Time is of the essence in the race against climate change

Time is of the essence

The release of the latest IPCC report shows it is now or never to take action on the climate crisis

By Ruth Townend

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published the third – and final – report in its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) triad on the state of climate change and the world’s response.  

The first report, on climate science, was published in the run up to COP26 last year. The headline ‘code red for humanity’ resonated across a world reeling from an unprecedented pandemic, wildfires and flooding across the affluent Global North.

The latest IPCC report highlights how humanity now faces its last chance to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

But, just a few months later, amid the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the second report on adaptation barely registered with the media despite being called ‘an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.’  

The latest IPCC report on mitigation highlights how humanity now faces its last chance to take drastic and transformative steps to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, laying out pathways for action within a rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future for all.

While many governments and corporations have pledged to reach net zero, implementation and comprehensive policy alignment are now urgently needed. As the report spells out, it has never been more possible to take action. The time for ‘saying one thing and doing another,’ in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, is over.


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Systemic change

To deliver a world that restricts global warming to 1.5°C – an internationally agreed target – systemic change is needed. Global GHG emissions need to peak by 2025, and reduce by 48 percent by 2030, reaching net zero in the early 2050s.

The IPCC report points to numerous quick policy wins to help achieve this in the form of solar and wind energy, the electrification of urban systems, greening in cities, energy efficiency, demand-side management, improved forest, crop and grassland management and reduced food waste and loss. Importantly, these actions are supported by the public and are technically viable and increasingly cost-effective which, given the current impacts of higher energy bills on vulnerable households, is essential.

is when global greenhouse gas emissions need to have peaked.

Specifically, the IPCC report shows a shift in thinking towards a larger role for renewables in achieving a 1.5°C world. Traditionally, renewables have been seen as problematic for energy security because of intermittency of supply and lack of energy storage capacity. However, both have been revolutionized over the last decade with prices falls exceeding all predictions of scale and speed.

Lead times for bringing renewables online are also now shorter than those for development of new fossil fuel resources, and maintaining current carbon-intensive systems may, in some regions and sectors, already be more expensive than transitioning to low carbon systems.

The urgency of action

While the media response to the IPCC report runs the risk of being muted amid coverage of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the two crises are intrinsically linked. Vladimir Putin’s war is funded by fossil fuels. Therefore, the security of those in Ukraine, and in climate-vulnerable countries worldwide, will in large part depend on how lifestyles in rich countries are fuelled over the coming weeks and months.

While the media response to the IPCC report runs the risk of being muted amid coverage of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the two crises are intrinsically linked.

Demand-side action, supported by policy, is strongly present in the IPCC report – with a chapter on demand and social aspects of climate change mitigation for the first time in IPCC history. Demand reduction represents, not only the sole climate change solution that can be implemented immediately, but also a triple solution for energy security, cost of living and climate change.

People in Europe and beyond have shown their compassion for those in Ukraine. Yet the IPCC has made clear that the climate crisis will lead to much more displacement and many more deaths even than the war. The public needs the information and support to enable them to act for a better present and for a more liveable future.

Different pathways

All of the scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5°C without overshoot rely to some extent on Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) or Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). According to the IPCC report, some degree of CDR is unavoidable to counterbalance hard-to-abate residual emissions and biological methods of CDR are already in place at some scale. Implementation of technological CCS solutions, on the other hand, currently faces ‘technological, economic, institutional, ecological-environmental and socio-cultural barriers.’

Climate change is scorching the Earth and inaction is a choice which, if made, will only make matters worse.

Yet the magnitude of change needed is daunting and, in the face of this challenge, media attention is already turning to CDRs as an alternative to mitigation. CDR technologies, unproven at scale and with unknown environmental impacts, must not be allowed to distract from the IPCC report’s messages on the urgency of rapid systemic transformation. The IPCC is clear. These transformations must begin on a timescale of days, weeks and months. Not of years or decades.

To overcome the pull of CDRs and the mitigation delays that endlessly result, policy solutions are needed. These must centre on the separation of net-zero targets in terms of carbon reductions and removals.

Removal targets may also need to be capped on the basis of factors poorly defined and sometimes overlooked within the models on which IPCC pathways are based, such as the pressure CDRs might place on biodiversity and land scarcity. Only by deep, immediate action on carbon reductions can the world move closer to confidence in its security in the face of climate change.

Climate change is scorching the Earth and inaction is a choice which, if made, will only make matters worse. The IPCC has laid out multiple pathways to a liveable future. Now we must choose our way and travel far and fast together. 

*Ruth Townend is a research fellow with the Environment and Society Programme at Chatham House. 

*This article first appeared on the chathamhouse website

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