5 takeaways from the UN report on curbing global warming

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of researchers convened by the United Nations, says countries are not doing nearly enough to prevent global warming to dangerous levels during the lives of most people on Earth today. Limiting the destruction will not be easy, the report says, but it’s also not impossible if countries act now.

The committee produces a comprehensive overview of climate science every six to eight years. It divides its findings into three reports. The first, on the causes of global warming, was released last August. The second, on the effects of climate change on our world and our ability to adapt to it, was released in February. This is number 3, on how to cut emissions and limit further warming.

The report shows that current UN pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will likely not stop global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, within the next few decades. This is assuming that countries will follow up. If they don’t, there will be more warming in the store.

This goal – to prevent the average global temperature from increasing by 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – is one that many of the world’s governments have agreed to pursue. It seems modest. But that number represents a set of sweeping changes that occur as greenhouse gases trap more heat on the planet’s surface, including deadly storms, intense heat waves, rising sea levels and increased pressure on crops. The Earth has already warmed by about 1.1°C on average since the 19th century.

So far, the world has not become more energy efficient fast enough to offset continued growth in global economic activity, the report says.

Carbon dioxide emissions from factories, cities, buildings, farms and vehicles increased in 2010, outweighing the benefits of switching power plants to natural gas from coal and using more renewable sources such as wind and solar.

On the whole, it is the richest people and the wealthiest nations who are heating the planet. According to the report, the richest 10 percent of households worldwide are responsible for between a third to nearly half of greenhouse gas emissions. The poorest 50 percent of households contribute about 15 percent of emissions.

The report concluded that prices for solar, wind and electric vehicle batteries have fallen dramatically since 2010. The result is that it may now be “more expensive” in some cases to maintain highly polluting energy systems than to switch to clean sources, the report says.

In 2020, solar and wind energy provided nearly 10 percent of the world’s electricity. Average emissions worldwide grew much slower in the 2010s than in the 2000s, in part due to increased use of green energy.

It was not clear to scientists that this would happen so quickly. In a 2011 report on renewables, the same committee noted that technological advances are likely to make green energy cheaper, although it said it is difficult to predict how much.

The report says the world needs to invest three to six times what it currently spends on mitigating climate change if it is to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. Money is particularly scarce in poor countries, which need trillions of dollars of investment each year in this decade.

With states dropping fossil fuels, some economic disruption is inevitable, the report notes. You will leave the resources in the ground unburned; Mines and power plants will become financially unviable. The report says the economic impact could reach trillions of dollars.

However, keeping the planned and existing fossil fuel infrastructure up and running would pump enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to make it impossible to maintain a temperature below 1.5 degrees, the report says.

The report looks at a range of other changes in societies that could reduce emissions, including more energy-efficient buildings, more recycling and more remote and virtual office worker work.

The report stresses that these changes do not have to be a chore that discourages the economy. Some, such as better public transportation and more walkable urban areas, have benefits for air pollution and overall well-being, said Joyashree Roy, an economist at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok who contributed to the report. “People are calling for healthier cities and greener cities,” she said.

Overall, steps that could cost less than $100 per ton of carbon dioxide saved could cut global emissions to about half the 2019 level by 2030, the report says. The report says other steps remain expensive, such as capturing more carbon dioxide from the gases that flow from the chimneys of power plants.

The world also needs to remove the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. The report says planting more trees is pretty much the only way to do it on a large scale right now. Other methods, such as using chemicals to extract carbon from the atmosphere or adding nutrients to the oceans to stimulate photosynthesis in young marine plants, are still in the early development stage.

“We cannot ignore how much technology can help,” said Jonny Gupista, report author with the Research Institute for Innovative Earth Technology in Kyoto, Japan. “Not every country has a lot of natural resources.”

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