Cutting greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst of climate change would be relatively cheap and technologically feasible, but governments and financial bodies are failing to do so as they continue to prop up the fossil fuel industry. That’s the conclusion of a landmark report published Monday by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The report focuses on solutions that could limit average global warming to 1.5°C since the preindustrial era—a threshold after which the impacts of climate change become catastrophic and irreversible. This is the first mitigation-focused report put out by the IPCC since the Paris Agreement was signed. It is part of a package of three reports—the other two focused on the state of climate science and adaptation—published every seven years by the IPCC.
But the IPCC admits the 1.5°C target set under the Paris Agreement now looks unlikely. Policies implemented by the end of 2020 put the world on a path to 3.2°C of warming. And even government pledges on reducing emissions, made in the run up to last year’s U.N. climate summit and have yet to be fully enacted, would overshoot the 1.5°C target, the IPCC said.
Countries accounting for more than 80% of global GDP have pledged to reach net zero emissions by around mid-century—this is the point at which they are putting less greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than they remove.. Many governments, though, plan to rely heavily on still-developing carbon capture technologies, or tree-planting over massive areas of land, in order to offset emissions from continuing to use fossil fuels for years to come. And questions over governments’ reliance on these solutions versus the need for policies to phase-out fossil fuels were a key sticking point as negotiations delayed the release of the report.
The IPCC report lays out in stark terms how central cutting fossil fuel use must be to protecting the climate. By 2050, global use of coal, oil, and gas in 2050 would need to be 95%, 60%, and 45% lower than in 2019. That imperative to phase out oil and gas has proved difficult to accept for countries whose economies are highly reliant on exports of those fuels.
“Some government and business leaders are saying one thing—but doing another,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres after the report’s publication. “Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”
Global greenhouse gas emissions would need to peak by 2025 and fall by 43% by 2030, and by 84% by 2050, to achieve the 1.5°C goal, the report says, with wealthier countries making swift, substantial cuts. That would mean a rapid reversal of our current trajectory: in 2021, as the global economy recovered from COVID-19, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions jumped by 6%, to a record 36.3 billion metric tons, according to the International Energy Agency. The increase came despite widespread talk by governments and businesses of leading a “green recovery” from the pandemic to funnel money towards non-polluting industries.
The good news, the report says, is that we can afford to power the world with non-polluting energy sources. The unit cost of solar and wind energy has fallen by 85% and 55% respectively since 2010, the report notes, and lithium-ion batteries, which can be used to store renewable energy, are now 85% cheaper than they were a decade ago. Renewables need to receive up to six times more funding by 2030 to meet climate goals, but the IPCC says that there should be plenty of public and private financing out there to meet that goal.
“There’s no shortage of money in the world,” says Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. Getting that money to the right place, he adds “requires policymakers to act on the information in front of them, and industries to start making the kind of investments that are necessary to really serve their customers’ needs into the future.”
The problem, the report makes clear, is largely political. A failure to implement policies that discourage investment in fossil fuels, and a fear of increasing energy prices in the short term, means that both governments and private investors are still funneling more money towards fossil fuels than towards renewables and other solutions to climate change. Ending public subsidies for fossil-fuels alone “could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 10% by 2030,” the IPCC claims.
“Governments are well aware that [renewables] are often the cheapest form of energy, but they’re stuck in the political inertia behind the fossil fuel economy,” says Tom Evans, a researcher on geopolitics, climate diplomacy, and security at European climate think tank E3G. “Trying to stop that train crash is why you see millions of people taking to the streets and protesting about climate change.”
The report suggests that money saved on policies supporting the fossil fuel industry could be used to counteract the impacts of rising fuel prices on people with low incomes. Civil society groups and activists have argued that the shift away from fossil fuels will also help western societies to counteract swings in energy prices that stem from conflicts like the current war in Ukraine. “The IPCC’s conclusions should offer a really clear way forward that climate action is the solution to rising energy bills and reliance on Russian oil and gas,” Evans says.
Monday’s report places greater emphasis than past IPCC reports on the importance of phasing out coal, oil, and gas. In the previous mitigation report, published in 2014, the IPCC envisaged fossil fuels making up a major share of the energy mix in many countries. Carbon removal technologies—including both natural carbon sinks like forests, and sophisticated machines that suck carbon out of the atmosphere—were projected to play a key role in countering emissions from fossil fuels.
But the IPCC now says that the world must halt all new investments in coal, oil, and gas, and even abandon some existing and already planned fossil fuel infrastructure, to keep global warming in check. “Projected cumulative future CO2 emissions over the lifetime of existing and currently planned fossil fuel infrastructure without additional abatement exceed the total cumulative net CO2 emissions in pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot,” the report says.
Carbon capture and storage and nature restoration will still be needed to offset emissions from hard to decarbonize sectors like steel and chemical production, aviation, and agriculture. But they should not be considered a substitute for cutting fossil fuel use, the IPCC says, due to “technological, economic, institutional, ecological-environmental and socio-cultural barriers” to using them on a large scale. The world’s existing carbon capture plants are capable of removing and storing just a few thousand metric tons of CO2 per year—far from the scale that’s needed. Solutions involving planting massive numbers of trees for carbon storage or bioenergy production, meanwhile, can trigger conflicts over land and other consequences for communities, the IPCC warns.
“There is no silver bullet for solving climate change, but there is a smoking gun: fossil fuels,” says Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law. “You can feel the scientists’ frustration that mountains of evidence isn’t yet driving the radical action needed to meet global climate goals. They are watching the clock tick down as governments and polluters continue to avoid making the bold changes in our energy, food and industrial systems, that are our only route out of catastrophic climate change.”
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