Updated: May 15
It's time to swallow the pill.
Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tend to be dire—the last one certainly was. Perhaps we Treehuggers are incurable optimists, but with the IPCC Working Group III report, "Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change," the glass is certainly half full. It is a very different document, one that demonstrates a pathway to fixing the problem. It tells us what we have to do.
“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. I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries," said IPCC chair Hoesung Lee. "There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective. If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.”1
This Is Gonna Be Close
The latest report is very clear: We are likely to overshoot 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) and staying under 2 degrees C will be difficult; there is not much left in that carbon budget. “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F),” said IPCC Working Group III co-chair Jim Skea. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”1
However, this report clearly demonstrates that progress has been made. Sarah Burch, lead author of the IPCC report, noted in a tweet, "Options now exist across ALL sectors and regions that can cut our emissions by at least half by 2030 (which is what is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change)."
The rate of increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions has slowed, and as my colleague, Treehugger contributor Sami Grover, noted recently, now it’s time to build on that progress and get the job done.
Smart people that I admire are not happy at the scale of what has to be done or the time we have to do it, but one can also look at this as a road map, looking at so many different sectors and telling us what we have to do. We have a prescription, it is going to be tough to swallow, many will resist it and deny it, but there are no longer any excuses—it is a clear call to action.
As Skea said: “Climate change is the result of more than a century of unsustainable energy and land use, lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production. This report shows how taking action now can move us towards a fairer, more sustainable world.”1
You can actually skip reading the report and just study this graph, which summarizes the various sections. The biggest bars with the biggest potential at the lowest cost come from building out more wind and solar energy, followed closely by saving and replanting forests.
The report itself comes in three sections: the encyclopedic full report from scientists and researchers, the technical summary, and the summary for policymakers, which participating nations were arguing about until the last minute. The latter summary takes the science and shapes it with politics.
As the report notes in the technical summary, there are many factors that come into play: "The pace of a transition can be impeded by ‘lock-in’ generated by existing physical capital, institutions, and social norms. The interaction between politics, economics and power relationships is central to explaining why broad commitments do not always translate to urgent action."
The summary for policymakers starts out dire, noting total greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise and the emissions from 2010 to 2019 were higher than any other decade, but that the rate of growth is going down. However, if we don't have some serious abatement—defined as "human interventions that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are released from fossil fuel infrastructure to the atmosphere"2—we will blow through 1.5 degrees C.
Note the careful wording about abatement, rather than eliminating fossil fuel production. According to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, it used to say: "More efforts are required to actively phase out all fossil fuels in the energy sector."3 This is one of those compromises with fossil fuel producers who claim that they can abate their emissions with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Then it gets sort of serious, although someone wrote "fossil fuels with CCS" into the document; nobody outside of Houston, Calgary, or Riyadh thinks that is going to work.
From the summary for policymakers: "All global modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C (>50%) with no or limited overshoot, and those that limit warming to 2°C (>67%) involve rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emission reductions in all sectors. Modelled mitigation strategies to achieve these reductions include transitioning from fossil fuels without CCS to very low- or zero-carbon energy sources, such as renewables or fossil fuels with CCS, demand side measures and improving efficiency, reducing non-CO2 emissions, and deploying carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods to counterbalance residual GHG emissions."2
The report also notes it is mostly a problem of the rich world: "The 10% of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute a disproportionately large share of global household GHG emissions."2 It points a lot of fingers at profligate North Americans who are responsible for most of the cumulative emissions and continue to pump out the most emissions per capita.
A Walk on the Demand Side
The full report includes chapters on the production and supply side and the actions that must be taken to reduce emissions from energy systems, agriculture, urban systems, buildings, transport, and industry. But for the first time, it looks at the demand side, concluding changes here could have dramatic results. The biggest changes will have to be made by the people with the biggest carbon footprints:
"By 2050, comprehensive demand-side strategies across all sectors could reduce CO2 and non-CO2 GHG emissions globally by 40–70% compared to the 2050 emissions projection of two scenarios consistent with policies announced by national governments until 2020. With policy support, socio-cultural options, and behavioural change can reduce global GHG emissions of end-use sectors by at least 5% rapidly, with most of the potential in developed countries, and more until 2050, if combined with improved infrastructure design and access. Individuals with high socio-economic status contribute disproportionately to emissions and have the highest potential for emissions reductions, e.g., as citizens, investors, consumers, role models, and professionals."2
These changes might include increased working from home, more walking and cycling, compact cities, and more efficient electric vehicles. In housing, there might be limits on floor area and radical improvements in buildings. But these are not changes that people will quickly make on their own. They have to be encouraged through what IPCC calls "choice architecture," which "describes the presentation of choices to consumers, and the impact that presentation has on consumer decision-making."2
In other words, what options people are given. It is an interesting term.
"Choice architecture can help end-users adopt, as relevant to consumers, culture, and country contexts, low GHG intensive options such as balanced, sustainable healthy diets acknowledging nutritional needs; food waste reduction; adaptive heating and cooling choices for thermal comfort; integrated building renewable energy; and electric light-duty vehicles, and shifts to walking, cycling, shared pooled and public transit; sustainable consumption by intensive use of longer-lived repairable products...
Addressing inequality and many forms of status consumption [the consumption of goods and services which publicly demonstrates social prestige] and focusing on wellbeing supports climate change mitigation efforts."2
It is a twist on the old personal choice argument in that through "choice architecture" people will be nudged and encouraged to make lower-carbon choices.
In Buildings, It's Not Just About Efficiency but Also Sufficiency
The summary then calls for strong targets for buildings with "ambitious sufficiency, efficiency, and renewable energy measures."2 We need these now, according to the IPCC, because "low ambitious policies increase the risk of lock-in buildings in carbon for decades while well-designed and effectively implemented mitigation interventions, in both new buildings and existing ones if retrofitted, have significant potential to contribute to achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] in all regions while adapting buildings to future climate."2
Including sufficiency is a very big deal. Also important is the point about lock-in; we have to make these changes now. The report itself is audacious and radical in its paragraph on sufficiency. Although I was just going to cover the summary here and get into greater detail in a subsequent post, this is significant in its breadth.
"Sufficiency interventions do not consume energy during the use phase of buildings and do not require maintenance nor replacement over the lifetime of buildings. Density, compacity, bioclimatic design to optimise the use of nature-based solutions, multi-functionality of space through shared space and to allow for adjusting the size of buildings to the evolving needs of households, circular use of materials and repurposing unused existing buildings to avoid using virgin materials, optimisation of the use of buildings through lifestyle changes, use of the thermal mass of buildings to reduce thermal needs, moving from ownership to usership of appliances are among the sufficiency interventions implemented in leading municipalities. At a global level, up to 17% of the mitigation potential in the buildings sector could be captured by 2050 through sufficiency.4"
Transportation and Urban Design Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
With transportation, the summary calls for electric cars, but surprisingly notes transportation is a function of urban design. There is a lot buried in this paragraph that we will deconstruct in a separate post, with its call for reducing transportation through digitalization.
"Changes in urban form (e.g., density, land use mix, connectivity, and accessibility) in combination with programmes that encourage changes in consumer behaviour (e.g., transport pricing) could reduce transport related greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries and slow growth in emissions in developing countries. Investments in public inter- and intra-city transport and active transport infrastructure (e.g., bike and pedestrian pathways) can further support the shift to less GHG-intensive transport modes. Combinations of systemic changes including, teleworking, digitalisation, dematerialisation, supply chain management, and smart and shared mobility may reduce demand for passenger and freight services across land, air, and sea. Some of these changes could lead to induced demand for transport and energy services, which may decrease their GHG emissions reduction potential."2
Agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) mitigation options have a surprisingly big impact—the two biggest bars on the graph after power generation. "Sustainably sourced agricultural and forest products can be used instead of more GHG intensive products in other sectors. Barriers to implementation and trade-offs may result from the impacts of climate change," states the report.2 But it is fraught with cultural, ownership, and other issues.
Then there is some talk about carbon dioxide removal (CDR) that is unconvincing. IPCC states: "Upscaling the deployment of CDR depends on developing effective approaches to address feasibility and sustainability constraints especially at large scales."2 Approaches that don't yet exist.
It's a Plan
There was a wonderful cartoon drawn by Joel Pett in 2009 listing all the lovely things, from livable cities to clean water to healthy children, that would come from dealing with climate change, and the line, "What if it's a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?" This chart could have been on the wall in that meeting room, demonstrating how the options for cleaning up the climate have other benefits, from hunger and health to education and sustainable cities. It alone should be enough of a reason to follow this plan. In summary, while it appears there has been some watering down and there may well be more before the entire report is accepted, we've got a prescription. For many, it will be a tough pill to swallow, but one can only say the alternatives are worse. There is going to be a lot more discussion and debate between now and the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, but we now have a whole new way of looking at things, and we know what to do.
Let's do it.
"The evidence is clear: the time for action is now. We can halve emissions by 2030." IPCC. 4 April 2022.
"Summary for Policymakers." Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. International Panel on Climate Change.
"Leaks show attempts to water down UN climate report, Greenpeace says." Deutsche Welle.
"Technical Summary." Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, IPCC.