This week saw the publication of a major report which lays out how we might save the world from runaway climate change. It urges very rapid emissions reductions, with global emissions having to peak by 2025, but relies heavily on techno-fixes and even so sends the world beyond critical temperature limits.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a collection of the world’s leading experts on climate science, impacts, adaptation and technology. They have been busy. Last August they published a report on climate science – we’re headed for nearly 3ºC warming and that’s a disaster. The UN Secretary General described this report as “code red for humanity.” At the end of February it was a report on the impacts of climate change – bad things are happening faster than predicted. The Secretary General described this one as an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”
This week it was a report on mitigation – what we should do about the fast approaching disaster. The Secretary General said “we are on a fast track to climate disaster” and “investing in new fossil fuels is moral and economic madness.”
The report was not easy to produce. Monday’s launch was pushed back by six hours because the Summary for Policymakers has to be agreed line by line by nearly 200 nations. In these UN processes the words of thousands of pages of the main report are watered down in the summary.
February’s report said it would be very dangerous to overshoot the vital 1.5ºC temperature limit and then try to come back, potentially triggering irreversible change in major planetary systems and submerging island nations, but this third report suggests this is likely to happen even in the best case.
The report includes a major element of net emissions technologies – things which take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lock it up somehow. Many of these rely on Carbon Capture and Storage. But CCS is massively overhyped. There have been previous pilot plants but currently there isn’t a single CCS plant operating in Europe. Of those that exist elsewhere in the world the vast majority use the carbon dioxide captured to help extract more oil – making things worse rather than better.
Relying on CCS, and even more speculative technologies, is a really bad bet on our future but it suits oil companies and many countries because it makes it sound like we can keep pumping the oil and not worry about climate change or having to make big changes to society.
The second bit of trickery is carbon markets. The theory is that the people, businesses or countries who are most easily able to reduce emissions do so and those who would find it harder buy credit for the emissions reduction to cover their own targets. The world gets the emissions reductions it needs in the most economically efficient fashion. But the real world experience has been quite different. The first big carbon market, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, is only now starting to make a difference, after 17 years of operation.
This latest report is very strong on the urgent need to act but weaker on the solutions. Instead of calling for the urgent phase out of fossil fuels and a real transformation in how we do just about everything it relies on technologies that may never deliver.
A version of this blog appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on 7th April 2022