The publication of 6th IPCC assessment report (AR6) on climate change in April was inevitably overshadowed by the brutal war in Ukraine. The new report focused on how to mitigate climate change. It was the third part of the IPCC’s latest assessment cycle following the publication of the first part of AR6, in August 2021, which set out how and why the Earth’s climate is changing and the second part of AR6, in February 2022, which laid out the impacts of climate change. At the launch of this third report, UN secretary-general António Guterres said it was a “file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world”.
The report’s seventeen chapters cover every aspect of the climate agenda in its 2,913 pages. During a virtual meeting spread over two weeks, government delegations from 195 countries reached a consensus on a Summary for Policy Makers. Inevitably, the style of the document is cautious, the language often technical. The report urges policy-makers and politicians to take on board a number of clear messages, some of which will be familiar to TIPC readers. What are they?
Urgency of the issue
Undoubtedly, the most important message is its urgency. The report is clear: a failure to peak and reduce emissions this decade will put the Paris goals to limit global rise in temperatures increasingly “out of reach”. The next few years are critical. As the report’s co-chair Jim Skea said at the report’s launch, “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F). Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
It’s against this benchmark that government policies and ministerial statements need to be judged. That’s why the successful implementation of the European Green Deal and, in particular, measures on home renovation and insulation are so important. In contrast, the UK government’s energy security White Paper lays huge emphasis on the benefits of new nuclear power stations that will not come on stream for another decade at the earliest. As the IPCC report warns, the longer the delays, the greater the danger of locking-in carbon-intensive infrastructure, and the harder to shift societies onto a low-carbon axis.
Secondly, the report recognises the real progress that has been made on the renewable revolution. “Unit costs of several low-emission technologies have fallen continuously since 2010. The global average cost of solar energy, wind energy and lithium-ion batteries has decreased by 85%, 55% and 85%, respectively.” Unit cost reductions in these key technologies have increased the economic attractiveness of low-emission energy sector transitions and, especially with the increased capacity for storage, the world should see a huge expansion in the period through to 2030. The German government plans for a fourfold increase in solar production to 200GW, and the UK intention to boost solar fivefold by 2035 are commitments in line with this IPCC scenario.
Overall the report says that integrating large amounts of “variable renewable energy” particularly wind and solar, presents “economic and technical challenges to electricity system management”. These challenges can be addressed by using batteries, hydrogen and other storage, as well as greater “demand-side responses” utilising flexible grids. Through these means the report judges that “electricity systems powered predominantly by renewables will be increasingly viable over the coming decades”.
On other renewables, the report is more cautious. Nuclear power “continues to be affected by cost overruns, high upfront investment needs, challenges with final disposal of radioactive waste, and varying public acceptance and political support”. On hydrogen, currently heavily favoured by the European Commission and German industry, it notes that “as a general rule, it is more efficient to use electricity directly and avoid the progressively larger conversion losses from producing hydrogen.” Nevertheless, it points to its potential use in sectors that are hard to decarbonise, such as parts of heavy road transport and industry.
For the first time, the IPCC devotes a chapter to the “demand, services and social aspects of mitigation”. Demand-side climate measures reduce the use of high-emitting goods and services by targeting uptake of technologies and people’s consumption patterns. Examples include reducing domestic energy consumption, making it easier for people to use cleaner forms of transport, or eating more plant-based foods, thereby reducing meat consumption.
This is a welcome development as behavioural and cultural changes represent an arena that has been overlooked in official documents until now. The report uses the avoid-shift-improve framework to explore options for demand-side measures. In the transport sector, for example, emissions could be avoided by eliminating unnecessary travel to work and/or working from home; remaining journeys could be shifted from a car to a bus or cycle; and the bus itself could be improved by replacing it with a non-fossil fuel model. The report is aware that “Individual behavioural change is insufficient for climate change mitigation unless embedded in structural and cultural change”. Companies, institutions and public authorities have to change and promote wider transformative trends such as towards the sharing economy, the circular economy and digitalisation.
Perhaps, the report underplays the difficulties of achieving these types of shifts. The experience of the introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in UK towns and cities during the pandemic has often aroused vocal resistance, frequently amplified in a populist fashion on social media. On food, claims by the Spanish government minister for consumer affairs that factory farming is damaging the environment and leading to the export of poor-quality meat provoked a furious backlash with senior government ministers rushing to defend the meat industry is just one example. The EU’s 9 point plan along with the International Energy Agency for citizens and companies to save energy and reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuel will be a wider test of how effective these changing behaviour proposals can be.
With the continuing swift urbanisation of the planet, the report has a particular focus on three types of city. Established cities, like most of those in Europe, will achieve the highest carbon savings by replacing or retrofitting building stock, “strategic infilling and densifying”, and electrifying urban energy systems that rely on cleaner sources. Rapidly expanding cities, meanwhile, can avoid higher future emissions by “leapfrogging to low-carbon technologies” and by better urban planning that “co-locates jobs and housing to achieve compact urban form”. For new and emerging cities the report calls for “compact, co-located and walkable urban areas with mixed land use and transit-oriented design”. In all three urban categories, careful spatial planning linked with dialogue and consultation with non-state actors and citizens is crucial if cities are to become resource efficient and shift onto a low-carbon axis.
It is also the first time that an IPCC report has included a chapter on innovation. It follows socio-technical transition thinking to outline the key stages of innovation from emergence and early adoption through to diffusion where niche developments become mainstream – as now with solar and wind.
This report covers a huge amount of ground not touched here– on decarbonising agriculture and land use, transport and industry. It shows that meeting the Paris climate change targets is still possible but only with a monumental societal effort. The approach is broad; recognising the need to transform all parts of the economy and society; and that it needs to be global. The report is not explicit on this but it’s clear that every nation across the world has to play its part. At a moment of global crisis, the Paris goals cannot be met if a major power, like Russia, becomes a pariah state frozen out of the international efforts on climate change. We are all in this together. The IPCC report shows the need for transformative action is urgent.
Perhaps inevitably in a document pored over by government officials from every nation, the final language is not explicit. However, the core messages are obvious:
- climate change is a massive challenge that cannot be deferred;
- to tackle it, the world needs to change track in this decade;
- and this requires extensive government intervention, in partnership with business and civil society actors.
Those are key IPCC messages that policy-makers and politicians need to take on board before it is too late.