After intense negotiations and a 48-hour delay, representatives from 195 states approved the summary of the work of group III of the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report, on climate change mitigation.
The report looks at what we can do to limit emissions and provides insights into how the decisions we make now and in the next decades will shape the future of our planet.
Recent developments and current trends
In 2010-2019, average annual global greenhouse gas emissions were at their highest level in human history, but the rate of growth has slowed.
We are now clearly not on the right trajectory, without immediate and deep emission reductions in all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is out of reach. However, the evidence for climate action is mounting. The cost of low-carbon technologies has fallen, making them more accessible. There is a steady increase in policies and legislation to improve energy efficiency, reduce deforestation rates and accelerate the deployment of renewable energy.
Nevertheless, contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions continue to be extremely unbalanced. The wealthiest 10% of households contribute disproportionately to global emissions.
The summary explains very clearly the need to stop fossil fuel production: If we do not stop coal, gas and oil production soon, we will exceed a warming of +1.5°C Not only must we not create new infrastructure or projects, but existing infrastructure must be closed prematurely.
In his poignant speech, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres insists“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals, 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.”
Take Action Now
“In the event that we act immediately to limit warming, global GHG emissions are expected to peak no later than 2025.”
The date of 2025, three years from now, should be an incentive to act now, as Julia Steinberger, one of the authors of the report remind us: “either we are heading for disaster or we take the necessary steps now”.
This report assesses a wide range of modelled global emissions trajectories and scenarios. These scenarios are not predictions, the different pathways are based on a set of assumptions about future socio-economic conditions and mitigation measures. The IPCC does not recommend anything, but synthesises the scientific evidence.
There are solutions in all sectors
Reducing GHG emissions across the energy sector requires major transitions, including substantial reductions in overall fossil fuel use, deployment of low-emission energy sources, widespread electrification and improved energy efficiency.
Carbon neutrality in the industrial sector is a challenge, but feasible. Reducing emissions from industry will require coordinated action along the value chains to promote all mitigation options, including demand management, energy efficiency, use of more efficient materials, reuse, recycling, waste reduction…
Cities and urban areas
Cities can only achieve carbon neutrality through deep decarbonisation and systemic transformation. As above, better urban planning is needed as well as sustainable production and consumption of goods and services, electrification, and improved carbon absorption and storage.
For buildings yet to be built or renovated, ambitious measures must be taken in terms of energy efficiency and renewable energy. For developed countries, the highest mitigation potential is linked to the retrofitting of existing buildings, (e.g.: re-purposing existing unused buildings to avoid using additional land).
Demand reduction and low-carbon technologies are key to reducing emissions: Investing in public transport and active transport infrastructure (cycling and pedestrian paths) and changing the urban form (density, land use, connectivity and accessibility) combined with programmes to encourage changes in consumer behaviour (like cycle-to-work campaigns, free travel passes, parking charges or removal of car benefits)
The report states that electric vehicles powered by low-emission electricity offer the greatest decarbonisation potential for land transport on a life-cycle basis; but there is also a need to reduce the environmental impact of battery production. Alternative fuels (low-emission hydrogen and biofuels) will be needed for aviation and maritime transport.
“Many mitigation strategies in the transport sector would have a variety of co-benefits, including improvements in air quality, health benefits, equitable access to transport services, reduced congestion and reduced demand for materials.”
AFOLU Agriculture, forestry and other land uses, and food systems
Most of the economic mitigation potential comes from conservation, improved management and restoration of forests and other ecosystems (wetlands, coastal areas, peatlands, savannahs, and grasslands), as well as reduced deforestation.
Continued loss of biodiversity makes ecosystems less resilient to the extremes of climate change. Improved and sustainable crop and livestock management and carbon sequestration in agriculture (such as agroforestry) can contribute to a significant reduction.
23-42% of global GHG emissions are associated with food systems, while food insecurity and malnutrition are still widespread.
Shifting to diets with a higher share of plant protein, moderate consumption of animal-based foods and reduced consumption of saturated fats could lead to substantial reductions in GHG emissions. Benefits would also include reduced land use and nutrient losses to the surrounding environment, while providing health benefits and reducing mortality from diet-related diseases
Demand and services: behaviour change
This is the first IPCC report to provide an in-depth assessment of how individual behaviour, choices and consumption can contribute to climate change mitigation.
Lifestyle change requires systemic changes throughout society. Of the 60 actions identified that could change consumption, individual mobility choices have the greatest potential to reduce the carbon footprint. Priority is given to car-free mobility through walking and cycling and to the adoption of electric mobility. Other options include reducing air travel, reducing the use of household appliances, switching to public transport, reducing food waste, making heating and cooling choices appropriate for comfort, and shifting food consumption to a plant-based diet.
The concept of the circular economy is also presented as an increasingly important mitigation approach: focusing on product longevity, reuse, refurbishment, recycling and material efficiency, thereby reducing energy, resources and emissions.
The report points out that the potential for demand mitigation differs between and within regions. Part of the world’s population still faces deficiencies in housing, mobility and nutrition. The wealthy contribute disproportionately to emissions and have the greatest potential to reduce emissions while maintaining a decent standard of living and well-being.
Individual behavioural change is insufficient to mitigate climate change if it is not embedded in structural and cultural change. With political support, socio-cultural options and behavioural changes can significantly reduce global emissions.
The containment measures implemented in many countries in response to the covid-19 pandemic have demonstrated that behaviour change is possible on a large scale and in a short time.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR)
Carbon dioxide removal is needed to counteract emissions that are difficult to remove, including biological methods: reforestation and soil carbon sequestration, improved forest management, peatland restoration, blue carbon management (mangroves…).
New technologies require more research, initial investment and larger scale proof of concept.
Finance and investissement
There is a climate finance gap that reflects a persistent misallocation of global capital. The report states that there is sufficient global capital and liquidity to close the investment gap. However, this depends on a clear signal from governments and the international community, including better alignment of public sector finance and policies.
Policy, regulatory and economic instruments
The best way to achieve deep emission reductions in the long term is to build institutions and governance that support new mitigation policies. Regulatory and economic instruments have already proven effective in reducing emissions. This requires coordination between governments and society.
Innovation and Technology
Innovation in climate change mitigation technologies has seen enormous activity and significant progress in recent years. But there are downsides, such as increased environmental pollution, social inequalities, and increased energy demand.
Digital devices, including servers, increase the pressure on the environment due to the demand for rare metals and their disposal at the end of their life The lack of adequate governance in many countries can lead to difficult working conditions and unregulated disposal of e-waste. The existing digital divide, especially in developing countries, and the lack of proper governance of the digital revolution can hamper the role that digitalisation could play in achieving stringent mitigation targets.
Digital technologies have significant potential to contribute to decarbonisation because of their ability to increase energy and material efficiency, make transport and building systems less wasteful and improve access to services for consumers and citizens. Effective decision-making requires an assessment of the potential benefits, barriers, and risks.
Links between mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development
There are increasingly strong links between climate change mitigation and the pursuit of sustainable development goals. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can serve as a basis for assessing climate action.
Without urgent, effective and equitable mitigation measures, climate change increasingly threatens the health and livelihoods of people around the world, the health of ecosystems and biodiversity. Inequalities in the distribution of emissions and in the impacts of mitigation policies within countries affect social cohesion and the acceptability of mitigation and other environmental policies.
Climate change mitigation measures that are framed in the context of sustainable development, equity and poverty eradication will be more acceptable, sustainable and effective. Equity and just transitions can enable deeper ambitions for accelerated mitigation.
Strengthening the response, taking action now
There are climate change mitigation options that can be deployed on a large scale and in the short term. Action can be taken now to change development trajectories, with enhanced international cooperation.
Hoesung Lee, Chairman of the IPCC states: “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.”
The time to act is NOW.
Words: Alice de Chilly