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The IPCC makes it clear: fossil fuels must go
Averting dangerous warming requires “a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use," the world's leading climate scientists said Monday.
Yesterday was IPCC report day—and if you’ve been reading this newsletter for awhile, you know those aren’t always our favorite.
Two years ago, in an article called “I don’t like IPCC report day,” Emily noted that the U.N. body’s bombshell climate change reports, while valuable in many ways, often ignore the actual reason for the planet’s sorry state: fossil fuels.
In 2021, you couldn’t find the words “fossil fuels” anywhere in the IPCC’s summary for policymakers on the causes of climate change. (Most people read the “summary report,” not the actual report, which is generally over a thousand pages). Neither could you find fossil fuels in the second report’s summary for policymakers.
But last year, things started to change. In April 2022, the IPCC cited “fossil fuels” 44 times in their 50-page summary report. And on Monday, the world’s top authority on climate science continued the trend, using the phrase “fossil fuels” 16 times to call out the actual cause of the crisis.
In the 37-page summary of its latest report, the IPCC said the world’s current use of fossil fuels will push the planet to dangerous levels of warming by the early 2030s. This dangerous warming, if left unchecked, will disproportionately harm the people who contributed least to the problem, it added.
But the IPCC said there’s still time to correct this. And there’s only one way to do it: “A substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use.”
Here’s some of the new report’s most important takeaways about fossil fuels, which reporters and activists should start citing ‘til the cows come home:
Keeping the world at safe levels of warming (1.5°C) will require “abatement” of existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
“Projected CO2 emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure without additional abatement would exceed the remaining carbon budget for 1.5°C (50%) (high confidence).”
If we build all the fossil fuel infrastructure that’s currently planned, we have an 83 percent likelihood of reaching dangerous, irreversible levels of warming (2°C).
“Projected cumulative future CO2 emissions over the lifetime of existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure, if historical operating patterns are maintained and without additional abatement, are approximately equal to the remaining carbon budget for limiting warming to 2°C with a likelihood of 83% (high confidence).”
Achieving net zero requires “a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use.” It also requires us to leave most unextracted fossil fuels in the ground.
“Net zero CO2 energy systems entail: a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use, minimal use of unabated fossil fuels, and use of carbon capture and storage in the remaining fossil fuel systems; electricity systems that emit no net CO2; widespread electrification; alternative energy carriers in applications less amenable to electrification; energy conservation and efficiency; and greater integration across the energy system (high confidence).”
Getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies would be a great way to reduce emissions, so long as the removals are structured in a way that doesn’t harm vulnerable groups.
”Removing fossil fuel subsidies would reduce emissions and yield benefits such as improved public revenue, macroeconomic and sustainability performance; subsidy removal can have adverse distributional impacts, especially on the most economically vulnerable groups which, in some cases can be mitigated by measures such as redistributing revenue saved, all of which depend on national circumstances (high confidence).”
“Fossil fuel subsidy removal is projected by various studies to reduce global CO2 emission by 1-4%, and GHG emissions by up to 10% by 2030, varying across regions (medium confidence).”
In short, the IPCC–which always errs on the conservative side–said with high confidence that we’re going to be trapped in an unlivable world unless we break society’s addiction to fossil fuels.
And yet society’s addiction appears to be going strong. Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden approved the Willow oil drilling project, the largest-ever proposed oil drilling project on public lands. And earlier this month, the world’s top oil and gas CEOs met in Houston, where they announced plans to increase investment in fossil fuels.
These types of investments are unacceptable, said United Nations Secretary General António Guterres–who was, as usual, even more blunt than the IPCC. On Monday, he called on the leaders of developed countries in the G20 to cut their emissions to zero by 2040, a full decade earlier than originally planned–and told them to do it by sharply reducing their use of fossil fuels.
Here’s a portion of the things he’s calling for:
No new coal and the phasing out of coal by 2030 in OECD countries—38 of the most powerful and wealthy countries in the world—and 2040 in all other countries.
Ensuring net zero electricity generation by 2035 for all developed countries and 2040 for the rest of the world.
Ceasing all licensing or funding of new oil and gas
Stopping any expansion of existing oil and gas reserves
Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to a just energy transition
Establishing a global phase down of existing oil and gas production compatible with the 2050 global net zero target.
The IPCC confirms these solutions are possible, both financially and technically. “Feasible, effective, and low-cost options for mitigation and adaptation are already available,” the authors said in the report.
What’s needed, however, is political will from the powerful entities that profit off fossil fuels–corporations, banks, and governments. These are the primary barriers to changing our planet’s fate along with a lack of public engagement and a low sense of urgency.
Fortunately, Guterres said, all those things are changeable with enough mobilization and advocacy.
“We have never been better equipped to solve the climate challenge,” he said. “But we must move into warp speed climate action now.”
And now, with the IPCC’s latest report, the definition of real “climate action” has never been more clear.
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No matter how hot the world is, Fish will always be cool.