Over the decades that I and others have been warning about the consequences of burning coal, oil and gas, we’ve often been told we can’t get off them overnight. That’s served as just one excuse for our collective failure to address the climate crisis, as the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes clear.
“Mitigation of Climate Change” is the third of the IPCC’s four-part Sixth Assessment. Part 4, a synthesis report, is scheduled for September. The IPCC states that greenhouse gas emission cuts needed to keep below the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 C warming target are four times higher than they would have been if collective global ambition and mitigation started even as late as 2010.
During that time, fossil fuel development and emissions have skyrocketed. Even under existing national emissions reduction plans, the global average temperature is expected to increase by almost 2.7 C this century, which could be devastating. At current rates, we’ll have used our 1.5 C carbon budget by 2030.
A rational global response would be to do everything to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible and protect and restore forests, wetlands, kelp beds and other natural “carbon sinks”—especially considering the many available and developing practical, affordable alternatives and solutions! The pandemic showed how governments can act decisively—and spend large amounts—to address a crisis.
Renewable energy development and deployment, including wind and solar, have increased substantially, as costs continue to drop. Battery and other storage technologies also continue to improve, making renewable energy viable for many conditions. As good as that is, we need to double wind and solar PVC to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 C beyond pre-industrial levels, according to the International Energy Agency. The IPCC notes that will require more investment from the private sector.
Governments appear to be getting serious about the crisis, but they’re facing considerable pressure from the fossil fuel industry and its media and political supporters. Canada recently released a solid emissions reduction plan, yet oilsands emissions are still expected to rise 56 percent by 2030.
As the Russian attack on Ukraine lays bare the folly of relying on finite, polluting energy sources, calls are coming in to increase production in countries including Canada, the U.S., Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Alberta government’s Canadian Energy Centre, which rails against “foreign funding” for environmental groups, has even registered as a foreign agent in the U.S. to promote more Canadian bitumen exports. Many pro-oil and gas organizations are pushing for pipelines.
But the IPCC reports show we can’t keep building fossil fuel infrastructure if we want to prevent the worst of global heating. In fact, we must start getting rid of or transforming existing infrastructure. Instead, every year the world has been adding more carbon-intensive infrastructure than it’s been decommissioning.
The report also shows we’ve reached a critical point where slowing and stopping emissions isn’t enough; we also have to remove some of what we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere, using natural methods like forest protection and planting as well as technologies like direct air capture. But we can’t use technology as an excuse to continue burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases.
Procrastination is no longer an option. The longer we delay, the more disruption we’ll cause, and the costlier it will become. Shifting away from coal, oil and gas and protecting nature will generate numerous benefits, from cleaner air and water to better jobs, health and economies.
The IPCC report shows that governments, businesses, industry and financial institutions must all significantly up their game. We must stop funding and building fossil fuel infrastructure and shift our resources into cleaner, healthier ways of powering societies. That means electrifying almost everything and using renewable energy, but it also means conserving more and wasting less.
This is especially true in wealthy countries, where waste and unnecessary energy use are rampant. The wealthiest one per cent worldwide emit more than twice the combined share of greenhouse gases as the poorest 50 per cent, with activities such as flying and driving SUVs—which emit a lot but only benefit a few—contributing to the imbalance.
Every IPCC report since the First Assessment in 1990 has been a wake-up call. We can’t keep hitting “snooze.”