For the world to have any chance of preventing catastrophic climate change, it needs an immediate, collective and herculean effort to phase out fossil fuels and rein in greenhouse gas emissions.
And even if humanity pulls it off, planetary warming is likely to at least temporarily soar past 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, the aspirational goal of the landmark Paris climate accords.
That is the conclusion of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, published Monday, focusing on what is required to tackle a threat that is already causing suffering and devastation around the globe. Although there are signs of climate action, the world remains wildly short of meeting international goals.
“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” Jim Skea, who co-chairs the panel that authored the report, said in a statement. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
To achieve the 1.5-degree target, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 and then be cut approximately 43% below 2019 levels by the end of the decade, and 84% by 2050, the IPCC said.
That is a monumental task. Human greenhouse gas emissions were 12% higher in 2019 than in 2010, and policies implemented at the end of 2020 have put the planet on course to a devastating 3.2 degrees of warming. Existing and soon-to-be-built fossil fuel infrastructure are forecast to spew enough pollution into the atmosphere in the coming years to put the 1.5-degree target out of reach.
“Increased action must begin this year, not next year; this month, not next month; and indeed today, not tomorrow,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. environment program, said at a news conference announcing the findings. “Otherwise we will ... continue to sleepwalk into a climate catastrophe.”
As the report highlights, the solution is clear: The world, in particular wealthy nations that are responsible for the vast majority of emissions, must stop investing in dirty energy and move quickly to replace coal, oil and gas with renewables, like solar and wind.
Political forces continue to be the biggest obstacles to aggressive action.
“The interaction between politics, economics and power relationships is central to explaining why broad commitments do not always translate to urgent action,” reads a technical document accompanying the report.
The sobering assessment comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to further delay efforts to confront climate change in the U.S. and abroad. The Biden administration has set ambitious climate goals, but is now facing pressure to boost domestic oil and gas production in order to combat rising energy costs and assist European allies as they scramble to reduce their reliance on Russian petroleum.
António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, recently warned that the conflict in Eastern Europe could be the death knell for limiting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees. And at Monday’s news conference, he said the report is “a litany of broken promises” and “a file of shame.”
“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals,” Guterres said. “But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
Monday’s report, authored by 278 experts from 65 countries, is the third installment of the IPCC’s sixth global assessment. The second report, published in February, analyzed climate impacts and vulnerabilities, and warned that “the extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger” than previously known. The window to “secure a livable and sustainable future for all” is rapidly closing, that document said.
Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development and a peer-reviewer of the new report, said the world is facing a “do-or-die moment.”
“If the last report from the Sixth Assessment was an atlas of human suffering and failed leadership, this report is an atlas of human hope and the last chance for the leadership we need from the heads of State to return to a safe climate,” Zaelke said in a statement.
John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special climate envoy, said the report “represents a defining moment for our planet.”
“Every country must move further and faster,” Kerry said in a statement. “Faster means rapidly upscaling deployment of renewable energy. Faster means targeting methane emissions. Faster means reducing demand and focusing on efficiency. Faster means halting and reversing global deforestation. Faster means demanding more sustainable transit.”
“Choosing the more sustainable option is not only the right thing to do, but the IPCC has shown it is now the more affordable choice,” Kerry added.