This latest IPCC report provides an updated and withering global assessment of how emission reduction and mitigation efforts are faring and national climate pledges compare with long-term emission goals. It shows that from 2010–2019, average annual global greenhouse gas emissions were at their highest levels in human history. Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach. The few positives are that the rate of growth in emissions has slowed, there is increasing evidence of climate action and the costs of solar power, wind energy and batteries have declined sharply.
In releasing the report, IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said, “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”
SEI researchers with a wide array of expertise offer their takeaways on some of the report’s key points.
Despite the many policy, behavioural change and technological options we have available, the report makes clear that limiting global warming to 1.5°C or even 2°C is a monumental challenge and may soon be out of reach unless we take immediate and ambitious action to reach peak emissions within the next few years. In large part, the progress we make will depend on developments in scaling up renewables, improving energy efficiency and phasing out fossil fuels.
Renewables. The report provides testimony to the tremendous progress that renewable energy technologies have made in recent years, reaching low costs and deployment levels unthinkable a decade ago. Solar and wind power each offer more mitigation potential per year at costs below reference levels than any other assessed mitigation option.
While renewables’ success and prospects for continued accelerating growth are not sufficient to keep warming under 2°C, it is important to remember that renewables have many other benefits, including to energy security, economic development and overall reduced environmental impact.
Energy efficiency. The report points out that we’re losing the efficiency race. Gains in energy efficiency have been more than offset by increased demand. Accelerating the deployment of energy efficiency technologies should be high in the climate change agenda.
Fossil fuels. The report notes that “public and private finance flows for fossil fuels are still greater than those for climate adaptation and mitigation”. This fact is so crucial that it merits its own headline. After all, how are we supposed to address the problem if we keep investing more money in causing climate change than in preventing it and its consequences? While the report thoroughly covers the demand side of the fossil fuels issue, it does not address production. As we showed in the most recent Production Gap report, governments still plan by 2030 to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Fossil fuel production must be addressed alongside demand if we are to make progress in mitigating climate change.
Meeting the Paris temperature limits remains an imperative if we are to avoid catastrophic impacts on communities and ecosystems across the world. Nevertheless, the scale of the challenge is clear, and several mitigation pathways in the report exceed 2°C – and in some cases exceed 3°C. Interestingly, higher-end warming is under-represented in climate research, and thus the IPCC report does not address in depth the sectorial and other mitigation implications of “above” and “well above” 2°C mitigation pathways. Given the report’s sobering findings and the scale of the challenge ahead, then, it might be prudent for the scientific community to invest in better understanding the implications of higher-end mitigation pathways. Doing so would help articulate more effective and equitable backup strategies, even as we double down on our efforts to achieve the Paris limits.
The report clearly emphasizes the need for much stronger policy contexts that can directly mobilize capital flows and shift the risk-reward profile for investments from brown to green.
The report delivers a clear and distressing message that shows just how far short today’s investment and financial flows are from reaching the levels needed to achieve the Paris Agreement targets. These investment gaps are enormous – across all sectors and all regions. Investments need to grow by 2-5 times in electricity, 2-10 times in energy efficiency, 7-8 times in transport and 10-29 times in agriculture, forestry and other land use. The financial flows going to mitigation are far too low everywhere in countries of all income levels, but the gap is particularly profound for developing regions, which need investments to increase by 4-8 times current levels.
The report highlights disturbing ironies. Climate finance flows must grow much more rapidly than they have over the past 10 years. Instead, the rate of growth in climate finance appears to be slowing. Attention to climate change in the financial sector appears to be intensifying among regulators, public authorities and private actors, yet this has failed to lead to emissions reductions. As the report starkly notes, “This leaves high uncertainty, both near-term (2021-30) and longer-term, on the feasibility of an alignment of financial flows with the Paris Agreement goals”.
The report clearly emphasizes the need for much stronger policy contexts that can directly mobilize capital flows and shift the risk-reward profile for investments from brown to green. Political leadership is key, but the report is less than clear about how leaders should proceed. What levers would be effective to rapidly increase climate investment and finance? Indeed, many of the policy measures highlighted in the report are to some extent in place today. This raises related questions. Do we need to simply scale up the existing climate finance toolkit? Or do we instead need to rethink the type of policy that could bring about the massive shifts in capital that have yet to materialize?
The report highlights the extent of the connections between climate change and inequality – both among and within countries. Further, it makes the point that these ties must be addressed if the world is going to make progress on its climate mitigation goals.
The report emphasizes that inequality contributes to climate change insofar as it is the consumption of the wealthiest that disproportionately contributes to climate change, as opposed to the pursuit of the elimination of poverty per se. As the report states, “…households with income in the top 10% contribute about 36-45% of global (greenhouse gas) emissions. The lifestyle consumption emissions of the middle income and poorest citizens in emerging economies are between 5-50 times below their counterparts in high-income countries.”
The report also underscores the unavoidable links between the distributional consequences of policies to mitigate climate change and the potential for serious, adverse consequences from the design of policies that do not explicitly and deliberately prioritize equity and fairness.
Moreover, it points out that measures to reduce inequality would increase the prospects for ambitious climate change mitigation. Such efforts include adopting strategies that shift away from highly resource-consuming “status consumption” and toward a focus on enhancing well-being and implementing measures that address the inequalities in power associated with design and implementation of climate policy by taking more participatory, inclusive approaches that seek a just transition.
Prioritizing fairness is as relevant at the global level as it is domestically. To enable a shift to a lower-emission and sustainable pathway demands an explicit consideration of justice, equity and fairness.
Shifting to “balanced, sustainable healthy diets” can play an important role in reducing emissions. While the focus has been on consumers, policymakers also have a crucial role to play in making sustainable and healthy dietary options the more obvious choice.
The way we produce and consume food will have to transform significantly to meet the triple challenge of reducing emissions while feeding a growing population and adapting to become more resilient to ever-increasing climate impacts.
It’s no surprise, then, that the report recognizes the important role that “shifting to balanced, sustainable healthy diets” can play in reducing emissions, in addition to other essential actions to our food system such as reducing food loss and waste.
Relegated to a footnote in the Summary for Policymakers, it’s easy to miss the significant contribution that shifting to more plant-based diets can play in this regard, particularly in high-income settings where animal protein consumption is often very high. Indeed, the livestock sector is responsible for some 14.5% of global emissions and is a major consumer of land and water. Without proactive government policies, its environmental impacts will only increase in the coming decades.
This is a crucial message for policymakers in high-income regions to internalize. To date, conversations around dietary shift have tended to emphasize individual consumer responsibility. However, consumers’ decisions are only part of the story and they do not operate in a vacuum.
Policymakers have a crucial role to play in making sustainable and healthy dietary options the more obvious choice. They could help by redirecting current farm subsidies – nearly 90% of which the UN considers “harmful” – to more sustainable food products and practices, ensuring that that the negative environmental and health impacts of industrial livestock farming are internalized in its costs and investing in alternatives to animal protein. Just as in the energy sector, timely and inclusive just transition planning and support in the food sector can help affected stakeholders adapt to the needed changes and build support for more sustainable approaches.
If we are serious about meeting our sustainable development goals, supporting plant-based diets needs to be more than a footnote in the policy playbook.
Several key technologies that were seen as only in early stages of development in the previous Assessment Report are by now classified as at near-commercial level. Rapid commercialization is now key, meaning that policymakers have to step up not only in terms of finance but also in terms of legal processes, permitting and balancing climate needs with other sustainability concerns.
An area that has seen quite promising development since the last report is decarbonization of heavy industry such as steel, cement and petrochemicals. The previous AR5 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014 framed industrial decarbonization potential primarily in terms of improved efficiencies, emissions reductions in existing processes and carbon capture and storage (CCS). By contrast, the 2022 report clearly acknowledges the possibilities of very sharp emission reductions from heavy industry. What is more, the report highlights the possibilities of actual transitions to new processes that build upon emerging technologies that include the aforementioned CCS, but also electrification of process heat and the use of hydrogen as both an energy carrier and process chemical.
Several key technologies, notably hydrogen direct reduction for steel production, were seen as only in early stages of development in 2014. Now it is classified as at near-commercial level. The rapid pace of innovation in recent years and policy around industrial decarbonization is acknowledged by the report on a positive note, emphasizing that “…the mitigation potential in some scenarios is underestimated compared to bottom-up industry-specific models.”
The key take-home point from all this is that we largely have at our disposal the technological toolkit to enable large emission reductions – “net-zero” – in heavy industry. This is a very positive development. At the same time, it means more politically challenging times ahead. Putting more money into climate technology research and development is probably the easiest route available for politicians to show climate leadership. Bringing these technologies to commercial operation in a timeframe that, in the perspective of heavy industry, is very short will require a step-change in terms of political acumen.
Notably, realizing the transition will require massive investments in infrastructure for electricity, hydrogen and CO2 (for CCS). This will be challenging not primarily in terms of finance but in terms of legal processes, permitting and balancing climate needs with other sustainability concerns. Similarly, it will be key to manage the substantial economic fluctuations that are expected as new companies are born and established champions disappear and changes lead to the creation of new jobs and the loss of old ones. Addressing these issues proactively will be key to ensure that a necessary transition is not only quick, but also just.
The new report raises three key issues for transportation:
The expected. Electrification is highlighted among the solutions for climate mitigation in the transport sector, playing a key role for land-based transport.
The unexpected. Public transport electrification gets an early spotlight as a “feasible, scalable and affordable mitigation option for mass transportation”. This attention is deserved. Public transport was an early adopter of battery-driven vehicles. For example, electric buses led the way with experiences that helped other transport segments to electrify.
The powerful. Fuel efficiency, modal shifts and electrification measures have higher lifetime monetary savings than their costs. In fact, except for biofuels, all listed transport mitigation options have higher lifetime savings than costs. Among all emissions categories in the report, this is unique. The point is that transport mitigation options are feasible and economically viable.
However, car-centric approaches dominate strategic transport planning. Transport demand is growing. Vehicle weights are increasing. We must better understand the systemic inefficiencies that have given rise to such development trends. What should be done in places that lack available mobility alternatives, where transport demand may be inelastic? Could data transparency and digitalization help us avoid “rebound” effects that occur when emissions are mitigated in one transport segment only to increase in another? What should be done to provide equitable access to infrastructure and mobility services, especially for rural and remote areas or city parts that are exposed to risks for poverty and social exclusion? These issues demand attention going forward – and in ways that go beyond technological improvements.
The report breaks new ground by assessing all methods for carbon dioxide removal: land/biomass, ocean and industrial/technological methods, thus providing greater context for choices that will have to be made based on costs, impacts, political prioritization and availability of financing.
The report tackles a relatively new and important topic: assessing different methods for carbon dioxide removal (CDR). The report breaks new ground by examining all CDR methods, providing greater context for their critical role in pathways to stay under a 1.5°C or 2°C average temperature increase in this century. Choices among the three main categories – approaches based on land/biomass, ocean and industrial/technological methods – will be based on their costs, impacts, political prioritization and availability of financing. The outcomes of these decisions will be critical, and not just for helping to stabilize global temperature rise. Each choice has potentially significant co-benefits, trade-offs, and synergies with different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and even among individual CDR actions themselves. These interactions and linkages remain poorly understood, and they warrant additional attention.
The report has some surprises when it comes to the overall characterization of land and biomass use and there are some omissions on the related issue of traditional biomass use.
The report’s overall perspective on land and biomass use emphasizes cautions about land- and biomass-based approaches to emissions reductions and CDR, rather than emphasizing the need for more productive use of land and biomass to meet climate goals. This perspective could be interpreted as backtracking on the conclusions put forward in the 2019 IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land. That earlier report noted the role of reforestation, biochar and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage in offering potentially large CDR contributions, with monitoring and good governance needed to reduce risks. The most recent report barely mentions the importance of phasing out land-intensive traditional biomass associated mainly with charcoal and fuelwood use for cooking, which is responsible for about 2% of global emissions – not much less than the aviation sector. Although phasing out traditional biomass is not considered CDR, doing so avoids emissions as well as other negative impacts.
Land-based climate measures – both through modern methods for CDR and through phasing out traditional biomass use – offer synergies and co-benefits with poverty reduction and improved livelihoods. By contrast, ocean-based and industrial-based methods are less likely to support positive linkages with other SDGs since they do not easily relate to local development priorities. Future work on these issues must address interactions between climate stabilization goals and their development implications.
The report comes at a difficult time in international relationships and amidst the pandemic recovery. These global issues may put an unwelcome strain on the collective efforts needed to address the financial issues raised by the latest report. In response to the geopolitics of our times, particularly to the volatility and instability of international relationships, many governments are considering a shift in the targets of short-, mid- and long-term financial flows and investments. Three issues are surfacing.
Fossil fuels. Financial flows from many governments are moving in the wrong direction, towards fossil fuels, in the name of security.
Weapons. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, increased spending for defense and armaments planned by many Western countries may reduce both the investments and the leveraging capacity of governments for climate issues. This may divert finance flows from overseas development aid and from climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.
The pandemic. The global economic effects of the pandemic remain significant. Over the past two years, governments have pumped historic amounts of public funding into sustaining their economies. These midterm financial commitments may significantly limit the capacity of government to invest in climate action and leverage private climate finance. Moreover, pandemic spending also has important short-term implications for investment-management capacity. Some countries and regions – most notably the EU – are attempting to align post-pandemic recovery investments to climate action investments. The effects of these efforts must be carefully monitored.
Given this context, the role of private finance is all the more critical. Leveraged and non-leveraged forms of finance are urgently needed, particularly for adaptation. Many measures are available: taxonomies, impact assessments and environmental, social and corporate governance standards and safeguards. However, these require greater rigor to ensure that such investments align with targets and that they do not have unintended side effects.
Senior Research Fellow
Senior Research Fellow
Senior Research Fellow
SEI Affiliated Researcher
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