The world is warming rapidly due to greenhouse gas emissions, threatening everything from our food supply to our ecosystems, but the solution may be surprisingly cheap, according to the third and final report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report recommends a rapid and aggressive switch from fossil fuel-based energy to renewables. While this isn’t exactly surprising, the new report finds that an ambitious green revolution would shave only 2-4 percent off total economic growth over the century, a figure that doesn’t take into account the economic benefits of shifting to clean energies.
“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual,” Ottmar Edenhofer, a co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group III, said. The IPCC’s Working Group III was responsible for the new report, which focuses on climate change mitigation; the first report explored the science behind current warming, while the second reported on the impacts.
The new report finds that global society must more than triple investment in green energies by 2050 in order to have a reasonable chance of keeping temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a goal agreed on by the world’s governments. However such a revolution–which would need to cut emissions to near zero by 2100–need not break the bank as some critics of climate change action have warned in the past.
Wind farm in the Dominican Republic. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
“It is actually affordable to do it and people are not going to have to sacrifice their aspirations about improved standards of living,” co-chair Jim Skea told the Guardian. “It is not a hair-shirt change of lifestyle at all that is being envisaged and there is space for poorer countries to develop too.”
According to the report, ambitious mitigation of climate change would reduce global economic growth–set at around 1.6 to 3 percent–by just 0.06 percent over the century. Moreover this analysis doesn’t take into effect the economic pluses of clean energy, such as reduced air and water pollution, new jobs, increased efficiency, and greater stability for energy prices.
“The loss in consumption is relatively modest,” the chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, told the Associated Press.
The report finds that this shift would reduce profits for the coal and oil industries, though may not hurt gas in the near-term; in fact, fossil fuel investments would need to drop by around $30 billion annually. Not surprisingly, lobbying from the powerful fossil fuel industry has proven one of the largest obstacles to governments taking bolder action on greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite frequent and increasingly urgent calls from scientists, and many policy makers, to tackle climate change in recent decades, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Last year, global emissions hit a new record and experts expect this year’s emissions to surpass last year’s as well. According to the report, half the carbon emitted into the atmosphere by humans since 1750 came in just the last 40 years.
“Global emissions have increased despite the recent economic crisis and remarkable mitigation efforts by some countries,” explained Edenhofer. “Economic growth and population growth have outpaced improvements in energy efficiency–and since the turn of the century coal has become competitive again in many parts of the world.”
To stave off catastrophic climate change, clean energy would need to jump from a 30 percent share of global electricity production to 80 percent by 2050, according to the report. The report includes nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage (CCS) in its definition of clean energy, though it warns that both of these controversial energy sources come with a slew of problems and obstacles.
“We are clearly arguing that achieving these goals is a huge technological and institutional challenge. We are not saying this is a free lunch,” Edenhofer said in a press conference. “Climate policy is not a free lunch. But climate policy could be a lunch worthwhile to buy.”
The report also finds that energy efficiency, which is often overlooked, could play a leading role in combatting climate change.
“Reducing energy use would give us more flexibility in the choice of low-carbon energy technologies, now and in the future. It can also increase the cost-effectiveness of mitigation measures,” said co-chair Ramón Pichs-Madruga.
Peat fires in Sumatra to clear forests releases tremendous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Finally, reducing deforestation and afforestation could also play an important part in decreasing global carbon emissions.
“When implemented sustainably, activities to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation are cost effective policy options for mitigating climate change, with potential economic, social and other environmental and adaptation co‐benefits (e.g., conservation of biodiversity and water resources, and reducing soil erosion),” reads the report’s Summary for Policy Makers.
However, according to the IPCC, the bulk of emissions reductions must come from a sped-up and scaled-up clean energy revolution and a phase-out of fossil fuels.
The IPCC, the world’s global authority on the science of climate change, releases new reports every six years meant to guide current negotiations over the global crisis. Nations are set to sign a new treaty on tackling global climate change in 2015.
Recorded global temperature rise from 1880-2012. Graph courtesy of NASA.
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