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“There is no documented historic precedent" for the scale of changes required, the body found.
Eiffel Tower is lit up with the slogan "Action Now" in December 2015,
as countries signed the landmark Paris climate accord. (Michel Euler/AP)
Reporter covering climate change, energy and the environment.
Reporter focusing on environmental policy and public health issues
October 7 at 9:00 PM
world stands on the brink of failure when it comes to holding global
warming to moderate levels, and nations will need to take
“unprecedented” actions to cut their carbon emissions over the next
decade, according to a landmark report by the top scientific body
studying climate change.
With global emissions
showing few signs of slowing and the United States — the world’s
second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide — rolling back a suite of
Obama-era climate measures, the prospects for meeting the most ambitious
goals of the 2015 Paris agreement look increasingly slim. To avoid
racing past warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over
preindustrial levels would require a “rapid and far-reaching”
transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never
happened before, the group found.
“There is no
documented historic precedent” for the sweeping change to energy,
transportation and other systems required to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius,
the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in a report requested as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
the same time, however, the report is being received with hope in some
quarters because it affirms that 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible —
if emissions stopped today, for instance, the planet would not reach
that temperature. It is also likely to galvanize even stronger climate
action by focusing on 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than 2 degrees, as a
target that the world cannot afford to miss.
the transformation described in the document is breathtaking, and the
speed of change required raises inevitable questions about its
Most strikingly, the document says
the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, which amount to more than
40 billion tons per year, would have to be on an extremely steep
downward path by 2030 to either hold the world entirely below 1.5
degrees Celsius, or allow only a brief “overshoot” in temperatures.
reductions in emissions in the next decade would probably need to be
more than 1 billion tons per year, larger than the current emissions of
all but a few of the very largest emitting countries. By 2050, the
report calls for a total or near-total phaseout of the burning of coal.
like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We
have to put out the fire,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the
U.N. Environment Program. He added that the need to either stop
emissions entirely by 2050 or find some way to remove as much carbon
dioxide from the air as humans put there “means net zero must be the new
The radical transformation
also would mean that, in a world projected to have more than 2 billion
additional people by 2050, large swaths of land currently used to
produce food would instead have to be converted to growing trees that
store carbon and crops designated for energy use. The latter would be
used as part of a currently nonexistent program to get power from trees
or plants and then bury the resulting carbon dioxide emissions in the
ground, leading to a net subtraction of the gas from the air — bioenergy
with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS.
large transitions pose profound challenges for sustainable management
of the various demands on land for human settlements, food, livestock
feed, fibre, bioenergy, carbon storage, biodiversity and other ecosystem
services,” the report states.
The document in
question was produced relatively rapidly for the cautious and
deliberative IPCC, representing the work of nearly 100 scientists. It
went through an elaborate peer-review process involving tens of
thousands of comments. The final 34-page “summary for policymakers” was
agreed to in a marathon session by scientists and government officials
in Incheon, South Korea, over the past week.
report says the world will need to develop large-scale “negative
emissions” programs to remove significant volumes of carbon dioxide from
the atmosphere. Although the basic technologies exist, they have not
caught on widely, and scientists have strongly questioned whether such a
program can be scaled up in the brief period available.
The bottom line, Sunday’s report found, is that the world is woefully off target.
promises made by countries as part of the Paris climate agreement would
lead to about 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by
the end of the century, and the Trump administration recently released
an analysis assuming about 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100 if the world takes no action.
IPCC is considered the definitive source on the state of climate
science, but it also tends to be conservative in its conclusions. That’s
because it is driven by a consensus-finding process, and its results
are the product of not only science, but negotiation with governments
over its precise language.
In Sunday’s report,
the body detailed the magnitude and unprecedented nature of the changes
that would be required to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but it
held back from taking a specific stand on the feasibility of meeting
such an ambitious goal. (An early draft
had cited a “very high risk” of warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius;
that language is now gone, even if the basic message is still easily
“If you’re expecting IPCC to jump up
and down and wave red flags, you’re going to be disappointed,” said
Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center. “They’re going
to do what they always do, which is to release very cautious reports in
extremely dispassionate language.”
researchers, including Duffy, are skeptical of the scenarios that the
IPCC presents that hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, particularly the
reliance on negative-emissions technologies to keep the window open.
if it is technically possible, without aligning the technical,
political and social aspects of feasibility, it is not going to happen,”
added Glen Peters, research director of the Center for International
Climate Research in Oslo. “To limit warming below 1.5 C, or 2 C for that
matter, requires all countries and all sectors to act.”
the difficulty of interpreting what’s possible, the IPCC gave two
separate numbers in the report for Earth’s remaining “carbon budget,” or
how much carbon dioxide humans can emit and still have a reasonable
chance of remaining below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The upshot is that humans
are allowed either 10 or 14 years of current emissions, and no more,
for a two-thirds or better chance of avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius.
already limited budget would shrink further if other greenhouse gases,
such as methane, aren’t controlled or if and when Arctic permafrost
becomes a major source of new emissions.
either way — in a move that may be contested — researchers have somewhat
increased the carbon budget in comparison with where the IPCC set it in
2013, giving another reason for hope.
approach buys some time and “resets the clock for 1.5 degrees Celsius to
‘five minutes to midnight,’ ” said Oliver Geden, head of the research
division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
the report clearly documents that a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius
would be very damaging and that 2 degrees — which used to be considered a
reasonable goal — could approach intolerable in parts of the world.
degrees is the new 2 degrees,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director
of Greenpeace International, who was in Incheon for the finalization of
Specifically, the document finds
that instabilities in Antarctica and Greenland, which could usher in
sea-level rise measured in feet rather than inches, “could be triggered
around 1.5°C to 2°C of global warming.” Moreover, the total loss of
tropical coral reefs is at stake because 70 to 90 are expected to vanish
at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report finds. At 2 degrees, that number
grows to more than 99 percent.
The report found
that holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius could save an Alaska-size
area of the Arctic from permafrost thaw, muting a feedback loop that
could lead to still more global emissions. The occurrence of entirely
ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean goes from one per century to one
per decade between 1.5 and 2 degrees, it found — one of many ways in
which the mere half a degree has large real-world consequences.
of extreme heat and weather events just rise and rise as temperatures
do, meaning these would be worse worldwide the more it warms.
avoid that, in barely more than 10 years, the world’s percentage of
electricity from renewables such as solar and wind power would have to
jump from the current 24 percent to something more like 50 or 60
percent. Coal and gas plants that remain in operation would need to be
equipped with technologies, collectively called carbon capture and
storage (CCS), that prevent them from emitting carbon dioxide into the
air and instead funnel it to be buried underground. By 2050, most coal
plants would shut down.
Cars and other forms of
transportation, meanwhile, would need to be shifting strongly toward
being electrified, powered by these same renewable energy sources. At
present, transportation is far behind the power sector in the shift to
low-carbon fuel sources. Right now, according to
the International Energy Agency, only 4 percent of road transportation
is powered by renewable fuels, and the agency has projected only a 1
percent increase by 2022.
The report’s statements on the need to jettison coal were challenged by the World Coal Association.
we are still reviewing the draft, the World Coal Association believes
that any credible pathway to meeting the 1.5 degree scenario must focus
on emissions rather than fuel,” the group’s interim chief executive,
Katie Warrick, said in a statement. “That is why CCS is so vital.”
an approach largely embraced by the head of the Environmental
Protection Agency, which under President Trump has taken numerous steps
to roll back regulations on the coal industry.
an interview with The Post last week, the EPA’s acting administrator,
Andrew Wheeler, said the United States will “continue to remain engaged
in the U.N.'s effort,” despite the fact that Trump has said he intends
to withdraw from the Paris climate accord as soon as legally possible.
asked specifically about what it would take to keep the world below a
dangerous level of climate change, Wheeler declined to identify a
specific level. The agency’s regulatory approach is that it would allow
the coal industry “to continue to innovate on clean coal technologies,
and those technologies will be exported to other countries."
turning off most coal plants may not be the most radical change
required. For instance, the document also contemplates rapid changes to
agriculture, where methane emissions, produced by livestock, rice
cultivation and other sources, also would have to plummet even as the
world will have to feed a growing population.
instead of continuing to deforest large areas for livestock and other
uses, humans would have to embark on a large-scale program of
reforestation, planting or restoring trees over enormous areas.
In the end, “one thing is for sure,” Niklas Hohne, a scientist who heads the New Climate Institute, said in a statement.
“If we give up the goal and do not even try, we will certainly miss it a long way.”