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Climate change and energy

The UN just handed out an urgent climate to-do list. Here’s what it says.

Cheap and available technologies can help us meet climate goals this decade: here’s how, according to the new UN climate report.

Two technicians in hard hats walk between rows of solar panels
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Time is running short to address climate change, but there are feasible and effective solutions on the table, according to a new UN climate report released today. 

Despite decades of warnings from scientists, global greenhouse-gas emissions are still climbing, hitting a record high in 2022. If humanity wants to limit the worst effects of climate change, we will have to reverse that trend, and quickly. 

Only swift, dramatic, and sustained emissions cuts will be enough to meet the world’s climate goals, according to the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body of climate experts that regularly summarizes the state of this issue.

“We are walking when we should be sprinting,” said Hoesung Lee, IPCC chair, in a press conference announcing the report. To limit warming to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above preindustrial levels, the target set by international climate agreements, annual greenhouse-gas emissions will need to be cut by nearly half between now and 2030, according to the report. It calculates that the results from actions taken now would be clear in global temperature trends within two decades. 

“We already have the technology and the know-how to get the job done,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UN Environment Programme, during the press conference. 

Stopping climate change will still be complicated and expensive, and long-term emissions cuts may rely on technologies, like carbon dioxide removal, that are still unproven at scale. In addition to technological advances, cutting emissions in industries that are difficult to transform will take time, funding, and political action. 

But in the near term, there’s a clear path forward for the emissions cuts needed to put the planet on the right track. Here are some of the tasks with the lowest cost and highest potential to address climate change during this decade, according to the new IPCC report. 

1) Deploy wind and solar power, and a lot of it. 

Cutting emissions in the near term will require shifting away from polluting fossil fuels for energy production and toward renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. 

The scale of wind and solar deployment already underway is staggering: the world is set to build as much wind and solar capacity in the five years between 2022 and 2027 as it did in the past two decades, according to the International Energy Agency

Plummeting costs have helped this growth: between 2010 and 2019, the cost of solar energy fell by about 85%, the report says. Wind energy costs dropped by about half during the same time frame. Now, wind and solar are among the cheapest energy sources available—deploying new solar and wind farms can be even cheaper than just maintaining existing coal power plants in the US

As inexpensive as wind and solar are, they can still represent a significant financial investment. That’s why the new report emphasizes that improved access to financing, especially for developing nations, would help speed climate action.

“Money cannot solve everything, but it is critical to narrowing the gap between those who are most vulnerable and those who enjoy greater security.” Lee said.

2) Cut methane emissions from fossil-fuel production and waste. 

Carbon dioxide is the main culprit in climate change, but it’s not alone in its planet-warming effects. In the near term, methane is about 80 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. 

Cutting methane emissions this decade will be key to reaching climate goals and limiting peak warming levels: hitting the 1.5 °C target will require methane emissions to fall by a third between 2019 and 2030, according to the IPCC report. 

There’s a wide range of methane sources, but some of the top targets for emissions cuts include oil and gas production and food waste, according to the report.

Investments in new infrastructure to cut methane emissions from oil and gas could end up breaking even: according to the IEA, an annual investment of $11 billion would be needed to clean up the sector, but the value of the captured methane could be more than enough to cover the cost.

3) Protect natural ecosystems that trap carbon. 

While the majority of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions come from transport, energy, and buildings, about 20% of global emissions are from agriculture, forestry, and changes in land use. The impacts of human-caused climate change “threaten our life support system, nature itself,” said Lee. Conserving and restoring natural ecosystems will not only be key for preserving biodiversity—it’ll have emissions benefits too.

Natural ecosystems can trap and store carbon, and tropical rain forests are among the planet’s largest carbon sinks. Preserving these and other ecosystems could be a low-cost, high-value way to slow climate change. 

Policies around the world are already helping to cut deforestation, according to the IPCC report. And in December 2022, over 190 nations signed a UN biodiversity pledge to protect 30% of the natural world by 2030.

4) Use energy efficiently in vehicles, homes, and industry. 

Shifting to public transportation and biking for some travel needs could be an inexpensive way to limit near-term emissions. And boosting efficiency in everything from vehicles to appliances, which often ends up paying for itself, could shave off emissions too. Public policies have already been effective at boosting efficiency measures in particular, according to the report. 

Efficiency gains can also help make climate progress in sectors like aviation and shipping, which will be much more difficult to clean up in the long term.

Many of these solutions are the same ones that the IPCC and others have been talking about for decades. “If we had had the foresight to act in a meaningful way in 1990, we would have a vast vista of options available to us,” climatologist and IPCC report author Peter Thorne said during the press conference.  

Now, there’s only one clear path forward. “We must move from climate procrastination to climate action,” Andersen said, “and we must begin this today.” 

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