The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the final instalment of its Sixth Assessment report on 4 April. Described as a ‘final warning’, it shows this decade is our last chance to start rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions to the extent needed to limit global heating and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Crucially, it explains that we already have the majority of the tools we need to achieve this. We explore the outlook for the energy industry and how individuals can help make a difference.
The Sixth Assessment report has been released in three sections, called Working Groups:
- Working Group I (published August 2021) assessed the state of scientific knowledge and evidence about climate change, including projections for how the climate will continue to change based on current observations.
- Working Group II (published February 2022) covered the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity and human communities. It warned that the world faces multiple unavoidable hazards and that “our actions today will shape how people will adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks”.
- Working Group III (published April 2022) covers how we can mitigate the impacts of climate change and assesses the effectiveness of current progress. This final report warns that the window for keeping global heating to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial averages is closing fast, but is still within reach if we act urgently.
What is the current state of global carbon emissions?
Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity were higher during the last decade (2010-2019) than at any other point in human history. After a brief drop in 2020-2021 caused by the pandemic, emissions have continued to increase by around 1.3% a year.
However, the report notes that this rate of increase is slower than in the previous decade (2000-2009). It also records that a growing number of countries have achieved sustained greenhouse gas emission reductions at rates needed to limit warming to 2 degrees.
Is current action enough?
If we are to have any hope of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees, the report warns that emissions must peak by 2025, halve by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
The climate pledges in place at the moment make it impossible to limit warming to this level. Instead, they put us on course for warming of 3 degrees or more by the end of the century – a level at which many impacts become increasingly severe and irreversible.
What must be done to get us on track?
We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.– IPCC Chair, Hoesung Lee
The picture may look bleak, but the report holds some positive news. Not only can we halve emissions by 2030, we already have many of the solutions we need.
What’s more, the economic benefit of mitigating climate is very likely to outweigh the cost, which is forecast to amount to just 1-2% of global GDP by 2050 (to put that in context, the UK currently spends around 2% of GDP on defence, amounting to around £660 per person per year).
“Immediate and deep” cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are required across all sectors, from agriculture to manufacturing. As burning fossil fuels is the major driver of climate change, how we generate and use energy must change dramatically in the following ways:
No more fossil fuels
Emissions from existing and planned fossil fuel projects such as coal mines and oil fields are already enough to push us beyond 1.5 degrees. Current use of fossil fuels must wind down quickly, with the International Energy Agency saying that 40% of the world’s 8,500 coal-fired power plants must close by 2030.
We cannot afford to invest in new fossil fuel extraction. And yet, the UK government’s energy security strategy announced on 6 April includes “maximising North Sea production” by licensing new oil and gas projects.
Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying.– UN Secretary General, António Guterres
Renewable energy now
Instead of fossil fuels, a net zero world will get 93-97% of its electricity from low carbon sources. The reduction in the cost of renewable technologies such as solar and wind energy and battery storage by up to 85% since 2010 means green energy is fast becoming the cheapest option.
Good Energy’s Renewable Nation report models how the UK can reach zero carbon by 2050 following a renewables-led pathway.
Electricity currently accounts for 20% of final energy usage. This must increase to around 50-60% by 2050 if we’re to limit heating to 1.5 degrees. Renewable energy can underpin an energy system where electricity is increasingly used not just for power, but for heating and cooling, cooking and transport.
As well as increased electrification, alternative fuels such as hydrogen will need to play a role, especially in industries that can’t be as easily electrified, such as shipping.
As well as moving to renewable energy, we must use less energy in the first place. Policies that will make a difference include energy efficient, well-insulated buildings and improved infrastructure including affordable public transport. Policies to reduce energy demand are increasingly popular with the public. A recent poll found that 84% of the British public thought insulation was important for reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
The report also states that removing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere is “unavoidable” for reaching net zero. Protecting and restoring nature will play a significant role here, but there will also be a need for developing technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage. This must be used to mitigate unavoidable emissions from heavy industry and processes such as large-scale use of biomass for electricity generation.
Climate change is the result of more than a century of unsustainable energy and land use, lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production, This report shows how taking action now can move us towards a fairer, more sustainable world.– PCC Working Group III Co-Chair Jim Skea
The report finds with medium confidence that “lifestyle consumption emissions of the middle income and poorest citizens in emerging economies are between 5-50 times below their counterparts in high-income countries”.
Reducing the carbon intensity of lifestyles in high income countries like the UK will help reduce the need to remove more carbon directly from the atmosphere. The report shows that achieving this calls for a combination of infrastructure and behavioural changes.
For instance, individual actions to save energy at home need to be supported by planning considerations such as designing buildings to be energy efficient and making sure urban environments support green travel.
Overall, individual changes such as not using a fossil fuel powered car, reducing the number of flights taken, eating a more plant-based diet and adopting technology such as a heat pump could cut up to 9 tonnes off an individual’s carbon footprint. That is around 90% of the carbon footprint of the average person living in the UK. We all have the power to make a difference.