- If we don’t act now, the Earth could warm enough to leave major cities underwater.
- “We have the knowledge and the technology to get this done,” experts concur. But politics gets in the way.
- These UN reports are considered the most authoritative assessments of the state of global warming.
This week’s United Nations climate report painted an ominous picture. If humanity doesn’t act now to stop greenhouse gas emissions, the Earth could warm as much as 3 degrees Celsius.
At those temperatures, major cities will be underwater, unprecedented heatwaves will define summers, terrifying storms will become more frequent and millions of plant and animal species will go extinct, UN leadership warned.
Making the shift seems daunting. A dozen years ago, moving to fully carbon-neutral energy would have been crushingly expensive. But today, with wind power 72% cheaper and solar 90% cheaper than in 2009, officials say it’s actually well within reach.
“We have the knowledge and the technology to get this done,” said Inger Anderson, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.
Fixing climate change is no longer a technological or scientific problem, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles — it’s a political one.
“We can solve this problem, we’re just choosing not to,” he said, comparing the situation to a train speeding down a hill with dangerous curves ahead. “The engineer has perfectly functional brakes that work fine – he’s just not choosing to apply them.”
The third installment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, published this week, details how now is the time to implement rapid mitigation measures – reductions in fossil fuels and better building practices – needed to avoid unsustainable global warming. The report focuses on the solutions already being taken for climate action and the pressing need to speed up their implementation to meet goals.
Global governments had agreed in the 2015 Paris climate agreement to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) before 2030, and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit).
UN data: Current emissions goals not enough to avoid ‘global catastrophe’
The tools we need to achieve this goal already exist, but we have to expand their usage onto a larger scale to meet the urgency of our current climate disaster, according to Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director for international climate in the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The report is pretty clear; we have kind of all the solutions we need,” Schmidt said. “When you look at what we need to get to that 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway, it’s not solutions that we’ve never heard of.”
Options for reducing fossil fuel use with renewable alternatives have shown to be effective in slowing the growth of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.
The economic viability of these alternatives is also becoming more clear: The unit cost of solar energy, wind energy and lithium-ion batteries have all fallen in the past decade as their use continues to rise, according to the report.
Already, solar and wind energy account for a record 13% of U.S. power generation, growing at their fastest rate ever last year, according to a report released last month.
Utility-scale solar arrays are now cheaper than the most competitive fossil fuel options and on the way to significantly undercutting them, according to the inter-governmental International Renewable Energy Agency.
Energy efficiency improvements, such as retrofitting residential and commercial buildings with better insulation and prioritizing energy efficiency in new construction, can take a “huge chunk” out of domestic growth in energy use, according to Schmidt.
Irreversible changes, warmer temperatures sooner: 5 alarming findings from the UN climate change report
“They’re known commodities from the outset,” he said. “It’s solar, wind, smart buildings, electric vehicles, walkable cities. … These are all things that we’ve been deploying at scale over the last couple of decades, and they got cheaper and easier to do.”
As for other greenhouse gases, the report also points to methane emission reduction as an approach for meeting the climate agreement goals. The first installment of the report pointed to methane reduction as one of the fastest ways to slow global temperature rise. Yet on Thursday scientists announced that the level of methane in Earth’s atmosphere surged to a record high for the second year in a row.
With the solutions widely available, the key to mitigation is speed and an increased sense of urgency around addressing the crisis.
What’s in the way now is not know-how, but political pressure from those who stand to lose money in the short term as the shift happens, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said.
“They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security, and greater price stability,” Guterres said.
“The good part of the story is that we can do this,” said Andrea Dutton, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We know what to do – we just have to decide to do it.”
Contributing: Dinah Pulver and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY.