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New UN climate report: last chance for 1.5℃

Published: 22 March 2023

The latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns there is little chance for the world to meet the climate targets agreed in Paris seven year ago – but not all is lost.

The effects of severe climate change are everywhere today, says the UN’s latest climate report| Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

In brief

  • The climate target of 1.5℃ warming is almost out of reach. So concludes a new United Nations report.
  • Countries must pull out all the stops to reduce emissions.
  • Every 0.1℃ of warming increases the risk of climate disasters.

If countries want to limit global warming to 1.5℃ this century, governments must make radical choices to cut greenhouse gases this year. Climate must be at the forefront of all decisions countries make now, otherwise the climate targets agreed in 2015 will be doomed, the latest United Nations (UN) report warned on Monday.

The 1.5℃ target is exceeded in almost all greenhouse gas emissions scenarios produced by the UN climate agency, the IPCC. Moreover, scientists are increasingly taking into account techniques to remove CO₂ from the air in their calculations for meeting the target. The Earth’s temperature then temporarily rises more than 1.5℃, only to drop. The problem is that these technologies are currently in their infancy.

Nevertheless, the IPCC is not yet writing off climate targets. There is still a chance – albeit a very small one – that countries will manage to reduce emissions enough in time. “This year is a defining moment for 1.5℃. It has become terribly difficult to meet it, but not impossible,” said Dutch scientist Detlef van Vuuren, who collaborated on the IPCC publication.

Following the report, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on rich countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2040. That would be a sharp tightening of their climate targets for most countries. The European Union – the world’s third largest emitter – for example, wants to be climate neutral by 2050.

Final piece

The study is the final piece of eight years of climate science. Recently, the IPCC published three different major reports containing its main conclusions on global warming, options for reducing greenhouse gases, and ways to protect people and ecosystems from the climate change that is already underway.

Monday’s release is the fourth and, for now, final climate report, summarising the thousands of pages of the previous studies. Nearly 200 countries signed off on the conclusions of this so-called ‘synthesis report’ last weekend in Interlaken, Switzerland. This makes the publication the most important paper on the basis of which countries make agreements with each other to combat climate change.

“The science is clear. The longer we wait for far-reaching emission reductions, the higher the risks and the more damage. Countries must accelerate,” said [Dutch] European Commissioner for Climate Frans Timmermans in a reaction.

Paris climate targets

At the 2015 global climate summit in Paris, countries agreed to limit warming to “well below 2℃ and aim for a maximum of 1.5℃”. But more than seven years later, those targets are far out of sight. Greenhouse gas emissions have been higher than ever in the last decade. Although relative growth is levelling off, countries are now heading for a warming of 3.2℃ this century.

“As a world, we are still not on track. It is a message that is heard more often, but it is very important to repeat it right now. At the next climate summit, urgency is the key word,” Van Vuuren said. The next UN climate summit is in Dubai at the end of this year.

No excuse

According to the IPCC, countries have no excuse to write off climate action. There is sufficient capital available worldwide. Many techniques to reduce greenhouse gases are well developed, such as solar, wind and nuclear power and storing CO₂ emissions. Moreover, climate policy also solves other social problems, such as poor health due to air pollution.

According to German climate state secretary Jennifer Morgan, the good news from this report is that there are technologies that can reduce emissions at acceptable costs. “There is hope,” she said in a Tweet.

The next few years are in fact the last chance for a breakthrough, Van Vuuren outlined. The next time the IPCC will come up with new insights is in 2030. In that year, greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 43% compared to 2019 to meet the climate target of no more than 1.5℃ warming. “If countries do not manage to reduce their emissions now then scientists must conclude by the next report that the 1.5℃ target is no longer a possibility,” said the scientist.

Should that be the case, it is still important to reduce greenhouse gases. “Then the message is not ‘never mind those climate targets’. Every 0.1℃ warmer increases the risk of natural disasters,’ Van Vuuren said.

This article was originally published by Dutch business newspaper FD on 20 March 2023.

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