Wageningen University & Research: Immediate acceleration of global climate action needed to meet the 1.5-degree target

The Paris climate agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees is slipping beyond the horizon unless countries show an increased joint ambition to take urgent action. Thus state the five Dutch climate experts who contributed to the latest IPCC report that was released today.

Such an expedited fortification of policies is still possible but requires a thorough transformation of the systems on which our economy is based, such as industry, energy, transportation and agriculture. The coming years are decisive. These are some of the most significant conclusions of the IPCC report that was published today.

Global increase in greenhouse gas emissions
In comparison to previous decades, the global emission of greenhouse gases in the last decade (2010-2019) was the highest in absolute numbers, despite the increase in percentage levelling off. A decline in energy intensity (emission per earned euro) and low-carbon energy production (emission per produced energy unit) could not match the growth in industry, transport, agriculture and construction, ultimately leading to an increase in emission levels.

The regional discrepancies are significant. Economically developed nations were responsible for 24 per cent of all emissions. In comparison, the poorest countries emitted only 3 per cent of the total in 2019. In a growing number of -mainly rich- countries, emissions decreased in the last decade, partly due to policy measures and partly due to autonomous trends.

Current pledges by countries are nowhere near sufficient
The pledges countries have currently made to reduce their emissions are insufficient to maintain a temperature increase under 1.5 degrees. If the current plan is not revised, the earth’s temperature will rise by 3.2 degrees in 2100, the IPCC states. To maintain a temperature increase of below 1.5 degrees, global emissions must have reached their pinnacle before 2025, must be reduced by half in 2030, and to zero in 2050. After this, there must be a negative trend, meaning that large quantities of CO2 must be absorbed from the atmosphere. To remain below a 2-degree increase, there is a little more room. Still, even then, a considerable decrease in emissions must occur in the coming years to reach zero several decades later. The current climate policy is sorely lacking and will, at most, lead to a stabilisation of emissions by 2030.

Prof. Dr Detlef van Vuuren: ‘The new IPCC report shows that the coming years are crucial to meet the goals set in the Paris climate agreement. The road to that goal has become a narrow path. Only if we succeed in a considerable reduction of global emissions before 2030 will we have a chance of meeting the Paris-agreement goals. Reaching an emission level of zero halfway through this century is of the essence. That means that this goal must be included in every investment decision from this point on.’

Transformations within sectors
Reducing emissions calls for a far-reaching transformation in the key economic sectors, including energy, transport and agriculture. In the energy sector, energy use must be cut back and made more efficient. The use of low-carbon energy sources must be increased in industries and residential areas. In some sectors, a zero-emission level of CO2 is unattainable as yet. Here, carbon capture and storage (CCS) may be required. In urban areas, sustainable construction and electrically powered transport offer opportunities for efficient reduction of emissions. On farms and in forests, CO2 emissions may be directly lowered, and extra CO2 may be sequestered. Moreover, energy and greenhouse gas-intensive materials may be replaced by more sustainable alternatives. Self-reliance on renewable resources is a major point of focus for the EU. Possible negative impacts on food security and biodiversity must be considered.

The price of various low-emission technologies, such as those for sustainable energy, has dropped since 2010 due to innovation policies and increased scale. Stricter mitigation policies and national climate laws have also led to increased investments in low-carbon technologies and infrastructure, and there is much private interest in forest recovery.

Information about the IPCC and the ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’ report
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations organisation that evaluates the risks of climate change. The IPCC does not conduct research but ensures that policymakers are provided with the most recent and most relevant scientific insights on climate change. Every seven years, the IPCC provides a new overview of the scientific insights on climate change.

The report that was released today is the third part of the report and focuses on mitigating further climate change and what measures are needed to reach this goal. Part one was released in August 2021 and focused on Physical Science Basis. Part 2, on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, was published a month ago.

New elements in this third report are increased focus on measures that regulate the demand for products and services, circular economy, the feasibility of the measures and behavioural aspects. The report combines possible developments until 2030, based on the countries’ pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions with scenarios for the middle (2050) and the long term (2100).

Management tools such as legislation (including pricing CO2) may considerably reduce emissions and stimulate innovation. Measures of up to 100 USD per reduced tonne of CO2 could reduce the global emission by half compared to 2019. Behavioural change, such as lower energy consumption, the use of sustainable energy and transportation, and reduced meat consumption in rich countries, may lead to a more significant contribution to reducing emissions (by 40-70 per cent in 2050) while simultaneously contributing to global welfare.

Prof. Dr Heleen de Coninck: ‘A new feature in this report is that it describes possibilities to still avert severe climate change: behavioural change, political action, innovation and international collaboration in areas such as funding and investment.’

Land use and CO2-sequestration
Land use across the globe (deforestation and agriculture) is responsible for between 13 and 21 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC report shows that improved land use and extra CO2 sequestration are crucial in achieving the climate goals, particularly to compensate for non-avoidable emissions and produce renewable resources. The report shows that renewable resources (wooden construction, bio textiles, biofuels, biochemistry) are interlinked with sectors such as transport, industry and energy. A significant improvement, which also demands a solid land and forest management policy with a focus on biodiversity. According to the IPCC, this is required in many scenarios to lower global warming to the 1.5 degrees threshold after exceedance.

Prof. Dr ir Gert-Jan Nabuurs: ‘Together, all measures in agriculture and forestry (protecting forests and peat soils, forestry, lower methane and nitrous oxide emissions, improved forest management, construction using wood, biomass, less food waste and farm soil management) may contribute some 15 per cent to the solution. In other words: between 8 and 14 gigatonnes less CO2 emissions in 2030. This additional sequestration is essential to compensate for emissions that cannot be avoided so that a negative emission can be achieved.’

Climate action and sustainable development
Another significant conclusion of the report is that sustainable development can only be achieved in combination with climate mitigation, and climate mitigation can only be achieved in combination with sustainable development. Thus, climate action is largely linked to the Sustainable Development goals (SDGs), but occasionally, the goals may be at odds. Limited economic, social and institutional means in low- and middle-income countries often result in high levels of vulnerability and low adaptive capacity. The sharp decline in the price of solar technology and electric vehicles positively impacts efforts to reduce emissions but negatively impacts the environment and people. Equity is thus a critical precondition for the use of these technologies, not only within countries but across borders.

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