IPCC Report Says 1.5C Climate Target Is Reachable, But Only With Rapid Fossil Fuel Phase Out

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wind turbines in front of coal power plant in UK

There is no scenario to keep global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) that allows coal to be burned for electricity by the middle of this century, a major United Nations (UN) climate report says.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concludes human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have already pushed global average temperatures up by 1°C since the second half of the 19th century.

Warming is higher than the 1°C average over land, with temperatures as much as three times higher in the Arctic, causing melting. Extreme temperatures, rainfall, and sea levels have been pushed higher.

Massive and rapid transformations across societies will be needed to keep to a 1.5°C target, with dramatic cuts to fossil fuel use across all sectors of society.

Climate Risks Reduced

Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C,” the report, launched today in Incheon, South Korea, concludes.

Coral reefs that provide food and livelihoods to an estimated 500 million people worldwide are particularly hard hit. Even at 1.5°C, the report says there is “high confidence” that coral reefs will further decline by 70 to 90 percent. At 2°C, there was “very high confidence” that 99 percent of all reefs will be hit.

The United Nations Paris climate agreement, signed in 2015, commits more than 190 countries to keep temperatures “well below” 2°C while “pursuing efforts” to stop global warming at 1.5°C.

The report compares the impacts of warming at 1.5°C against 2°C across the planet — from ecosystems on land and in oceans to the health and well being of people — and finds universal benefits in the lower target, such as 0.1 meter less sea level rise that could mean 10 million less people were exposed to related risks.

But the report does not cover the impacts of the much higher levels of warming that analysts say current climate pledges of governments around the world will deliver.

End of Fossil Fuel Era

The respected Climate Analytics group, which tracks the impacts of the commitments made by countries under the Paris deal, says without improvements to those pledges, temperatures will reach 3.2°C by the end of this century.

The launch of the report will spark renewed calls for governments around the world to act. Campaign group 350.org is organizing deliveries of the report to key decision makers across the planet.

The report warns that as governments take steps to reduce emissions, they will have to consider the impacts that new policies have on the world’s poorest and how they impact other pledges, including the UN’s sustainable development goals

The report was finalized during a week-long meeting in South Korea where the oil-rich Saudi Arabia reportedly tried to block or temper parts of the text emphasizing the need to rapidly cut fossil fuel use.

Four scenarios are modeled in the report that reflect different strategies governments could take to deliver “no or low overshoot” of the 1.5°C target.

Within these scenarios, by 2030 coal use would need to drop between 25 percent and 60 percent compared to 2010. By 2050, coal use drops between 73 and 97 percent.

Dr. Joeri Rogelj, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and a coordinator of the IPCC report chapter looking at pathways to cut emissions, told DeSmog: “The report provides quite clear messages for fossil fuels in a 1.5°C world, but also highlights that the future out to 2050 looks differently for the various types of fossil fuels.

For coal the picture is the clearest. It is reduced 75 to 95 percent from 2010 levels across the entire economy and fully phased out from producing electricity.”

He said by 2050, renewables would need to generate between 70 and 85 percent of global electricity to meet a 1.5°C target.

Oil use is reduced consistently across most of 1.5°C scenarios, about a 30 to 80 percent reduction from 2010 levels in 2050. Depending on how gas is used and how successful carbon capture and storage (CCS) is, natural gas use is reduced by more than 50 percent or stays roughly similar to 2010 levels.”

In the report, all scenarios rely in some way on so-called Carbon Dioxide Removal technologies, such as afforestation, reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, and the largely untested and controversial BECCS — bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.

Professor Piers Forster, of the University of Leeds and a lead author of the emissions chapter of the report, told DeSmog all paths to 1.5°C “require deep decarbonization of electricity generation.”

He said if fossil fuel industries were to survive in a world aiming for 1.5°C, then “we will have 10 years to massively scale up workable carbon capture and storage.”

He said: “All the countries that have endorsed our report have signed off on some challenging numbers. They tell how global warming of more than 1.5°C will be a huge risk and to prevent it we … that’s the whole world … must halve our emissions in 10 years. Current policies put us on course for a super-risky 3°C of warming.”

He admitted the report showed that “limiting warming to 1.5°C is barely feasible and every year we delay the window of feasibility halves.”

Nevertheless, if we were to succeed, we go onto show that benefits across society will be huge and the world will be all the richer for it. It’s a battle worth winning.”

Dr. Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, took part in the IPCC meeting as a science advisor to Small Island Developing States and was accredited to the Grenada delegation.

He said the report “has sent the strongest message yet from the scientific community that the era of fossil fuels has to end soon if we are to protect the world from dangerous climate change and limit warming to 1.5°C.”

Main image: Wind turbines in the foreground of a coal power station at Frodsham Marsh in Cheshire, England. Credit: Flickr/ARG_Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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