Avoiding global climate chaos will require a major transformation of society and the world economy that is “unprecedented in scale,” the UN said Monday in a landmark report that warns time is running out to avert disaster.
Earth’s surface has warmed one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) — enough to lift oceans and unleash a crescendo of deadly storms, floods and droughts — and is on track toward an unliveable 3C or 4C rise.
At current levels of greenhouse gas emissions, we could pass the 1.5C marker as early as 2030, and no later than mid-century, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) reported with “high confidence”.
“The next few years are probably the most important in human history,” Debra Roberts, head of the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department in Durban, South Africa, and an IPCC co-chair, told AFP.
A Summary for Policymakers of the 400-page tome underscores how quickly global warming has outstripped humanity’s attempt to tame it, and outlines options for avoiding the worst ravages of a climate-addled future.
“We have done our job, we have now passed on the message,” Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy and an IPCC co-chair, said at a press conference.
“Now it is over to governments — it’s their responsibility to act on it.”
Before the Paris Agreement was inked in 2015, nearly a decade of scientific research rested on the assumption that 2C was the guardrail for a climate-safe world.
The IPCC report, however, shows that global warming impacts have come sooner and hit harder than predicted.
– Pay now or pay later –
“Things that scientists have been saying would happen further in the future are happening now,” Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, told AFP.
“That means every tonne of CO2 we put into the atmosphere will have to be balanced by a tonne of CO2 taken out,” said lead coordinating author Myles Allen, head of the University of Oxford’s Climate Research Programme.
Drawing from more than 6,000 recent scientific studies, the report laid out four pathways to that goal.
The most ambitious would see a radical drawdown in energy consumption coupled with a rapid shift away from fossil fuels and a swift decline in CO2 emissions starting in 2020. It would also avoid an “overshoot” of the 1.5C threshold.
A contrasting “pay later” scenario compensates for a high-consumption lifestyles and continued use of fossil fuels with a temporary breaching of the 1.5C ceiling.
It depends heavily on the use of biofuels. But the scheme would need to plant an area twice the size of India in biofuel crops, and assumes that some 1,200 billion tonnes of CO2 — 30 years’ worth of emissions at current rates — can be safely locked away underground.
“Is it fair for the next generation to pay to take the CO2 out of the atmosphere that we are now putting into it?”, asked Allen. “We have to start having that debate.”