We have the tools to save the planet from climate change. Politics is getting in the way, new IPCC report says

We have the knowledge, money, technology and affordable clean energy that we need to cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030. That’s the good news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group III report released Monday.

What’s standing in the way is lack of political will and sufficient funding to make the necessary rapid, widespread, cross-sector changes a reality, according to the report.

The authors warn that “it’s now or never” if humanity wants to achieve its long-standing goal of curbing global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which will “impossible” without swift and sweeping greenhouse gas emissions. But funding is currently three to six times lower than it needs to be to ensure that the global average temperature does not rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius. The money needed to bridge that gap does exist, the report emphasizes, and making it available is a matter of “stronger alignment of public sector finance and policy.”

“Having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behavior can result in a 40-70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This offers significant untapped potential,” IPCC Working Group III co-chair Priyadarshi Shukla, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad who specializes in energy and environment modeling and policies, said in a press release.

The latest report – one of three released by the United Nations agency since August 2021– focused on promises made around global mitigation efforts to address and reduce global warming. It was originally scheduled to go public earlier in the day on Monday, but was delayed a few hours as collaborators reportedly negotiated disagreements about language and key issues like finance, illustrating the contentious global politics and prerogatives that can thwart progress.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres did not mince words in a news conference Monday morning, calling this latest report a “litany of broken climate promises” and a “file of shame cataloging the empty pledges” that have put the planet on a “fast track to climate disaster.” He accused some government and business leaders of “lying” as they say one thing, but do another when it comes to meeting climate goals.

“This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies,” Guterres said. He emphasized that the global shift toward renewable energy — which is often already “far cheaper” than than oil and gas — must be triple the speed it is now, and be underscored by a redistribution of investments and subsidies away from fossil fuels.

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More public policies have been put in place in the last dozen years to increase energy efficiency, cut down on deforestation rates and put renewable energy into action faster. But the implications and consequences of climate change remain dire, the report warns, particularly if “immediate and deep emissions reductions” across sectors like energy, agriculture and urban development are not executed in an efficient and timely manner. ​​

The effects of climate change could eat up to $2 trillion of the United States’ annual budget by the end of the century, plus billions more each year on other mitigation and relief expenditures, according to an assessment from the Office of Management and Budget. Though grossly inadequate to mitigate the crisis, we have made progress. Between 2010 and 2019, “average annual global greenhouse gas emissions were at their highest levels in human history,” but that growth rate has since slowed, the report’s authors said in a press release.

Now knowing what we need to do to meet key international climate goals, the actions that governments take now could benefit people across the globe – including those who are most vulnerable and least responsible for those emissions – if designed with those considerations in mind. Evidence shows that the lifestyle changes that humanity needs to make “can improve our health and wellbeing,” Shukla said.

Here are some of the big takeaways:

  • The energy, land use and industry sectors must make rapid transitions to significantly reduce fossil fuel use by transitioning to alternative fuel sources, becoming more energy efficient and prioritizing recycling and reusing materials while minimizing waste. This helps toward the ultimate goal of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions — the point at which the global temperature will stabilize.
  • The costs of renewable energy sources – solar and wind energy, plus batteries designed to store the energy they generate – have gone way down, making them more competitive with gas and coal (and in some cases, cheaper). Since 2010, they have shown “sustained decreases of up to 85 percent,” according to the report. More affordable renewals should help lower the cost barriers associated with transitioning away from fossil fuels.
  • The steps we take to craft more planet-friendly policies have the potential to improve livelihoods across the board. Past efforts to decrease carbon emissions have sometimes led to “short-term negative impacts on vulnerable, low-income groups,” but co-author and climate scientist Celine Guivarch said in a statement that those policies can be designed to “avoid increasing and even decrease economic inequality and poverty.” Doing so, she added, requires integrating “considerations of equity and justice into policies at all scales.” The experiences and knowledge of Indigenous and other local communities should be seen as mainstream strategies when it comes to rethinking how we’re using and managing land in sustainable ways, the report added.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by more than 40 percent, with methane specifically reduced by about a third, in order to limit warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius. Guterres warned in his statement Monday that current climate pledges would result in a 14 percent increase in emissions by the end of the decade, and therefore must be altered significantly. Scientists warned levels must peak before 2025 – in three years – “at the latest,” and be reduced by a quarter by 2030 in order to hit that target.
  • A combination of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adopting innovative technology that prioritizes renewable energy, as well as using carbon capture and storage will be necessary to meet climate goals. Land use changes in agriculture and forestry can help remove carbon from the atmosphere, but those alone won’t be enough without significant emissions cuts across sectors.
  • Transit infrastructure can benefit from investments aimed at reducing fossil fuel emissions by introducing more electric-powered options like e-scooters and e-bikes. Making these resources more widely accessible also directly benefits marginalized populations, especially those with historically limited transportation options.

Despite the signs of progress, scientists have long warned that consequences already seen across the globe — like more extreme and frequent weather events, the loss of vulnerable species and reduced access to crucial resources like clean water — will persist and intensify in the absence of direct and meaningful action.

Report co-author Linda Steg, who is also an environmental psychology professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, said that governments will struggle with whether their people will support massive changes. But the way to earn public trust is to be transparent about decision-making, and to distribute both cost and benefits “in a fair way.”

Each and every country “must move further and faster,” United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said in a statement Monday. Faster, he added, means quickly deploying renewable energy, cutting down methane emissions, ending and reversing deforestation, demanding sustainable transit, among other measures.

“The IPCC report is a reminder that mitigation is not about cost. It is about investment — in our future, our children’s future, and our planet’s future,” Kerry said. “Choosing the more sustainable option is not only the right thing to do, but the IPCC has shown it is now the more affordable choice.”