- The United Nations panel on combating climate change has set a new deadline to phase out fossil fuel use: the end of this decade.
- If we make the recommended changes, which is no easy feat, we can limit the dire effects of rampant global warming.
- The cost of green energy is falling, which means more countries are turning to alternatives to fossil fuels.
Humanity must limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this decade, warns the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a panel of experts convened by the United Nations. In a new one report released on Monday – compiled by 278 experts from 65 countries – the IPCC strongly advises that the world should drastically accelerate efforts to reduce coal, oil and natural gas emissions over the next few years.
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The burning of coal, oil and natural gas for energy is the main cause of rapid global warming. We have already warmed the planet by an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since the 19th century. Our living planet absorbs solar energy and accumulates it over hundreds of millions of years; The end result of this process is the creation of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. These fuels are concentrated in a form that stores absolutely massive amounts of them carbon.
At a glance
The good news: The cost of green energy has dropped significantly, giving humanity a hopeful path for the future.
The bad news: Our only hope of avoiding the worsening effects of global warming – including more extreme floods, droughts, wildfires and even ecosystem collapse – is to steer away from fossil fuels by the end of this decade. However, political inertia coupled with the need to provide hundreds of millions of people in developing countries with basic electricity and fuel for cooking is slowing the clean energy transition. Meanwhile, many countries are woefully unprepared for disasters such as sea-level rise or deadly heatwaves if temperatures continue to rise at current rates.
When we burn a fossil fuel like coal, now considered an everyday convenience and necessity, we release all of that carbon much faster than the earth can absorb it again. The result greenhouse effectaccelerated since the industrial revolution, is the catalyst for climate disasters which have cost many human lives and damage in the billions. In the United States alone, climate-related destruction last year totaled about $145 billion. according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The task ahead is daunting, the report acknowledges – nations must collectively reduce their planet-warming emissions by about 45 percent over the next eight years. They must completely stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by the early 2050s, climate scientists have found. The report estimates that governments and businesses will need to invest three to six times what they are currently doing to promote clean energy and emissions reductions. The world is currently spending about $600 billion annually to those efforts, the report says. Still, government policies are expected to reduce global emissions by only a few percentage points this decade.
“We are on track for global warming to more than double the agreed 1.5 degree limit [to] in Paris,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement he released online. “In order to comply with the agreed 1.5 degree limit [to] within reach of Paris, we need to cut global emissions by 45 percent this decade. But current climate pledges would mean a 14 percent increase in emissions. And most major issuers are not taking the necessary steps to fulfill even these underwhelming promises.”
Fortunately, the cost of clean energy has come down since 2010. Solar panels and lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles are 85 percent cheaper, and wind turbines are half what they were 12 years ago.
This year’s IPCC report, approved by 195 governments, outlines dozens of strategies to meet the goal of halting global warming. Here are the top four recommendations for policymakers, governments, industries and anyone who can influence large-scale energy infrastructure.
1️⃣ Clean up power plants
All countries with power plants must shut down or install most of the world’s coal and natural gas power plants carbon capture Technology that can capture emissions and bury them underground. Countries need to move towards green energy production from wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal or hydroelectric sources. This is perhaps the most expensive part of the changes required, the report notes.
2️⃣ Restructuring of industry and transport to run on clean, green electricity
This would mean replacing petrol-powered cars with electric vehicles (the energy grid that powers these vehicles must also have low CO2 emissions). Countries should use electric heat instead of gas in homes and industries. Steel mills currently burning coal should switch to electric furnaces. airplanes are a major source of CO2 emissions, and they also have to undergo fuel switches, which is currently a daunting task as airplanes only burn fossil fuels. Other options, like crafting electrical devices, would require too large a battery to fly.
3️⃣ Reduce overall energy needs
To reduce a country’s energy grid requirements, countries should improve the insulation of houses and buildings to waste less energy for heating and cooling, expand public transportation for people to reduce the number of cars on the streets , recycle more raw materials and build factories more energy-efficiently. These changes could help cut emissions by as much as 40 to 70 percent by 2050, according to the report.
4️⃣ Change our land use
Deforestation and agriculture account for about a fifth of global greenhouse gases. Beef and meat production facilities are the source of much of the methane and carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. (For example, every year a single cow belches about 220 pounds of methane.) Humans continue to clear forests and rainforests like the Amazon, although the latter is considered vital to the balance of the world’s ecosystem.
“Because these various measures are interconnected, all relevant companies, industries and stakeholders need to be involved in order to increase support and the chances of successful implementation,” says the report, adding that the effective implementation of such changes “in the basic structure of societies.” Governments must work with NGOs and international organizations to deploy low-emission and carbon sequestering technologies worldwide. If done right, the green energy transition will result in new jobs, large investments and improved conditions for all, the report says. “Implementing the right policies and investments can help address the challenges of how to reduce emissions without restricting development.”
To get there, people have to innovate. Governments and companies need to develop new fuels and industrial processes to replace coal- and gas-intensive industries like cement and glass. As countries transition to more environmentally friendly ways of living and producing, they will need to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year by mid-century, say scientists contributing to the report. Planting more trees is just the beginning. technologies too remove carbon from our atmosphere are still developing. Some, like Petra Nova, are designed to capture carbon dioxide as it is produced in power plants and then store it underground.
Many problems stand in the way of the rapid progress needed, says the report. Some developing countries are dependent on fossil fuels and do not have the means to quickly change their energy infrastructure. They will need investment and help from richer nations, UN officials write in the report. Fossil fuel industries are resistant to change, as are some politicians, who would lose support in the short term if they turned their backs on traditional energy industries.
Disinformation campaigns have helped polarize and politicize the issues, dividing people and preventing the potential to work together to bring about change. Guterres writes. “A shift to renewable energy will fix our broken global energy mix and bring hope to millions of people suffering the effects of climate change today. Climate promises and plans must now be put into practice. It’s time we stop burning our planet and start investing in the abundant renewable energy around us.”
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