Apr 5, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Major UN climate change report: key takeaways

Illustration of a hand drawing a line over a background of a burnt forest landscape.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The new United Nations climate report provides insights into what needs to be done to avert some of the worst impacts of global warming.

Between the lines: The key findings in the report that dropped yesterday are stark, but are not all doom and gloom.

First: In the most jarring finding, researchers concluded that to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets — holding warming to “well below” 2°C, while working to limit it to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels — global carbon dioxide emissions would have to peak by 2025. (Subtle reminder, it's already 2022.)

  • Not only that, but emissions would have to be cut by between 30% and more than 40% by 2030.
  • Or to put it another way, the world has just three years left to peak emissions, and eight years left to get emissions under sufficient control to meet the Paris targets.

Second: We're so far off course from the Paris targets that the current path would lead us to warming of about 3.2°C (5.8°F) above preindustrial levels.

  • Emissions of carbon dioxide during the 2000-19 period ranked as the highest in human history, the report found.

Third: What must be done seems daunting, but it’s actually relatively straightforward: Deploy massive amounts of existing and soon-to-mature clean energy and efficiency technologies while working to advance the options for decarbonizing hard to clean up sectors of the economy.

  • The report cites dramatic cost declines in solar, wind and battery technology, for example.
  • This chart in the IPCC report shows the climate mitigation potentials of each technology and its lifetime cost, clearly indicating the many options already available.

Fourth: Fossil fuel investments are a one-way ticket to stranded assets (meaning the fossil fuel assets would be unusable).

  • About 30% of oil, 50% of gas, and 80% of coal reserves would be unusable if warming is to be limited to the Paris Agreement's 2°C target, the report states.
  • Interestingly, the report finds the value of stranded fossil fuel assets could be $4 trillion by 2050 in a world that warms by 2°C above pre-industrial levels, but higher if warming is limited to 1.5°C. This could pose a danger to financial stability, the report notes.

Fifth: Temperatures will stabilize when emissions reach net zero, but doing so and then bringing temperatures down from there will require some use of potentially risky carbon dioxide removal technologies.

Data: Global Carbon Project; Chart: Will Chase/Axios
Data: Global Carbon Project; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

One reason the IPCC report is so startling: Its authors have outlined solutions that are completely out of step with current emissions trends (as illustrated above), along with the recent history of greenhouse gas emissions.

Threat level: Global CO2 emissions have increased by 54% since 1990, the IPCC found.

The bottom line: The report revealingly notes the barriers to achieving ambitious emissions cuts are more social and political than technological, with scientists citing "opposition from status quo interests" as a key blocker of progress.

  • Asked yesterday about what interests they meant by this, Jim Skea, co-chair of the new report, told reporters, "We're trained to deflect questions like that and I hope I've deflected it sufficiently."
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