Climate Action Needed Now to Stave Off Catastrophic Impacts

Harmful warming is well underway but could be limited, U.N. panel says

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Climate Action Needed Now to Stave Off Catastrophic Impacts
Karsten Wurth Unsplash

A new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a sadly familiar picture: Human-caused climate change is driving longer heat waves, more intense rainfall, reduced crop yields, and other negative events around the world, and additional warming is unavoidable in the next 20 to 30 years due to historical emissions and those that will be generated in the coming decade.

But all is not lost. Humankind can still influence the future severity and extent of climate change impacts on people and ecosystems, and with smart government policy and societywide action, we could greatly diminish the risk of passing global tipping points that could alter Earth’s future irrevocably.

The “Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report” summarizes results from the collaboration of more than 800 experts from more than 80 countries. They reviewed more than 50,000 published research papers and integrated more than 12,000 pages of technical reports published by the IPCC between 2018 and 2022 to describe the current state of climate science in nontechnical language. The report answers a broad range of policy-relevant questions for governments, highlighting the costs and benefits of—and opportunities for—taking climate action, and the risks of delaying it.

In fact, the report shows that technological innovation and policy actions that countries have already taken are having a real and lasting effect, flattening the forecast for future greenhouse gas emissions. For example, rapidly falling costs of solar and wind energy—to below the cost of fossil fuels in many cases—has resulted in strong government pledges to decarbonize the generation of electricity. Although stabilizing future emissions represents real progress, countries must also continue their efforts to reduce emissions and stave off the worst effects of climate change. By following through on existing climate-action pledges and strengthening the resulting policies over time, governments could reverse future emissions, the IPCC report finds.

According to the report, meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) requires rapid and deep emission reductions across all sectors. The scale of change required poses significant technological, economic, social, and institutional challenges. Importantly, the longer the global community waits to reduce emissions and promote climate mitigation, the bigger—and more expensive—these changes will need to be.

One of the best ways to decrease emissions is to supplant the use of fossil fuels with clean energy. Renewable energy such as solar and wind no longer face technical or economic barriers, but they still face political barriers to wide-scale use. In the transportation sector, replacing gas-powered vehicles with electric ones could help greatly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And, according to prior IPCC findings, increasing the use of cost-effective weatherization and heat pumps in new construction and building retrofits could cut emissions by more than half by 2050.

For these trends to take hold and rapidly grow over time, a few things need to happen. Governments and utilities must invest in grid modernization to reliably get electricity to where it needs to be. Carmakers and other corporations, along with landowners and governments, need to work together to help fund, site, and build new infrastructure, such as electric vehicle charging stations. And researchers and decision-makers must develop and implement new policies that overcome barriers to adopting known solutions.

In addition to the major actions cited above, the IPCC says that government protection of natural ecosystems can help reduce the impacts of climate change, and help people and nature adapt to whatever changes do occur. Conserving coastal ecosystems, including mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and salt marsh, can help protect communities from storm surge and floods, maintain important nursery habitat for fisheries, and sequester carbon dioxide. Countries, including Belize, Costa Rica, Seychelles, and others, are making progress in safeguarding coastal habitat. And although these so-called blue carbon habitats cover a relatively small portion of the Earth and thus do not play a globally significant role in sequestering carbon, protecting them can and should be part of an integrated solution to climate change. Such conservation also has the added appeal of preserving biodiversity and providing a wealth of benefits to communities.

As they do every five years, countries are now assessing the global progress toward meeting the mitigation, adaptation, and implementation goals of the Paris Agreement. The results of this assessment will be shared at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 28th Conference of the Parties in the United Arab Emirates starting in November 2023. The IPCC “Synthesis Report” can serve as yet another yardstick for countries to measure their successes and areas where they have more work to do.

Already, the report provides a strengthened case for leaders to act aggressively to reduce carbon emissions and is a sobering reminder that, for all who want a thriving future for life on Earth, climate inaction is no longer an option.

Jim Palardy is a director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation science project and Megan Jungwiwattanaporn works on cross-campaign efforts within Pew’s conservation work.

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