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IPCC warns of ‘last chance’ to limit climate change via drastic emissions cuts


  • The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth “synthesis” report March 20, after its approval by world leaders at a weeklong meeting in Switzerland.
  • The report’s authors conclude that immediate reductions in carbon emissions are necessary to limit the rise in the global temperature to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
  • Scientists, activists and observers are calling for an end to fossil fuel use.

Humans must make “deep, rapid, and sustained” cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC’s March 20 assessment warns that the 2020s will be perhaps the last chance to keep the global rise in temperature within 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. (The current global temperature is 1.1° C, or 2° F, warmer than in the mid-19th century.)

Researchers say halting global warming at this level provides the best chance for staving off its worst potential impacts, including extreme storms, droughts and sea-level rise. And yet greenhouse gas emissions have continued to tick upward.

The report and many observers highlight the conclusion that fossil fuel use must end as soon as possible.

“Fossil fuel producers and their financiers must understand one simple truth: Pursuing mega-profits when so many people are losing their lives and rights, now and in the future, is totally unacceptable,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told the Human Rights Council in February. “Unless humanity kicks its addiction to fossil fuels now, critical climate tipping points will crush the human rights of generations to come.”

The IPCC report calls for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and notes the drastic cost reductions in renewable energy that could facilitate that transition. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This publication is the sixth “synthesis” report, which IPCC produces every six to seven years. The authors aim to bring together the conclusions of a series of IPCC publications from the body’s different working groups focused on climate science, impacts and vulnerability and mitigation.

World leaders approved a summary of the report at a mid-March meeting in Interlaken, Switzerland. The full report has been approved but is awaiting edits.

Evidence from the changes already brought about by climate warming suggests that even modest increases in temperature can have more dangerous impacts than previously thought, the authors write.

“Current climate impacts are already far worse than the last major IPCC synthesis report predicted just nine years ago,” Teresa Anderson, the climate justice lead with the international NGO ActionAid International, said in a statement from the Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance (CLARA). “This new IPCC report needs to be the trigger that moves the world from grudging acknowledgment to rapid action on climate change.”

To meet the goal of staying below a 1.5° C rise in global temperatures, the report’s authors conclude that a 60% reduction in the greenhouse gases emitted by industry, agriculture and burning fossil fuels for transportation by 2035 is necessary. Emissions of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas human activity releases, must be cut by 65% in that same time frame.

Addressing both the changes wrought by global warming and continuing to work to slow, halt and reverse the rise requires money invested in mitigation and adaptation strategies, the authors write — many times more than what’s currently being invested.

But many climate scientists are quick to note that these funds must be invested wisely. In particular, they should not be allowed to support the continued use of fossil fuels. The IPCC found that the cost of renewable energy has dropped precipitously. Many experts see weaning the world off its dependence on carbon-emitting coal, oil and natural gas as among the most important steps necessary to substantively hold back climate change.

Image courtesy of the IPCC.
Image courtesy of the IPCC.

Kelly Stone, an ActionAID policy analyst and CLARA coordinator, called carbon offsetting and similar measures “dangerous distractions” that mask the need to slash the continued release of carbon immediately.

“Anything that allows continued emissions, and extending the fossil fuel era, is not a solution,” Stone said in a statement from CLARA. “We need ambitious reductions in emissions right now.”

Scientists, human rights advocates and other observers are also calling for greater equity in the distribution of mitigation and adaptation funds.

“Poor and vulnerable communities in the Global South are suffering the worst consequences of this warmer world, even though greenhouse gas pollution from rich nations is to blame,” Ani Dasgupta, CEO of the World Resources Institute, said in a statement.

IPCC chair Hoesung Lee noted in a press conference launching the report that people living in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change were “15 times more likely to die in floods, droughts and storms.”

Dasgupta said this IPCC report sends a strong signal for the 2023 U.N. climate conference (COP28) beginning Nov. 30 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The evidence points to the need to help “emerging economies” such as India and Indonesia grow using energy that doesn’t emit carbon, he added. The countries that already emit lots of carbon need to speed up their plans for transitioning away from emissions-producing energy, and industrialized nations need to invest in boosting resilience and the protection of ecosystems, Dasgupta said.

“Real climate leadership means signaling at the COP28 summit that the fossil fuel era is over,” he said.

Banner image: A rainstorm in the Peruvian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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