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5 takeaways from UN report on how world can still stop climate change

The world can avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but emissions need to peak by 2025, the U.N.’s climate science panel said in a major new report on Monday.

“We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future,” said Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Chair Hoesung Lee.

It was a familiarly stark report card on the world’s progress on cutting emissions from the IPCC, which has been monitoring climate change since 1988. Despite the panel’s regular reports about the consequences of burning fossil fuels, between 1990 and 2019 global emissions rose 54 percent and they are still rising.

This latest report looks at mitigation — or what the world can do to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It’s the third chapter in the IPCC’s mammoth sixth assessment report, part of a series of studies that summarize the state of climate science and the planet released roughly every seven years.

Although there’s a broad concensus on the science of climate change, that’s not the case with politics. The report’s release was delayed thanks to a brutal fight over the wording in the summary — the bit that is most easily understood by the media and the public — led by India and Saudi Arabia, according to one researcher.

Despite that scrap, the takeaway remains constant — there is no hope of stopping global warming at the Paris Agreement limits of 1.5 or 2 degrees without a radical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and electrifying many of the things that currently run on fossil fuels. That could mean up to $4 trillion worth of coal, oil and gas infrastructure could become worthless by the middle of the century, the report said.

But that’s a difficult argument to make as Europeans scramble to find new sources of oil and gas to end its dependency on Russia and the U.S. and others eye ramping up their production to fill the gap.

“Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “Such investments will soon be stranded assets — a blot on the landscape, and a blight on investment portfolios.”

Here are five key messages from the final report.

1. Halting at 1.5 degrees will be decided in Beijing

Stopping warming at the lower 1.5-degree limit of the Paris Agreement is a pipe dream unless emissions peak in the coming three years and fall by almost half from 2019 levels by 2030, the scientists said. Even 2 degrees becomes unlikely without a peak by 2025.

Although the report doesn’t single out any country, China is responsible for almost one-third of annual emissions and can do more than any other nation to make 1.5 degrees possible, according to several experts and diplomats consulted by POLITICO.

Currently, China’s emissions are slated to grow until sometime “before 2030.” Its coal consumption is only planned to begin to drop after 2026.

The EU, the U.S. and the U.K. have all piled pressure on Beijing in the past year to commit to a firm peaking date close to the middle of the decade. On Monday, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said countries “with targets not yet aligned with a 1.5-degree trajectory must increase their ambition.” China’s response has been that other big emitters like the EU and U.S. — which have huge past emissions but where pollution is falling — should do more, faster. 

But China’s influence on emissions is so large that it tends to dictate the trajectory. Between 2019 and 2021, total CO2 emissions from outside China fell by 570 million tons, but China’s emissions grew by 750 million tons and drove annual emissions to their highest level ever in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency. An average Chinese citizen now produces more CO2 emissions than a European — although far less than an American.

But there has been “no sign” that China’s government intends to shift the country’s policy, said Byford Tsang, a senior policy adviser with the E3G think tank.

2. Capturing carbon is a must

Countries will also have to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to keep global warming in check.

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) — which encompasses methods ranging from natural processes like planting trees to technological solutions like direct air capture — is “unavoidable” to reach net-zero emissions, the authors said. Sequestering CO2 would counterbalance “hard-to-abate” emissions from sectors like aviation or agriculture. 

But CDR doesn’t come without side effects, the scientists acknowledge, and the effectiveness and feasibility of existing methods varies greatly. The only method currently deployed at scale — reforestation — is vulnerable to reversal, threatened by logging and wildfires, and could impact food production if trees replace crops.

Other methods, like tech to suck carbon out of the air or intervening in marine systems to boost the sequestration potential of oceans, are less vulnerable to reversal and don’t pose the same land issues, but most are in their infancy. 

Some of those techniques would allow the extended use of fossil fuels, which is why they are backed by industry and extracting countries, but the idea is strongly opposed by climate campaigners.

Even mentions in the report of “speculative technologies that prolong the use of fossil fuels” indicate it had been “water[ed] down” by governments in the final approval process, said Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law.

3. Failure to act means tough choices in the future

The scientists earmarked the years by which the world must reach net-zero emissions of all greenhouse gases.

The IPCC said 1.5 degrees required hitting net-zero CO2 by 2050-2055. But for all other greenhouse gases (which include methane, nitrogen oxides and f-gases) it gave a surprising range, saying that if efforts accelerate rapidly in the next few years, they could continue to be emitted at low and decreasing levels until 2100, long after previous estimates. 

If there is a failure to make that change in the coming few years, then humanity will face a choice: Accept that warming will stabilize at a higher mark such as 1.6 or 1.7 degrees or try to cool the planet back down through the massive use of CDR. Neither are good options as both mean greater damage from floods, storms, fires, extreme heat and rising seas, the IPCC said in February.

“The choices available to us are no longer ideal,” said Kristina Dahl, a principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an NGO.

4. Governments need to help people cut consumption 

The world needs to slash its overall energy consumption, something that has the potential to deliver “significant” emissions cuts, the scientists write. 

For governments, that means investment in tech-based solutions for more energy efficiency and infrastructure improvements to nudge people toward greener options — as well as the politically thorny business of getting people to change their habits, like shifting to a plant-based diet. 

The scientists said actions taken at the individual level could “rapidly” cut emissions from the residential, commercial, industrial and transport sectors — which dominate global emissions. But they placed the onus on governments to play their part by implementing policies that enabled or nudged citizens toward choices that are good for the climate.

“Many people care,” said Linda Steg, an author and expert in the psychology of climate change from the University of Groningen. “Yet they may face barriers to act, which can be removed by actions, for example, by industry, businesses and governments.”

The authors outline a win-win situation — a world with insulated housing that helps people keep cool or warm and with compact cities requiring less commuting and more street space for cycling and walking isn’t just better for the planet, but also human wellbeing, they write. Whether that argument will convince European governments — currently reluctant to call on their citizens to use less fuel and energy even with a war next door — remains to be seen. 

5. Batteries are the answer for clean vehicles

The scientists back electric vehicles as the best option for making deep cuts to road emissions. Some automakers still tout hydrogen and synthetic fuels, principally as it will allow the continued sale of combustion engine models. But the report is clear that such fuel options, at present limited in commercial scale, are better suited to ships and planes where the weight of batteries makes it difficult to shift to electric.

“Electric vehicles powered by low emissions electricity offer the largest decarbonisation potential for land-based transport,” the scientists agreed, adding that “electrification could play a niche role for aviation and shipping for short trips.” The EU is currently considering a total ban on sales of new combustion engine cars and vans from 2035.

Those goals are helped by shifts in commuting and homeworking patterns, as well as more efficient industrial supply chains and the gradual deployment of automated cars, the IPCC said.

Zack Colman contributed reporting.

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