The world is running out of options to hit climate goals, U.N. report shows

Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.
Tractors are seen at Eagle Butte Coal Mine in Gillette, Wyoming, on Nov. 12, 2021.

The world is on track to blaze past a crucial climate target within eight years, some of the planet’s top researchers, economists and social scientists said in a sober assessment Monday.

Whether humanity can change course after decades of inaction is largely a question of collective resolve, according to the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Governments, businesses and individuals must summon the willpower to transform economies, embrace new habits and leave behind the age of fossil fuels – or face the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change.

“The science has been ever more consistent and ever more clear,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, said in an interview.

What’s needed now is “political courage,” she added. “That is what it will take – the ability to look beyond current interests.”

Human carbon pollution has already pushed the planet into unprecedented territory, ravaging ecosystems, raising sea levels and exposing millions of people to new weather extremes. At the current rate of emissions, the world will burn through its remaining “carbon budget” by 2030 – putting the ambitious goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degree Fahrenheit) irrevocably out of reach.

It is still technically possible, and even economically viable, for nations to curb carbon pollution on the scale that’s required, according to the U.N.-assembled panel of 278 top climate experts. However, the report’s authors write, it “cannot be achieved through incremental change.”

Monday’s report represents the IPCC’s first analysis of humanity’s remaining paths for climate action since the landmark Paris Agreement, in which world leaders committed to prevent dangerous warming. The several thousand page document details how coordinated efforts to scale up renewable energy sources, overhaul transportation systems, restructure cities, improve agriculture and pull carbon from the air could put the planet on a more sustainable path while improving living standards around the globe.

Yet public officials and private investors alike have so far shown little appetite for the massive upfront investments and aggressive social change it likely will take to move the world away from its long reliance on coal, oil and gas.

In a withering statement Monday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres slammed the governments of high emitting countries, which he said “are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels.”

The latest IPCC report serves as a “file of shame,” Guterres said, “cataloging empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”

In an indication of the report’s high stakes, the negotiations over the final text were the longest in IPCC history, with officials from nearly 200 countries haggling over language late into Sunday night.

“This report presents the best and most robust list of options to limit warming to 1.5 degrees,” said Eddy Perez, the international climate diplomacy manager for Climate Action Network – Canada, who followed the approval process. “That, I feel, is why it took so long. It put countries in a position where they actually need to look at themselves and recognize their actions are inadequate.”

The IPCC makes clear that for all the technological challenges of transforming the world’s energy supply – and the added difficulty of doing it as fast as possible – a primary obstacle to expansive action remains political.

Long-standing infrastructure and ingrained habits make it difficult for people to switch to more sustainable practices. Policies that would curb carbon emissions get blocked by “incumbent fossil fuel interests,” researchers say.

Elected officials have largely been unwilling to choose policies they fear could cost them the next election when the benefits might not be felt for several more decades.

Current events demonstrate the numerous stumbling blocks to climate policy, experts said: The most sweeping climate bill in U.S. history collapsed after coal-state Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., pulled his support. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has officials scrambling for new oil and gas sources to stave off an energy crisis.

But without action from the world’s wealthiest countries, the scientists behind Monday’s assessment warned, the nations and people who are least at fault for fueling climate change will be the ones who suffer the most.

Developed countries are the source of 57% of all greenhouse gases emitted by humans since 1850, the report says, while the least developed countries account for just 0.4% of total planet-warming pollution.

Globally, the richest 10% of households generate as much as 45% of emissions.

“We have been calling for urgent action for decades while emissions continue to rise,” Madeleine Diouf Sarr, head of the climate change division in Senegal’s environment ministry and chair of the Least Developed Countries group, which negotiates as a bloc at international climate talks, said in an email. “It’s time for implementation.”

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The IPCC issued its first-ever assessment report on climate change in 1990, warning that humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions were heating the planet at a pace unmatched in thousands of years. It projected that global average temperatures could hit 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2025 and 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) by 2100, with dangerous consequences for people and ecosystems.

Those projections were right. The world is already more than a degree warmer than it was before people started burning fossil fuels. Yet since the IPCC’s first warning, greenhouse emissions have moved almost exclusively in one direction: Up.

Even as some countries managed to peak or reduce their emissions, the globe’s total from 2010 to 2019 was higher than in any previous decade, the IPCC report shows. And while carbon pollution briefly dropped during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, it soon came roaring back.

“It is not impossible the next time an IPCC report comes out, we might be very close to or beyond the 1.5 (Celsius) level,” said Jim Skea, a sustainable energy expert at Imperial College London and co-chair of the working group behind the report.

If the world remains on its current track, global average temperatures are projected to rise 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

Two related reports from the IPCC, released last August and earlier this year, offered a bleak vision of what that warmer world would look like.

Collapsing ice sheets would raise sea levels at rates not seen in human history. Coral reefs could vanish, along with a growing number of animal species. Intensified disasters will wreak deadly chaos, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable communities. Parts of the Earth that currently slow the pace of warming – such as oceans that absorb excess heat – will become less able to help.

After decades of watching their warnings go unheeded, some experts wondered how the world would respond to Monday’s latest alarm bell, particularly as other urgent problems occupy people’s attention: the ongoing covid-19 pandemic; economic instability that has raised prices on consumer goods; and a brutal war in Ukraine that has upended the international order.

“We are now at a moment of increasing tension around the world, with every excuse possible for distraction and delay,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

The current supply chain disruptions, food shortages and refugee crises offer a preview of the suffering rising temperatures will bring, Kyte said.

“We are at a moment of reckoning.”

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Despite pledging in the 2015 Paris agreement to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspiration of not exceeding 1.5C, few nations have yet enacted the policies needed to actually meet those targets.

The world’s continued emissions, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence about the costs of climate change, is “to a large degree rooted in the underlying structural features of societies,” the IPCC writes.

Existing buildings were designed to be heated with gas. Cities were constructed to be navigated by car. Much of the world still depends on pipelines, power plants and other vast infrastructure that crosses borders and was built to last for decades.

“The scale of what we’re talking about is so vast,” said Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based research firm, adding, “In practice, there is no master planner to carry this out.”

Fossil fuels have long been reliable, affordable and ubiquitous, Book added. “The reason to do something else has to become more compelling.”

Yet Monday’s report also pinpoints the political and cultural forces it says have held back progress on climate change.

Conservative foundations, some backed by businesses, have promoted efforts to oppose climate policies, the authors write, while the U.S. oil industry has “underpinned the emergence of climate skepticism.” Financial institutions still fund fossil fuel projects more than renewable energy. And the media – both traditional news outlets and newer social media companies – has provided platforms for climate disinformation and presented “both sides” of debates long after the scientific consensus was unequivocal, the IPCC says.

Some experts, such as Brown University sociologist Robert Brulle, had hoped the IPCC would be even more explicit.

“There’s not a clear and coherent statement that says there’s organized obstruction to climate action that is a major barrier to moving forward,” said Brulle, who volunteered as an outside reviewer for the report.

But on one fact, the IPCC is absolutely clear: In waiting so long to take action, humanity has denied itself any chance of making the energy transition gradual or smooth.

Humans can unleash only about 510 more gigatons of carbon dioxide to have an even shot at limiting warming to the 1.5 Celsius goal, scientists say. That remaining “carbon budget” represents only about a decade of emissions at the current rate.

If people hope to stay within this budget, the world must roughly halve emissions in the next eight years.

This means coal use needs to be almost eliminated within 30 years, according to the IPCC. Gas dependence should be reduced by 45%, oil use must fall 60% by the middle of the century and humans must find near-term ways to slash emissions of potent, planet-heating methane. Some existing fossil fuel infrastructure will have to be decommissioned early or used at less than full capacity, the IPCC says. And even if those cuts occur, the world must also invest in strategies that remove carbon from the atmosphere to have a chance of meeting its climate goals.

This change won’t come cheaply, the report finds. Abandoning coal power plants and leaving gas resources unburned could cost trillions of dollars. Achieving necessary shifts in the electricity sector will require about $2.3 trillion per year between 2023 and 2052.

And with each year that passes, the shifts required to meet global climate targets become even more daunting.

IPCC contributing author Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has studied the environmental movement since the 1990s, said it is “unfathomable” that governments and other institutions will transform so quickly, given the history of the past 30 years.

“That’s the problem,” she said. “And it’s depressing.”

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The kind of transformation that might seem unimaginable can still happen, said Leon Clarke, a lead author of the report. Rapid technological transformation and a surge in climate activism “is changing our perceptions of what’s viable in the coming decade,” he said. “I think the hope has to come from that good news.”

Clarke, director of decarbonization pathways at the Bezos Earth Fund, pointed to dramatic improvements in clean energy technologies and other sustainability measures. The cost of solar energy and lithium-ion batteries has fallen 85% since 2010. Owning an electric vehicle is now cheaper than driving a traditional car if you factor in the lifetime costs of maintenance and fuel.

The world can get more than halfway to its 2030 goals using emissions reductions strategies that cost less than $20 per ton of carbon dioxide avoided, the IPCC report finds.

Many climate initiatives would also deliver short-term benefits unconnected to the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. Reducing air pollution from burning fossil fuels would avert 2.4 million premature deaths every year, the IPCC says. Restoring ecosystems that help pull carbon out of the atmosphere benefits wildlife and people alike.

The report finds other good news from the world of climate policy: Some 56 countries that generate more than half of global carbon pollution have enacted legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. And more than 10,500 cities and nearly 250 regions that are home to more than 2 billion people have made voluntary climate pledges.

These commitments have not yet translated into emissions cuts on a global scale. But at least 18 countries have managed to reduce their carbon pollution for at least 10 years while their economies continued to grow. This proves that the world doesn’t have to choose between development and sustainability, said Patricia Romero Lankao, an environmental sociologist and lead author of the report.

“Reducing greenhouse emissions can contribute to ending poverty and hunger,” she added “when it is done with justice and equity approaches in mind.”

In chapter after chapter, the IPCC underscores that addressing climate change is not simply about replacing coal power with solar panels or exchanging an internal combustion engine car for an electric vehicle. It entails coordinated, comprehensive “societal transformation,” the authors say.

“Individual behavioral change is insufficient” to alter the world’s warming trajectory, the report says, unless laws, institutions and cultural norms also shift. The report recommends passing “policy packages” aimed at wide swaths of the economy that can be more effective, enhancing cooperation between countries to help spread new technologies and protecting the most vulnerable people and places on the planet.

Even if the world does surpass its 1.5 degree Celsius target, scientists say, humanity’s safest path is to stay as close as possible to that ambitious goal. The impacts at 1.6 degrees Celsius of warming will still be less severe than at 1.7 degrees, and 1.7C is better than 1.8C or 1.9C or 2C. Every ton of carbon not emitted, every fraction of a degree of warming avoided, helps secure a less disastrous future.

“We want to do as much as we can to prevent as much as we can,” Clarke said. “There is a chance to be successful . . . if we start to make progress now.”