23 March 2023 |

Good night & good luck from the IPCC


Another week, another essential communication from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”). Okay, they don’t actually publish something every week. Though with how fast time flies, sometimes it feels like we hear from the IPCC quite often. 

The IPCC and its assessment cycles exist to periodically analyze and synthesize current knowledge on climate change. This is intended to provide policymakers with an understanding of climate change, its implications, and options for adaptation and mitigation. Each assessment cycle typically lasts around 6-7 years.

The latest from the IPCC is their last report for a while and concludes their sixth assessment cycle. The IPCC published takeaways in 2021 and 2022; this release is their ‘Synthesis Report’ on the assessment as a whole. 

Now, the IPCC will go back under the hood and we won’t hear from them until around 2030. By that point, we’d need to be living in a very different world to do their recommendations justice. The IPCC has been unequivocal for years about what’s happening: the way our society operates is fueling climate change and we’re not doing enough to change that. 

Here’s more of what’s in the report.

Synthesis on the synthesis

Lest there be any ambiguity, current policies, even including landmark legislation like the IRA in the U.S. in 2022, have yet to significantly alter the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (and consequently, climate change) trajectory. 

Global emissions would be higher without the actions companies, countries, and international bodies have taken. Some major economies like the U.K. have successfully decoupled emissions from growth; since 1985, GDP per capita in the U.K. grew by ~70%, while emissions per capita fell by ~34%. Much of that progress came from phasing out the use of coal. 

But that’s the exception, not the rule. On the whole, global emissions are increasing. Where they’re declining, they’re met with increases elsewhere, especially in developing countries.

The below shows our current global emissions based on already implemented policies in red.

That’s my main takeaway: all the progress we cover twice weekly in this newsletter is great and has made a discernible difference in mitigating emissions. And we need to dial up the intensity of it all massively. The scale of attention and action required to roughly halve emissions by 2040 (as laid out in the green pathway above) will require a wholly different scale of action. It would likely require most people in your life contributing actively towards society-wide changes.

Here’s what else is in the report: 

The elephant in the room: The world’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure, if used to the end of its useful life, would drive warming north of 1.5°C. That infra needs to be phased out before the end of its useful life. If you then take the pipeline of proposed / net new oil & gas projects and power plants into account (see the new Willow project we discussed on Sunday), building and operating it all will push global warming north of 2°C.

The takeaway from that, from my perspective, is that some of the most prominent stakeholders, whether oil & gas companies or utilities, need clear and compelling opportunities to make money in other ways, whether that’s by building new industries in hydrogen and carbon capture or betting bigger on clean energy infrastructure development. Those firms aren’t just going away, nor should they. The IPCC thinks that’s possible:

From the IPCC’s latest synthesis report (h/t to Ajit Niranjan on Twitter)

Interestingly, the report doesn’t call out oil and gas firms directly. Perhaps that’s an acknowledgment that they’ll have a significant role to play in the transition. But again, the IPCC isn’t really in the business of advocacy. That’s our job. 

Existing solutions: Without belaboring this point too heavily, the technologies to do the work the IPCC lays out exist. We talk about them weekly; they include renewable energy and other forms of firmer clean energy, electrifying transport and industry, land use change and nature-based solutions, carbon capture and removal, and others. Some, like energy storage, aren’t as technically advanced as they need to be yet, but that will change over coming decades, just as solar and wind become cheaper and more efficient over the past two decades. 

Demand, not just supply: The IPCC report reiterates that more than changing fuel sources and implementing new technologies is needed to navigate the complexity of decarbonizing and the energy transition. Especially developed countries need to get serious about using less energy, too. We’ve written about what that can look like – here’s one starter

Never fully lost, nor fully won: Some outlets might cover the IPCC release as an urgent warning that, if unheeded, will bear catastrophic consequences. It is that, but I don’t think that’s the right way to frame it. The report is also chock-full of direct and clear policy recommendations, which, taken together, mean limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C is still technically feasible

But if (and when, if you ask me) that doesn’t come to bear, every additional infinitesimally small degree of warming and every action to prevent and counteract it matters. ‘Missing’ 1.5°C isn’t a death sentence; seeing it as such and giving up is. There aren’t really any deadlines here.

There are paths to mitigating climate change that are much preferable to others. The IPCC report clarifies that technologies like carbon capture are necessary to make the math work for different mitigation scenarios. And in the future, carbon removal at a sufficient scale could reverse global warming and bring temperatures down again. 

Still, overreliance on those technologies is far from ideal. Not just for reasons of moral hazard (a reliance on carbon capture and removal provides ‘cover’ for continued fossil-fuel burning), but because there are climate change consequences, such as irrevocable damage to ecosystems, that won’t just reverse if global average temperatures first rise and then fall.

From the IPCC’s latest synthesis report (h/t to Ketan Joshi on Twitter)

The net-net

It isn’t ultimately a climate scientist’s job to communicate effectively to the masses or to deploy solutions. That’s my (and potentially your!) job. 

If it seems like there’s a lot of focus on climate tech and the energy transition right now, it’s because you are a reader of this newsletter and likely other climate-focused media and are part of a small cohort of people who pay close attention. You already swim in climate-conscious waters. Who else in your life might be down for a swim?

Elsewhere, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, described the scale of action needed as “everything, everywhere, all at once,” a nod to the Oscar-winning movie. 

That doesn’t mean everyone’s gotta be working on everything. But it does mean many if not most people should be working on something. What will your role be?