Climate Change

Six takeaways from IPCC AR6 Report: Long-term benefits of cutting emissions today outweigh costs

The report provides an exhaustive list of solutions across the energy, buildings, transport, land and industrial sectors which show that it is possible to cut emissions quickly and cheaply

By Avantika Goswami
Published: Monday 04 April 2022
Growth in greenhouse gas emissions has been driven mainly by the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

The United Nations’ climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the third instalment of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) April 4, 2022. The report prepared by the IPCC Working Group III (WG-III) focuses on the mitigation of climate change, ie, the solutions necessary to halt global warming.

The full report collates the latest scientific research from across the world and extends to thousands of pages. But a condensed 63-page summary, titled the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) captures the key highlights.

Here are six takeaways from the SPM:

1. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 54 per cent higher in 2019 than they were in 1990, but growth is slowing

In 2019, global net anthropogenic GHG emissions were at 59 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e), 54 per cent higher than in 1990. Net emissions refer to emissions accounted for after deducting emissions soaked up by the world’s forests and oceans.

Anthropogenic emissions refer to emissions that originate from human-driven activities like the burning of coal for energy or cutting of forests. This emissions growth has been driven mainly by CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and the industrial sector, as well as methane emissions.

But the average annual rate of growth slowed to 1.3 per cent per year in the period 2010-19, compared to 2.1 per cent per year in the period 2000-09. At least 18 countries have reduced GHG emissions for longer than 10 years on a continuous basis due to decarbonisation of their energy system, energy efficiency measures and reduced energy demand.

2. Least developed countries emitted only 3.3 per cent of global emissions in 2019

But all the news isn’t positive. Carbon inequality remains pervasive as ever with Least Developed Countries (LDCs) emitting only 3.3 per cent of global emissions in 2019. Their average per capita emissions in the period 1990-2019 were only 1.7 tonnes CO2e, compared to the global average of 6.9 tCO2e.

LDCs contributed less than 0.4 per cent of total historical CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry in the period 1850-2019. Globally, 41 per cent of the world’s population lived in countries emitting less than 3 tCO2e per capita in 2019.

3. Pledges to the Paris Agreement are insufficient, emissions must fall 43 per cent by 2030 compared to 2019

Current pledges made by countries who have signed the Paris Agreement are known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Upon adding up the NDCs announced by countries till October 2021, the IPCC finds that it is likely that warming will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) in this century, thereby failing the Paris Agreement’s mandate.

The CO2 emissions from existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure — coal, oil, and gas — contribute greatly to this projected failure. In its best-case scenario, known as the C1 pathway, the IPCC outlines what the world needs to do to limit temperatures to 1.5°C, with limited or no ‘overshoot’.

Overshoot refers to global temperatures crossing the 1.5°C threshold temporarily, but then being brought back down using technologies that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

To achieve the C1 pathway, global GHG emissions must fall by 43 per cent by 2030 compared to 2019 levels, amounting to 31 GtCO2e in 2030. And the use of coal, oil, and gas must decline by 95 per cent, 60 per cent and 45 per cent by 2050 compared to 2019.

4. Abundant and affordable solutions exist across sectors including energy, buildings, and transport, as well as individual behavioural changes

Widespread ‘system transformations’ are required across the energy, buildings, transport, land and other sectors, to achieve the 1.5°C target and this will involve adopting low-emission or zero carbon pathways of development in each sector. But solutions are available at affordable costs.

The costs of low emissions technologies have fallen continuously since 2010. On a unit costs basis, solar energy has dropped 85 per cent, wind by 55 per cent, and lithium-ion batteries by 85 per cent.

Their deployment, or usage, has increased multiple fold since 2010 — 10 times for solar and 100 times for electric vehicles. The IPCC report attributes this success to “public R&D, funding for demonstration and pilot projects and demand-pull instruments such as deployment subsidies to attain scale”.

The report states with “high confidence” that “several mitigation options, notably solar energy, wind energy, electrification of urban systems, urban green infrastructure, energy efficiency, demand side management, improved forest — and crop / grassland management and reduced food waste and loss, are technically viable, are becoming increasingly cost effective and are generally supported by the public”.

Reducing fossil fuel use in the energy sector, demand management and energy efficiency in the industrial sector and adopting the principles of ‘sufficiency’ and efficiency in the construction of buildings are among the plethora of solutions the report outlines.

It also adds that demand-side mitigation, ie, behavioural changes such as adopting plant-based diets, or shifting to walking and cycling “can reduce global GHG emissions in end use sectors by 40-70 per cent by 2050 compared to baseline scenarios” and improve wellbeing.

Most of the potential for demand-side mitigation currently lies in developed countries, it clarifies.

5. The impact on GDP would be negligible and the long-term benefits of cutting emissions immediately would outweigh the initial costs

The IPCC states that low-cost climate mitigation options, ie, those costing $100 per tCO2e or less, could halve global GHG emissions by 2030. In fact, the long-term benefits of limiting warming far outweigh the costs. “The global economic benefit of limiting warming to 2°C is reported to exceed the cost of mitigation in most of the assessed literature,” the report says.

Investing in decarbonisation would have a minimal impact on global Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

“Without taking into account the economic benefits of reduced adaptation costs or avoided climate impacts, global GDP would be just a few percentage points lower in 2050 if we take the actions necessary to limit warming to 2°C (3.6°F) or below, compared to maintaining current policies,” IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Priyadarshi Shukla, said in a press release.

6. Finance falls short, especially in developing countries, but there is sufficient money in the world to close this gap

Financial flows fall short of the levels needed to achieve the ambitious mitigation goals, however. The gaps are the widest for the agriculture, forestry, and other land uses (AFOLU) sector and for developing countries.

But the global financial system is large enough and “sufficient global capital and liquidity” exist to close these gaps, according to the IPCC.

For developing countries, it recommends scaled up public grants, as well as “increased levels of public finance and publicly mobilised private finance flows from developed to developing countries in the context of the $100 billion-a-year goal; increase the use of public guarantees to reduce risks and leverage private flows at lower cost; local capital markets development and building greater trust in international cooperation processes”.

The approval process for the SPM is a two-week-long intergovernmental process requiring delegates of country governments to review every line prepared by the technical experts and scientists.

The approval process extended past its deadline this weekend, with delegates challenging various aspects of the SPM that seemingly clashed with their own national interests.

India in particular had demands on climate finance, while Saudi Arabia wanted to see a continued role for fossil fuels like oil and gas, reports The Guardian.

The SPM is thus prone to watering-down and the tone of the document is thoroughly neutral and apolitical, leaving out the messier issues of naming who is responsible for this crisis and which wealthy global interest groups will be inconvenienced the most in helping the developing countries of the world avoid a high-emissions development path.

It is in the pages of the longer AR6 WGIII report that a more exhaustive and potentially transformative list of scientifically sound recommendations for decarbonisation can be unearthed.

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