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The latest IPCC report says greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 to minimise the effects of climate change. Is this feasible?

The words “irreversible effects” and “global warming” are never ones you want to hear in the same sentence. That, though is precisely where they were positioned by the UN’s recent damning report on the effects of climate change, the third installment of its sixth assessment report. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that humans and nature are being pushed beyond all adaptable means with over 40% of the world’s population (3 billion people) considered “highly vulnerable” to the effects of a heating world.

Bolstering the credibility of the report is the fact that it is led by scientists, and the final summary was agreed upon by 195 governments. Its underlining goal is to lay out a framework whereby carbon emissions must peak by 2025 to limit global warming to around 2C and must be further reduced by 43% by 2030.

Professor Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC, struck a foreboding note when saying: “Our report clearly indicates that places where people live and work may cease to exist, that ecosystems and species that we've all grown up with and that are central to our cultures and inform our languages may disappear.” She continued: “So this is really a key moment. Our report points out very clearly, this is the decade of action if we are going to turn things around.”

The key points 

The IPCC are aware that “turning things around” involves some heavy lifting. In the last of its three scheduled reports (the first concerned the causes of global warming; the second its effect on the world; and the third how we can cut emissions and limit further warming), the IPCC made certain points clear:

  • Curbing greenhouse gas emissions probably wont be enough to stop global warming from exceeding 1.5C (2.7F) over pre-industrial levels within the next few decades. To put the enormity of the task in perspective, the Earth has warmed an average of around 1.1C since the 19th century.
  • The wealthiest countries are responsible for the most emissions, which in turn heat up the planet. The report states that the richest 10% of households are responsible for between a third and half of all greenhouse gas emissions 
  • The poorest 50% of households are responsible for 15% of emissions and should the global governments fail to hit their targets it will be poorer nations that will suffer the most. However, these countries are also the least able to make the changes needed and will need financial help from wealthier nations 

The ambitious plan to reduce global emissions and halt the rise of global temperatures is tough and some would argue impossible. The report unequivocally states that so far the rate of change has been too slow. Power plants switching to renewable sources such as wind and solar has helped ween countries off fossil fuels. But this was offset in the 2010s by carbon dioxide emissions from cities, buildings, vehicles and farms. Since then, though, the cost of wind and solar energy has dropped, making it cheaper than fossil fuel sources in some areas. This contributed to worldwide emissions growing at a slower rate in the 2010s than a decade earlier.

The need for heavy investment

According to the report, heavy global investment is needed – approximately three to six times the current amount – if global warming is to stay between 1.5C and 2C above pre-industrial levels. That’s a tough ask for poorer countries where money for environmental measures is in short supply. Increasing investment to the needed levels is also predicated on who holds power in rich nations and what their policies are.

The report recognises that simply replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy isn’t as simple as switching over. Carbon-based resources that aren’t used will be left in the ground, causing financial losses to mines and power plants that amount to trillions of dollars.

The report looks at far-reaching, cost-effective measures that could be taken in tandem to limit climate change. These include:

  • The increase of energy-efficient buildings – both residential and commercial
  • An increase in virtual work to limit commuting
  • More recycling
  • Better public transit
  • More walkable urban areas
  • Reducing methane emissions by a third
  • Rapid overhaul of energy and transport, including the use of hydrogen fuel and carbon capture and storage.
  • Reducing the amount you fly

Importantly, the report states that none of these changes will harm the economy and would cost $100 per tonne of CO2 saved or less. Combined, they could lower global emissions to about half the 2019 level by 2030. 

Bolstering this would be removing the CO2 currently in the air, an undertaking that can only partly be achieved by planting more trees. The IPCC report says that the technology that does this more efficiently than tree planting is still unproven. A massive financial investment in this technology, as stipulated by the First Movers Coalition, is needed now to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050.

Now or never

For the report’s targets to be attained, every government has to do its part. At COP26, it was agreed that all countries would present stronger national action plans at the subsequent meeting in November in Egypt – ahead of the original 2025 date. But current nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are not ambitious enough to limit warming to 1.5C. 

While some governments maintain a proactive climate change stance, the reality is often different. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has said: “Some governments and business leaders are saying one thing – but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.” 

If that’s the case, all bets are off and with the technical solution of sucking CO2 out of the air not yet possible, it is, as the report stated, “almost inevitable” that temperatures would rise above 1.5C. “It’s now or never,” said Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London and co-chair of the working group behind the report, “if we want to limit global warming to 1.5C. Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.” 

Another serious impediment to hitting a 2025 emissions peak is the war in Ukraine, which is causing some western governments such as the UK, the US and those in the EU to consider increasing the use of fossil fuels as an alternative to the ban on Russian energy sources. The IPCC is clear that this would put 1.5C out of reach. In fact, the IPCC report found that coal must be phased out if its target is to be reached. 

That said, throwing our hands up and conceding defeat isn’t an option either. Turning around the tanker that is climate change won’t happen overnight. However, implementing the recommendations made in the IPCC report with the full commitment of the entire world will produce substantial results. It might not be within the stated timeframe, but at this point, every fraction of a degree that we can lower global warming must be savoured and built upon.

Written By: Olivium staff.


BBC: Climate change: IPCC scientists say it's 'now or never' to limit warming

EuroNews: The economic benefits of climate action will outweigh the costs, IPCC report finds 

The Guardian: IPCC report: ‘now or never’ if world is to stave off climate disaster

New York Times: 5 Takeaways From the U.N. Report on Limiting Global Warming

World Economic Forum: New climate change report shows need for urgent action - here's how leaders can act

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