A view of summer houses with grass roofs in a mountain valley

More sustainable building practices are just one of the ways we can mitigate the impact of climate change. Image © Giedrius Akelis/Shutterstock

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Avoiding the worst of climate change is possible if we act now

We have just three years to keep the dream of 1.5⁰C alive.

Scientists from around the world have warned that carbon dioxide emissions must peak within three years, with steps to slash the use of fossil fuels and switching to cleaner energy needed to prevent even more damaging climate change.

We can adapt to rising global temperatures, but we need to start now. 

This is the message of a crucial report on mitigating climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprising decades' worth of evidence assembled by hundreds of scientists. 

The report is the third of a trilogy released over the past year examining the science and impacts of climate change, and how to avoid the worst of its impacts.

It advocates for a 'substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use', with minimal use in the future if it cannot be avoided. Instead, support for renewable energy, and new carbon removal technology, is crucial if the world is to avoid overshooting the climate buffers.

The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, was blunt in his assessment of the current state of climate policies, describing the report as 'a litany of broken promises' and 'a file of shame.'

He said, 'Some government and business leaders are saying one thing - but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.'

He added that nations and businesses investing in fossil fuels were 'dangerous radicals' that were 'adding fuel to the fire' and putting the world on 'a fast track to climate disaster.'

The IPCC chair, Dr Hoesung Lee, said that despite the bleak assessment, change is possible.

'We are at a crossroads. This is the time for action. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming. 

'I am encouraged by climate action being taken in many countries. There are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective.  If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emissions reductions and stimulate innovation.'

Key points

  • The latest IPCC report is the most comprehensive assessment of how to mitigate the impact of climate change, and has been put together by 278 scientists from 65 countries.
  • This is the third of four main reports released as part of the sixth assessment report, building on the previous reports which covered the science of climate change and its impacts. The fourth, to be released in Sepember, is a synthesis of the first three.
  • To achieve net zero targets by 2050, and achieve 1.5⁰C of global warming, greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025.
  • However, it is still achievable, if nations around the world invest in transitioning to a low carbon future. Doing so is likely to be much less expensive than continuing to burn fossil fuels as renewable energy becomes cheaper than ever.
  • Lifestyle changs such as using more public transport and eating less meat will also help slash greenhouse gas emissions.

What is the IPCC, and what do its reports cover? 

Since being established in 1988, the IPCC has met regularly to update nations around the world on the state of knowledge about climate change. Since its first assessment in 1990, four more reports have been produced, each building upon its predecessor as our understanding of climate change improves. 

Over time, this has reduced the uncertainty of each report, presenting a clearer and starker picture of the threat our planet faces. Since the fifth report in 2014, progress has been made on tackling climate change, such as the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015 when nations around the world committed to limit global warming to less than 2⁰C. 

However, with predictions based on current trends suggesting the world could heat up by 2.4⁰C by 2100, action is needed now. The sixth report, in preparation since 2016, aims to lay out just what we know about climate change, its effects, and how we can avoid the worst of its impacts. 

This is important, because it is now a question of how much, rather than if, climate change will affect the world. Extreme weather and large wildfires are just some of the impacts that are already making themselves known, with studies suggesting as much as 30% of plants and animals could become extinct by 2070

A direct air carbon capture plant built in Squamish, Canada

Carbon capture and removal are noted as 'unavoidable' ways to reach net zero, but the technology is still under development. Image © David Buzzard/Shutterstock

What does the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report say? 

The report is split into 17 chapters, which each tackle a different aspect of climate change. Each chapter has to be agreed on by scientists and government representatives, with some suggestions more controversial than others. 

The role of fossil fuels in the coming decades has been a particular bone of contention. To limit warming to 1.5⁰C, the least bad option, greenhouse gas emissions need to be halved by 2030.

With three-quarters of these emissions coming from energy use, slashing our reliance on coal, gas and oil is vital. 

However, two main groups are less keen on these cuts. Developing countries say they should be able to use these resources to grow economically. It is hoped that finance provided by developed nations will assuage these concerns.

In addition, large fossil fuel producers and consumers want to keep extracting coal, oil and gas for longer. Australia has said it has no plans to limit its use of coal, which provides 65% of its electricity, and will also keep exporting it for as long as it remains economically viable

Instead, along with other fossil fuel producers, Australia hangs its emissions pledges on carbon capture, utilisation and storage technology (CCUS) as well as carbon direct removal (CDR). The former aims to lock up greenhouse gases into sites such as old gas fields or to use them in industry by capturing them directly after fossil fuels are burnt, while the latter pumps greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

However, both technologies still operate on relatively small scales and are unproven at a large scale. Though the number of facilities are on the rise, the International Energy Agency notes that by 2030 we will need seven to eight times as much capacity to hit net-zero targets.

While the report accepts that these technologies are 'unavoidable if net-zero is to be achieved', it advocates that support from governments and industry is vital to ensure they will be ready in time to achieve the required emissions cuts.

Other changes are less contentious, and in many cases are already underway. For instance, efforts to electrify cars and other vehicles could remove at least 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while more efficient use of resources and recycling could dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing.

Meanwhile, tackling 'fugitive emissions', which covers all the ways greenhouse gases are accidentally released into the atmosphere, could help prevent almost 6% of all global greenhouse gas emissions

A woman drinks a green smoothie and eats a vegan burger

Eating less meat, and switiching to alternative protein sources, can slash carbon emissions significantly. Image © frantic00/Shutterstock

What can I do to mitigate climate change? 

While many of the reports' suggestions are aimed at governments, there are also recommendations that each and every one of us can do to help. 

Cutting meat consumption is one option. Around a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions result from the production of meat, such as emissions from livestock and land use change. 

Though the report doesn't recommend cutting meat entirely, reducing the amount everyone eats (especially in developed countries) will put a big dent in our climate emissions. This could be achieved through moving to more plant-based diets, turning to new protein sources, and switching out meat for vegetarian and vegan substitutes

Transport is another area where everyone can have an impact. Flying less and using more public transport will also cut back on emissions, with governments called on to help provide better infrastructure to help everyone to get around in a greener way. 

The report also recommends that governments should also act to incentivise these behaviours through lower pricing and other strategies promoting sustainable lifestyles.

As the cities we live in change, there may also be opportunities to take part in local initiatives. The city of Milan in Italy was awarded the 2021 Earthshot Prize for its policy of redistributing surplus food to those who need it, providing the equivalent of 260,000 meals each year. 

Initiatives like these could become more common around the world as everyone works to reduce waste, and expand into other areas such as recycling common materials to promote a more circular economy.