Mar 20, 2023 - Energy & Environment

UN report: Window for limiting global warming is closing

Illustration of a close up view of the Earth stylized as a bomb with an extremely short lit fuse. Sparks are flying everywhere.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A stark new U.N. climate change report warns that humanity stands at the precipice of a more dangerous world, but says it has the tools needed to pull back from the brink.

Driving the news: The final installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) sixth assessment report amounts to scientists's final warning issued when the world still has a chance to limit global warming's severity to the Paris Agreement's targets.

  • By the time the next IPCC assessment report is issued in five to seven years, the report suggests that human actions may have rendered the Paris Agreement's 1.5°C target, and possibly even its 2°C benchmark, infeasible.
  • "There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all," the report's summary for policy makers states.
  • "The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years."
  • Current climate actions are taking place too slowly, the report shows. "We are walking when we should be sprinting," said IPCC chair Hoesung Lee at a Monday press conference.

The intrigue: UN Secretary-General António Guterres is responding to the report's urgency by calling for industrialized countries to move up their net zero emissions targets from 2050 to "as close as possible to 2040."

The big picture: The new report includes a litany of indications that climate change is already severe and causing human suffering.

  • It marks a noteworthy tense shift from previous IPCC assessments, which tended to portray deadly climate risks as problems to be revealed during coming decades.
  • Not only are deadly extreme weather events, bleaching coral reefs, rising sea levels and other risks a present-day problem, the report notes, but multiple lines of evidence now indicate that dangerous climate impacts are worsening faster than previously known.
  • The report's summary was jointly agreed to word-by-word by climate scientists and government representatives during a painstaking week of negotiations in Switzerland that ended Sunday. It was written by 93 scientists from around the world.

Between the lines: The authors provide a new target for governments to aim for: cutting emissions 60% by 2035 compared to 2019 levels in order to have a chance of meeting the 1.5-degree target.

  • This is significant since 2035 is the target date for the next round of emissions reduction pledges countries are supposed to offer by next year.
  • The report takes note of the rapidly falling costs of renewable energy sources and the availability of myriad other climate solutions as well.
  • "Rapid and far-reaching transitions across all sectors and systems are necessary to achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions," the report states.
  • It adds to calls for reforming the financial system to direct more money to climate-resilient development and low-carbon energy sources. "Insufficient and misaligned finance is holding back progress," report coauthor Christopher Trisos said in a statement.

Of note: The UN's Guterres, in a video message welcoming the report, presented an "acceleration agenda" that includes moving to net zero electricity for all developed economies by 2035, ceasing "all licensing or funding of new oil and gas," and halting the expansion of existing oil and gas reserves.

  • Under Guterres' proposal, oil and gas companies would also be asked to present rigorous plans for transitioning away from the fossil fuel business in favor of renewable energy.
  • "We must move into warp speed climate action now," Guterres said in prepared remarks.

Yes, but: As the oil and gas industry made clear at an annual major energy industry conference in Houston earlier this month, major companies have no plans to move more aggressively on their fossil fuel transition plans.

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