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Those who bank on business-as-usual will argue that later this century we will be able to suck carbon out of the air, so why bother cutting emissions as sharply as possible today?
The answer, in the report, is that carbon removal ‘currently faces technological, economic, institutional, ecological-environmental and sociocultural barriers.’ The report correctly says that some carbon removal is needed, but it should never be an alternative to cutting emissions now. It makes clear how unrealistic very high carbon removal pathways are, in stronger terms than ever before.
For those who have been working for a better climate, the full 3,000-page report contains an astonishingly frank assessment of the organised efforts used to thwart climate action, noting: ‘opposition to climate action by carbon-connected industries is broad-based, highly organized, and matched with extensive lobbying.’ It may seem ironic that this doesn’t make it into the much more widely read summary, but it is perhaps not surprising. The intertwined relationship between fossil fuels and governments goes deep.
Each year that passes adds further reasons to stop using fossil fuels. Each year, it became clearer that oil and gas prices would rise sharply, affecting millions. Add these to ending urban air pollution and avoiding hundreds of millions of people suffering heatwaves, drought and floods.
Climate change can feel complex, but the IPCC has worked hard to make it simple for us. A path still exists to halve emissions by 2030 and get to net-zero by 2050, which will probably meet the 1.5C goal. It is a hopeful message. The task now is to make it real.
We are in the fight for our very survival.