5 Important Takeaways from the New UN Climate Report

Janette Rosenbaum, Strategic Communications Manager
Sustainable city - credit Pixabay

At the beginning of April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the third part of its latest comprehensive overview of climate science. The United Nations formed the IPCC in 1988 to bring together climate scientists from across the globe, and since then, the group has released new assessments of climate data every six to eight years. Each assessment, which draws on the latest and best knowledge about climate science, contains three parts.

The newest assessment’s third part focuses on how we can take action to reduce our emissions, limit warming, and prevent the worst consequences of climate change. The situation is serious – but the science is clear that we can still address the problem while securing additional benefits for people and the environment. Here are five key takeaways on the opportunities for action.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been reporting on climate science since 1988. The Izaak Walton League has been reporting on it at least since 1991.

#1 We Can and Must Do More

Over the past several years, countries around the world have set voluntary goals to reduce their emissions. The good news is that progress towards those goals is already making a difference, bending the world away from the most catastrophic outcomes scientists had described in previous climate assessments. The bad news is that even if every country meets its current goals, that won’t be enough to stop global temperatures from rising to dangerous highs.

Scientists tell us that at 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming (compared to pre-industrial average temperatures), storms will become markedly more deadly, seas will rise, drought will intensify and crops will struggle. We’re already at 1.2 degrees of warming, and current plans are not enough to keep us from crossing the critical threshold.

The other good news is that some countries are showing that deep decarbonization is possible. “At least 18 countries have sustained [greenhouse gas] emission reductions for longer than 10 years,” the UN scientists report. How did they do it? “Reductions were linked to energy supply decarbonization, energy efficiency gains, and energy demand reduction, which resulted from both policies and changes in economic structure.”

Even better, decarbonization doesn’t have to come at a cost to our standard of living. The scientists calculate that to keep warming to less than 1.5 degrees, we need to collectively reduce our emissions 43 percent by 2030. If Americans did that, we would still be using almost half again more energy than the average European did in 2019. If people in wealthy Britain, industrially powerful Germany and frigid Iceland can live well with less energy, surely we can too.

#2 We Are the Solution

On the whole, the world’s wealthiest nations are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. To be more specific, the richest 10 percent of households around the world account for between a third and half of all emissions, while the poorest 50 percent of households only account for about 15 percent of emissions.

In other words, those of us who are lucky enough to be living in wealthy nations can do the most to solve the climate crisis. “As citizens, investors, consumers, role models, and professionals,” the UN scientists tell us, we can have the greatest impact on reducing emissions. One way we can start to make a difference is by being more thoughtful about using our wealth to buy status symbols, which create climate pollution and other forms of waste without really improving our quality of life.

American ingenuity will also be an enormous asset as we lead the world in solving the climate crisis. “Innovation has provided opportunities to lower emissions and reduce emission growth and created social and environmental co-benefits,” the scientists note.

The League has long been a leader on climate action. For many years, through our bottom-up structure, our members have voted to focus on solutions like sequestering carbon in soil, grassland and wetlands; improving energy efficiency; expanding R&D to help transition to a clean-energy economy; and building resilience in natural systems. The new UN report confirms that all of these ideas are exactly what’s needed to address the crisis.

#3 Climate Action Is an Enormous Investment Opportunity

Solving the current crisis will be expensive: to avoid overshooting the 1.5 degree target – or to at least keep warming below 2 degrees – the nations of the world need to commit three to six times more dollars than what they’re currently spending on climate solutions. But those costs are smart investments that will rapidly pay for themselves.

Right now, our investments are in the wrong place. If we hang on to existing fossil fuel infrastructure until the end of its useful life, and if we go ahead with currently planned expansions to our fossil fuel systems, we won’t be able to keep warming to less than 1.5 degrees, no matter what else we do.

If instead we invest in solutions to the climate crisis, “the global economic benefit of limiting warming to 2 degrees C [will] exceed the cost of mitigation,” the UN scientists said, after reviewing published studies on this important question. The scientists further assure us that “global GDP continues to grow” in scenarios where the world gets on track to stay under 2 degrees of warming by slashing emissions 50 percent before 2030 (as compared to 2019 levels).

This return on investment also comes with a host of free gifts. For example, if we invest in building sustainable cities that offer amenities like parks, urban forests, and green roofs, we’ll see reduced flooding, relief from the urban heat island effect, and better health thanks to cleaner air.

#4 Clean Energy Is Becoming a No-Brainer

On the subject of smart investments, clean energy is getting better and more affordable every year. Right now, the average cost of wind and solar is dropping below the average cost of fossil fuels.

As the costs plummet, the use of clean energy is soaring. We have more than 10 times as much solar infrastructure as we did a decade ago, and more than 100 times as many electric cars on the road. Solar and wind energy, along with energy efficiency improvements, are now some of our cheapest tools for reducing emissions.

#5 Climate Action is Cheap, Effective and Enjoyable

In addition to clean energy, there are more solutions to climate change that reduce emissions, make our lives better, and come at amazingly affordable prices.

Energy efficiency makes our homes more comfortable and reduces our utility bills. Working remotely saves gas and rescues us from the pain of commuting. Walkable cities give us more options for getting around and more opportunities to be outdoors.

Protecting natural areas, like forests and wetlands, keeps carbon sequestered while helping wildlife and supporting recreation. Better soil health practices on farms store carbon in the ground, make our food system more resilient, and rate among the most cost-effective options for addressing climate change. As further bonuses, building healthier soil increases biodiversity and strengthens rural economies – and it’s one of the only climate solutions that already exists on a meaningful scale.

In all, actions that cost less than $100 per ton of avoided carbon dioxide emissions could reduce total global emissions by about half before 2030 – which would put us in a great position to hit additional reductions targets and prevent the worst consequences of climate change.

The Izaak Walton League is defending natural areas, helping more farmers get the funding they need to implement soil health practices, and advocating for common-sense solutions like energy efficiency. You can help: become a member to support our work for climate action, healthy soil and clean water.

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