Like many researchers, we pored over the many hundreds of pages, representing years of work, of the new IPCC Working Group III (WGIII) report released on 4 April 2022 on mitigating climate change. Since our research focuses on fossil fuels, we looked to see what the IPCC says about the feasibility of rapidly transitioning the world away from coal, oil and gas, which are by far the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Overall, the report concludes that energy transformations aligned with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals are still technically and economically possible. However, we need to move fast – much faster than we have so far – to electrify (almost) everything while rapidly decarbonizing our energy systems, significantly improve energy efficiency, and adopt the many other technologies and practices needed to stay below the 1.5°C and “well below 2°C” warming limits of the Paris Agreement.
Even more interesting is how the WGIII makes a leap forward in assessing other, sometimes less-appreciated aspects of feasibility: the social and political dimensions. The IPCC opens up about how the biggest challenges are actually in our governance and institutions.
Here, we distill three observations from our early read of WGIII on how to overcome the feasibility concerns of low-carbon Paris-aligned outcomes. Perhaps this can help inform where we put our political, social and even research efforts in the years ahead.
First, delaying action will only make the problem increasingly hard and more costly to overcome. Any near-term reduction in fossil fuel use helps the climate and public health, and much of it is already broadly plausible.
Much of the recent climate discourse has focused on when and how to get to net-zero emissions, but what is much more important in the near term is to reduce emissions as quickly as possible now.
“We already have options to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by at least half by 2030 across all greenhouse gas-emitting sectors. However, countries' current climate pledges fall short of this vision.”
On this point, the IPCC provides some welcome news. We already have options to cut global GHG emissions by at least half by 2030 across all GHG-emitting sectors. However, countries’ current climate pledges, otherwise known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), fall short of this vision. “There is no mitigation pathway designed to follow the NDCs until 2030 that can limit warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot”, the IPCC concludes.
However, the immediate and sustained public health benefits of taking climate action are worth every inch of progress and the positive results can fuel the political momentum to do more. By extracting and burning less fossil fuels and increasing access to clean energy, public transport and healthy diets, we would be saving millions of people worldwide from illness and premature death every year. The financial value of health benefits from improved air quality alone is estimated to exceed the costs of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Essentially, improved public health will make climate action pay for itself.
Second, moving as quickly away from fossil fuels as the Paris Agreement demands also requires economic development for most of the world. The economic means to invest in low-carbon solutions is a prerequisite of nearly all 1.5°C-aligned scenarios. As the IPCC notes, “Decarbonising the economy requires global action to address fundamental economic inequities and overcome the climate investment trap that exists for many developing countries.” In other words, reaching the warming goals of the Paris Agreement will require economic growth for the developing world plus a considerable degree of finance, likely exceeding the $100 billion annually already pledged (but not yet delivered) from industrialized countries.
“The immediate and sustained public health benefits of taking climate action are worth every inch of progress and the positive results can fuel the political momentum to do more.”
In that respect, it was troubling to read that the US successfully argued to delete, from the government-approved version of the Summary for Policymakers, the figure (which still exists in Chapter 15 as Figure 15.4) describing just how much finance would be needed in each world region. This action could relate to political limitations in the US. Those limitations are real and regrettably not likely to improve in the near term. Other means for the US public and institutions to support low-carbon economic growth in developing countries will be needed, which perhaps suggests a useful area of research.
Besides economic development, other important forms of human development can also work double-duty as climate solutions. Most notably, Illustrative Mitigation Pathway SP shows how, in addition to rapid income growth in developing regions and climate finance from industrialized countries, striving for some other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can also limit global warming. This includes SDGs related to healthy and sustainable diets, improved forest land cover and reduced air pollution as discussed above.
As the IPCC puts it, social justice “could be essential to enhance the political and public acceptability of the low carbon transition.”
Third, the most plausible remaining pathways to Paris alignment appear to rely on rapid deployment of low-carbon technologies in the next decade, while working to build the “best case” governance institutions of the future.
GHG emissions have been so high for so long that even limiting warming to 2°C at this point may require “unprecedented” government policy and cooperation that extend beyond what the IPCC could identify as plausible “best case” examples from history. The need for government policy is massive, both for individual countries but also for improved international cooperation. New dedicated institutions may even be needed (far, far beyond current environment ministries) to build “climate-ready states“.
While that may seem like a gloomy assessment, the IPCC also notes that feasibility is dynamic: It changes in time and space, and actions taken now can affect the feasibility of potential actions in the future.
The dynamic nature of feasibility gives us some hope. For example, rapid deployment of low-carbon technology now can help lower the barriers for future government policy, as actors increasingly buy into new technologies (even if only for economic or self-interested reasons), creating positive feedback cycles.
“Rapid low-carbon development now may be able to hold the window for 1.5°C or 2°C open just long enough for the politics to change.”
In other words, rapid low-carbon development now may be able to hold the window for 1.5°C or 2°C open just long enough for the politics to change. Of course, in so doing, low-carbon development in the near term may also help sway the politics away from fossil fuels (for example, by building a new low-carbon labor force), even as actions to sideline entrenched interests and associated predatory delay are also required.
Further, nobody can yet be sure which precise version of meeting the Paris Agreement goals is most feasible. At present, WGIII Chapter 3 views a gradual strengthening of governance (pathway GS), or a more extensive deployment of CDR pathway (Neg), to be more plausible institutionally than the more sustainability-oriented pathways (known as LD and SP). However, the Neg pathway’s heavy reliance on biomass energy runs into limitations on how much biomass can be sustainably grown.
Therefore, while many climate advocates would see the Neg and GS pathways as involving painful consolations to political forces (and, accordingly, higher near-term fossil fuel use), these pathways should not be completely ruled out or foreclosed if we are to keep the Paris Agreement’s temperature limits alive. This will be a subtle and difficult dance, since pursuing a combination of strategies simultaneously, all of which are suboptimal in some way, can run counter to current trends by politicians and civil society actors alike to emphasize more singular solutions.
Feasibility is up to us
In closing, the IPCC makes clear the immense benefits of moving away from fossil fuels. Every bit of emissions reduction matters, the earlier the better. The challenge, as the IPCC lays out, “is whether the feasibility frontier can move faster than the pace at which the carbon budget is being exhausted.”
As the report makes clear, feasibility is dynamic and actions taken now can open new possibilities, potentially pushing the feasibility frontier onward. In our view, the only way to find out just how quickly that frontier can advance is to try: deploy what is known to cut GHGs, improve air quality and equitably improve people’s lives now, with an eye towards just and sustainable development outcomes everywhere, research and build what could work (both technically and politically) tomorrow, keep observing, evaluating and iterating, and deploying some more. The next few years are critical: there is no time to waste.