The IPCC has laid out how we can live healthier and better lives while consuming less – and says this is necessary if we genuinely want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. This is the best path we have left.

Special Report: The world has virtually run out of time to peak emissions and still limit warming to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels without significantly but temporarily overshooting that target.

That’s the headline conclusion of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Even less ambitious temperature targets, which would be accompanied by greater sea-level rise and multiple times more frequent extreme weather events, are most likely to be achieved if emissions start to fall in the first half of the 2020s. Warming won’t even be kept to less than 2.5 degrees if emissions don’t peak this decade.

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‘We are pretty much out of time if we want to limit warming to 1.5C’

Already, many say that 1.5 degrees is an unachievable goal. Some who say this are backed by the powerful fossil fuel lobby which benefits from delay and inaction and the greater headroom for burning that a 2 degree target gives. Others are clear-eyed climate advocates who believe the loss of 1.5 degrees should reinvigorate us to limit warming not to 2 degrees, but to 1.500000001 degrees.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw paused for nearly 10 seconds when asked on Thursday whether the world would peak emissions before 2025 and limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Then he conceded it was unlikely.

“I hold out the hope,” he told Newsroom, uncertainly. “I don’t think it’s likely. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on it, right? It should double our resolve to do everything that we need to do to make that happen.”

Achieving 1.5 degrees would mean emissions growth must not only slow from the 1.3 percent a year it averaged during the 2010s but completely reverse – and that almost immediately. We must emit less in 2023 than we do this year, and less in 2024 than in 2023. That pattern has to be maintained for decades, until we reach not just net zero emissions but net negative, removing more carbon from the atmosphere via natural and mechanical means than we release.

Accomplishing this will require a complete overhaul of the systems that underpin our high-emitting lifestyles – particularly in developed countries, which are responsible for the majority of warming since 1850 and which have benefited the most from our emissions. The IPCC report lays out what needs to change, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, energy demand, fossil fuel use, diets and more, if we genuinely want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

This is the path it sketches out.

The emissions gap

Current policies do not have the world on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees or even 2 degrees.

Current government pledges under the Paris Agreement do not have the world on track to limit warming to 1.5 or even 2 degrees.

The IPCC report outlines two gaps that urgently need to close – the implementation gap between our policies and our pledges and the emissions gap between our pledges and what the science says is needed to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Under climate policies in place across the world in late 2020, global emissions at the end of the decade are slated to be 56.9 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (gigatonnes or Gt CO2e). That’s 3.5 percent below pre-pandemic emissions – almost a rounding error.

Government pledges would see emissions slightly lower in 2030 – 53.3 billion tonnes if the headline commitments are taken into account or 49.6 gigatonnes if the more ambitious but “conditional” aspects of Paris targets are included.

A path consistent with limiting warming to 2 degrees would place global emissions in 2030 at 40.6 gigatonnes. If we want to be on track for 1.5 degrees, we’d need to emit just 31.1 gigatonnes at the end of the decade – nearly halving global emissions from 2019 levels in just 10 years.

Of course, emissions won’t just flatten out in 2030.

Emissions reductions continue for decades to come. While current government pledges aren’t perfectly aligned with 2 degrees, the IPCC did review modelled scenarios where emissions follow Paris targets out to 2030 and then dive in the two decades thereafter. This would “imply annual average global GHG emissions reduction rates of 0–0.7 GtCO2-eq per year during the decade 2020-2030, with an unprecedented acceleration to 1.4–2.0 GtCO2-eq per year during 2030-2050”.

Net zero plays in important role in many of the most ambitious IPCC scenarios. Carbon dioxide, in particular, must reach net zero to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The vast majority of 2 degree scenarios also rely on net zero CO2 emissions, as do 40 percent of 2.5 degree pathways.

Globally, 1.5 degree pathways involve a sharp decline in CO2 emissions during the next decade. New Zealand’s pathway under the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations would see emissions above the 1.5 degree range for the 2020s, but a much steeper decline in the decades thereafter, reaching net zero in 2038.

Closing the gaps

In order to reduce emissions in line with 1.5 degrees, governments must actually commit to doing so.

However, the IPCC report traverses the entrenched fossil fuel interests that work to complicate political action on climate.

“The economic centrality of fossil fuels raises obvious questions regarding the possibility of decarbonisation. Economically, this is well understood as a problem of decoupling. But the constraint is also political, in terms of the power of incumbent fossil fuel interests to block initiatives towards decarbonisation,” the IPCC reported in a section on political economy.

“Incumbent industries are often more concentrated than those benefiting from climate policy and lobby more effectively to prevent losses than those who would gain…. The interaction of politics, power and economics is central in explaining why countries with higher per capita emissions, which logically have more opportunities to reduce emissions, in practice often take the opposite stance, and conversely, why some low-emitting countries may find it easier to pursue climate action because they have fewer vested interests in high-carbon economies.”

Corporate “agents have attempted to derail climate change mitigation by targeted lobbying and doubt-inducing media strategies”. These are mostly fossil fuel companies or those involved in fossil fuel supply chains.

“Corporate advertisement and brand building strategies also attempt to deflect corporate responsibility to individuals, and/or to appropriate climate care sentiments in their own brand building; climate change mitigation is uniquely framed through choice of products and consumption, avoiding the notion of the political collective action sphere.”

Collective action – including collective political action – can turn the tables and put pressure on politicians to commit to more ambitious climate action.

Pulling all the levers

Once stronger pledges have been made, the implementation gap has to be closed.

This will involve reducing emissions across every sector of the economy.

Globally, a reduction in CO2 from buildings and from industry will each provide more than a quarter of the cuts needed to reach net zero greenhouse gases. Slashing carbon dioxide emissions from transport will contribute 16.5 percent and CO2 from the land use sector – mostly agriculture and forestry – will make up another 13 percent. Finally, non-CO2 cuts would span the difference. This would involve reductions in methane from both oil and gas processing and agriculture and waste, as well as nitrous oxide from agriculture and hydrofluorocarbons used in cooling and refrigeration.

In the nearer term, 43.3 gigatonnes of emissions could be cut by 2030 solely through the use of existing methods and technologies. That’s far more than 25.8 billion tonne gap between current policies and a 1.5C consistent pathway by the end of the decade.

Clean energy and careful land management – including so-called nature-based solutions – make up a large chunk of this potential. Wind and solar energy, between them, could reduce global emissions by 8.4 gigatonnes. Sequestering carbon on farms, reforesting cleared areas and protecting natural ecosystems could avert more than 10 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 alone.

Energy efficiency and green electricity can be implemented, in some cases, for a financial benefit. Most of the other leading options still cost less than US$100 per tonne of emissions abated.

Theoretical carbon capture and storage systems are forecast to play a much smaller and more expensive role in the near future.

Moving to clean energy also requires a commitment to axe proposed fossil fuel plants and to mothball existing fossil infrastructure before its natural end-of-life date.

The IPCC found that emissions expected over the remaining lifespans of current fossil fuel power plants, vehicles, industrial facilities and buildings would breach the 1.5 degree carbon budget. Adding in emissions from proposed oil, gas and coal power plants would come close to exceeding the 2 degree budget as well.

“The Paris climate goals could move out of reach unless there are dedicated efforts to early decommissioning, and reduced utilisation of existing fossil fuel infrastructures, cancellation of plans for new fossil fuel infrastructures, or compensation efforts by removing some of the CO2 emissions from the atmosphere,” the report stated. Coal and gas-fired electricity infrastructure will have to be retired after just a quarter to a third of its usual lifespan to keep the 1.5C goal alive, or after half its usual lifespan for 2 degrees.

Demand-side measures

One of the crucial findings from the IPCC is that reducing demand for energy or products of emitting activities could reduce emissions in 2050 by 40 to 70 percent.

“Demand-side mitigation and new ways of providing services can help avoid, shift, and improve final service demand. Rapid and deep changes in demand make it easier for every sector to reduce GHG emissions in the short and medium term,” the report stated.

Reducing demand doesn’t mean a return in the developed world to energy rationing or energy poverty, either. “Decent living standards (DLS) and wellbeing for all are achievable through the implementation of high-efficiency low demand mitigation pathway,” the IPCC found. “Providing better services with less energy and resource input has high technical potential and is consistent with providing well-being for all.”

This doesn’t mean that individual action alone can solve the problem. In fact, individual behaviour change is often ineffective if it isn’t enabled through greater structural change, the IPCC said.

“Behavioural change not embedded in structural change will contribute little to climate change mitigation, suggesting that behavioural change is not only a function of individual agency but also depends on other enabling factors, such as the provision of infrastructure and institutions.”

“Successful shifts towards public transport, for example, involve technologies (buses, trams), infrastructure (light rail, dedicated bus lanes), regulations (operational licenses, performance contracts), institutions (new organisations, responsibilities, oversight), and high-enough density, which in turns depends on such choices as housing or planning policies.”

The IPCC frames demand-side mitigation in terms of avoiding emissions-intensive activity, shifting to less-intensive activities and finally improving the efficiency of whatever remains. That order is key, but “within the 32 demand-side mitigation options opportunity space, policies currently focus more on efficiency and 33 ‘improve’ options and relatively less on ‘shift’ and ‘avoid’ options,” the report found.

“Current demand side policies are fragmented, piecemeal and too weak to drive demand-side transitions commensurate with 1.5C or 2C climate goals. The greatest Avoid potential comes from reducing long-haul aviation and providing short-distance low-carbon urban infrastructures. The greatest Shift potential would come from switching to plant-based diets. The greatest Improve potential comes from within the building sector, and in particular increased use of energy efficient end-use technologies and passive housing.”

In other words, we can live better, healthier, longer lives while using less of the world’s resources.

This is the vision the IPCC sketches out for the future. Its earlier reports canvassed in excruciating detail the unnatural changes happening to our planet and the expected impacts on human civilisation and natural ecosystems.

But that future isn’t locked in. If we drastically reduce fossil fuel use, adopt clean energy, protect ecosystems and reduce our consumption habits, the most catastrophic impacts of climate change can be avoided.

Jim Skea, the co-chair of the working group behind the latest report, said it makes clear that “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5C”.

There hasn’t been this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in millions of years. Every tonne of greenhouse gases that we emit contributes to the problem. There is no better time to stop emitting than now.

Shaw, speaking to Newsroom, echoed a similar message.

“It was very helpful in the sense of urgency that it conveyed. Previous reports still left a bit of wiggle room in terms of the future,” he said.

“What was different about this report was, essentially it was saying we’re out of time.”

Correction: The headline and text of this article have been changed to better reflect the findings of the IPCC report. An earlier version stated that global emissions must peak before 2025 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees with limited or no overshoot. Authors of the report say there are no scenarios in which warming is kept to 1.5 degrees in which emission peak as late as 2025. Global emissions must effectively peak immediately (or have already peaked) to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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