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IPCC report on climate change mitigation: the time for action is now

On 4 April 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the third report in its sixth global climate assessment, focusing on climate mitigation (see press release and report). 

The first IPCC report in this series published in August 2021 focused on the physical science (see here) and the second report published in February 2022 focused on climate impact and adaptation (see here), both painting a very stark picture which has been described as a “code red for humanity". Those earlier reports established that an increase in the global temperature beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is extremely undesirable and is likely to lead to much more severe and frequent impacts of climate change.

The IPCC, which is comprised of the world's leading climate experts, was set up by the UN and World Meteorological Organization in 1988 to provide governments with scientific information they can use to develop climate policies. The IPCC assessments are also a key input into the international negotiations to tackle climate change (e.g. COP26 and the forthcoming COP27).

What does the latest IPCC report say? 

The latest IPCC report assesses our progress in mitigating climate change and maps the pathway to keeping global warming within safe levels. 

Whilst the key message in this report is no less urgent than the previous reports, it is also optimistic: “The evidence is clear: the time for action is now. We can halve emissions by 2030.” And the science makes it clear that we must halve emissions by this date. 

The IPCC concludes that:

  • to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must peak before 2025 at the latest, reduce by 43% by 2030 (while simultaneously reducing methane emissions by about a third), and reach net zero in the early 2050s; and 
  • to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, emissions must peak before 2025, reduce by 25% by 2030, and reach net zero by the early 2070s.

Total GHG emissions have increased since 2010 across all major sectors globally, and, although the growth in emissions has slowed, emissions are still increasing. In particular, aiming for 1.5C would require coal use to drop by 95%, oil by 60% and gas by 45% by 2050.

The report makes it clear that national policies implemented by the end of 2020 still fall short of what is needed to prevent the world from overshooting the 1.5 degrees target - suggesting that, whilst nations might be committing to net zero by 2050, their interim goals and actions are falling short. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, did not mince his words when he stated that: “We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree limit agreed in Paris . . . Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying.”

In the finance sector, the report states that public and private flows of capital for fossil fuels still outweigh those for climate adaptation and mitigation and that in order to keep within the 2 degrees target, there would need to be annual investment from 2020-2030 three to six times greater than current levels. The IPCC estimates that there is sufficient capital available but that there needs to be clearer signalling from governments of where to invest that capital.   

The energy sector is a key focus in the report – which the IPCC says will require major transitions - involving substantial reductions in the use of fossil fuels, widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency and the use of alternative fuels (such as hydrogen). It expects the switch to cleaner energy options will be made more accessible by a fall in the cost of low-emissions technology in the past decade. According to the IPCC, the unit costs of solar energy and lithium-ion batteries each fell 85% from 2010-2019 and the unit cost of wind energy fell 55% during that same period. 

The IPCC also recommends retrofitting existing buildings to become more energy efficient and designing new buildings to be ‘zero carbon’. For the transport sector, the report states that electric vehicles powered by low emissions electricity offer “the largest decarbonisation potential”. Cities and urban areas also offer significant opportunities for emission reductions.  

Another key focus is carbon capture. The IPCC has concluded that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is now unavoidably required to reach net zero and will be needed to counterbalance hard-to-abate emissions – particularly from aviation and agriculture. Currently, the only widely used CDR methods encompass afforestation, reforestation and soil carbon sequestration, but these methods are particularly vulnerable to reversal and risk impacting food and water security. Whilst technological solutions (such as removing carbon directly from the air) are viewed as more secure, the report recognises that they are not yet ready to be implemented on a wider scale.  

The IPCC concludes that the economic benefits of mitigating climate change will outweigh the costs when taking into account the cost of adaptation to the effects of climate change and the economic damage of climate impacts. In short, investing in climate mitigation pays off – literally. 

The latest IPCC report is no less urgent than its predecessors. The climate transition is possible, but it is clear that the next few years are critical. There will need to be a major transition across all sectors, industries and the globe, with key roles played by the energy sector and CDR. With the cost of renewable energy sources dropping, climate mitigation is no longer as prohibitively expensive as it might have been ten years ago, but the transition will need to happen quickly: “the time for action is now”.

Looking ahead

The science is difficult to ignore and governments around the globe will need to act fast in taking steps to enable countries to slash overall energy consumption and significantly cut emissions in an impactful way.

Significant investment in infrastructure improvements, in energy efficiency and carbon capture technologies is going to be required, which will provide greater options for ‘greener’ solutions. In particular, the auto industry is also likely to see much change in the coming years, with the report supporting electric vehicles as one of the better options for cutting emissions from land-based transport. The direction of travel is indicative also in the EU’s consideration of a ban on sales of new combustion engine cars and vans from 2035. Similar restrictions will also be implemented in the UK, where there will be a phase out of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, with all new cars and vans being fully zero emission at the tailpipe from 2035.

As a result, there is likely to be more and more opportunity for investment in low carbon technologies, in particular in respect of wind and solar energy, electric vehicles, energy-efficient appliances and low carbon heating, which are likely to decline in cost as time goes on.


climate change & environment, global, blog posts