Humanity is facing “a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
That’s the main takeaway from the latest Synthesis Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which sums up everything we know about the climate crisis today – the culmination of six reports released over the past five years that make up its 6th Assessment Cycle.
The Earth’s surface temperature now stands at 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the report finds – making it almost impossible to limit that rise to 1.5 degrees, as targeted in the 2015 Paris Agreement. In fact, the scientists say, we will likely hit that figure within the next decade.
What’s more, while the world’s poorest and least developed countries have contributed the least to the climate crisis, their populations are suffering the most from its impacts today, the report finds.
People in these vulnerable regions are dying from floods, droughts and storms at rates 15 times higher than in wealthier, less vulnerable regions.
Unfortunately, humanity is doing far too little to help these vulnerable populations adapt and mitigate to climate change by slashing global greenhouse emissions.
“Most observed adaptation responses are fragmented, incremental, sector-specific and unequally distributed across regions,” the report says.
“Despite progress, adaptation gaps exist across sectors and regions and will continue to grow under current levels of implementation, with the largest adaptation gaps among lower income groups.”
Climate policies and laws have expanded over the past decade, and renewable energy sources are cheaper than ever. However, the cuts to emissions that many countries have agreed to are still woefully insufficient to get warming trends down to 1.5 degrees or even 2 degrees by the end of the century.
The situation is dire, but the report emphasizes that there is still a small chance that global warming can be slowed within the next two decades through “deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”
Policymakers, financial institutions, and individuals must act now to achieve net-zero emissions, especially given that “feasible, effective, and low-cost options for mitigation and adaptation are already available.”
For example, fossil fuel use must be substantially reduced and replaced with cleaner sources such as wind, solar and small-scale hydropower. By investing in energy efficiency, smart grid technologies, better transmission systems and improved capacity, we can not only reduce our vulnerability to climate change but also improve health and raise living standards in poorer regions.
Transportation is another sector with plenty of mitigation potential. Emissions can be cut from shipping, aviation, and trucking by taking advantage of sustainable biofuels, green hydrogen and synthetic fuels, as well as the ever-advancing battery technologies that power electric vehicles.
Cities, too, are critical for achieving deep emissions reductions and advancing climate-resilient development, the report points out. That means municipal governments, not just national ones, can play a significant role through better land use planning, making urban environments more walkable and compact, investing in electrified public transport, and designing more energy-efficient buildings.
Food systems, agriculture, and deforestation are major sources of carbon emissions, but there are many ways to decarbonize the sector in the near future. “Conservation, improved management, and restoration of forests and other ecosystems offer the largest share of economic mitigation potential,” the report says.
Between 30 and 50 percent of the planet’s land, freshwater and oceans will need to be effectively conserved to maintain their biodiversity and ecosystem services. This would in turn enable them to store vast amounts of carbon as well as reduce coastal erosion and flooding.
Similarly, we could reduce food waste and shift to more sustainable diets to help reduce ecosystem loss, lower methane and nitrous oxide emissions, and free up space for restoration initiatives.
These solutions won’t come cheap, however. The Paris Agreement put an annual price tag of USD 100 billion on climate mitigation and adaptation, but additional funds will need to be invested to help poorer and more climate-vulnerable nations transition to a low-carbon future.
And while climate finance has expanded over the past decade, its growth is slowing down – and both public and private financiers are still investing more in fossil fuels than in climate solutions.
Endorsed by 195 countries, the message from the Synthesis Report is clear: the choices we make and actions we take in this decade will have impacts for thousands of years. It’s now up to us to choose wisely.
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