A climate bomb is ticking, and the latest report from the world’s leading climate science body is a how-to guide for defusing it, says United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.
On Monday, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth synthesis report. The report is the culmination of nearly a decade of scientific research and covers in overwhelming detail every corner of the climate crisis — from how bad it’s gotten to how bad it could get and what to do about it.
Every five to seven years, the IPCC publishes its key findings across three topic areas (physical science, adaptation and mitigation), and then pulls the most important information together in a synthesis report. The new report’s top-line message is that to prevent catastrophic warming, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut approximately in half this decade. If they’re not, the planet will continue to bake and is more likely to hit dangerous tipping points that when crossed lock in major, irreversible damage.
Canadian climate policy is considered “highly insufficient” by the independent Climate Action Tracker. For Canada to play its part slashing emissions at the pace required to avoid those tipping points, the economy will need to shift away from fossil fuels.
“The report makes the science very clear, once again, that avoiding the worst-case scenarios is only possible if we stop the expansion of new oil, gas and coal, and that we urgently need to focus on efficiency, reducing dependence on polluting fossil fuels, scaling up electrification of transport and renewable energy,” Tzeporah Berman, international program director with Stand.earth and chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, told Canada’s National Observer.
“Our government's refusal to act according to the science and continue to expand LNG (liquefied natural gas) and fracked gas and oil drilling is not just embarrassing self-interest and ignoring the science, but it's completely ignoring the economic implications of the related rise of floods and fires and heat waves,” she added.
Berman pointed to the recent approval of the Cedar LNG project in Kitimat, B.C., and to the Bay du Nord oil project off the coast of Newfoundland approved last year, as two examples of Canada allowing increased fossil fuel production.
“We keep hearing in Canada that approving these projects is necessary for a strong economy… But in this report, the science is very clear. These projects will lead to more deaths, more migration, more floods, fires and heat waves, and greater economic instability,” Berman said.
"Avoiding the worst-case scenarios is only possible if we stop the expansion of new oil, gas and coal," says @Tzeporah, as the @IPCC_CH issues its final warning of the decade. #IPCC
University of Waterloo politics professor and energy transitions specialist at the International Institute for Sustainable Development Angela Carter said the IPCC report’s direction for Canada, beyond ramping up renewable energy, is to begin phasing out fossil fuel production.
“In Canada, we're in the situation where the oil and gas sector is the largest and fastest-growing source of emissions in the country, and the solutions that are getting public money are false solutions,” she said, referring to carbon capture and storage. “For Canada, our road to 2030 in trying to align with a net-zero future very much depends on how much we're willing to confront the oil and gas sector in this country.”
Rather than cutting production as climate science requires, carbon capture and storage is currently the centrepiece of Canada’s oil and gas industry’s stated plan to curb emissions. Last year, the federal government announced a carbon capture tax credit that would provide billions of taxpayer dollars to oil companies to invest in the speculative technology. In its report, the IPCC ranks carbon capture as the most expensive and least effective option to reduce emissions.
Carter said because the next IPCC synthesis report won’t come out for years, Monday’s report is the last warning before the end of the decade — by which time, the world will need to have cut emissions in half to avoid crossing the dangerous threshold of 1.5 C degrees of global warming.
“If the next cycle takes six or seven years, we'll be right up on 2030,” she said. “So this is the information we need to know right now to kick us into a higher gear.
“There is a substantial emissions gap, and that needs to be corrected by global policies,” she added, referring to the gulf between the pledges countries have made to reduce their emissions and what will be required to avoid catastrophic warming.
Carter told Canada’s National Observer that Monday’s report underscored that rich countries are most responsible for the climate crisis, but poorer countries that have not contributed as much are bearing the brunt of global warming.
Today, in a world of 1.1 C warming, more than three billion people live in areas “highly vulnerable” to climate change, with roughly half the world’s population suffering from “severe water scarcity” for at least part of the year, according to the IPCC’s findings. All regions of the planet are baking under extreme heat, leading to higher mortality rates. Food-, water- and vector-borne diseases are on the rise, as are mental health issues associated with trauma from extreme weather events and loss of culture. Climate change is already causing economic damage across the agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy and tourism sectors, with those losses and damages concentrated in more vulnerable countries.
‘All hands on deck’
Recognizing the severity of the climate impacts already in plain view at 1.1 C warming, Guterres marked the IPCC synthesis report’s publication by launching what he calls an acceleration agenda. This “all-hands-on-deck” plan he proposed would see heavy-emitting rich countries, like Canada, the United States, Germany and other members of the G20, mobilize more resources to help developing countries slash emissions while simultaneously bringing their own net-zero targets forward a decade to 2040.
Specifically, Guterres is urging rich countries like Canada to end all international public and private funding of coal, scale up renewable energy to have an emission-free grid by 2035, stop any expansion of oil and gas reserves while cancelling new licences, phase out fossil fuel production and prepare energy transition plans to provide certainty for investors.
“We have never been better equipped to solve the climate challenge — but we must move into warp-speed climate action now,” he said.
According to the IPCC, there are several promising options to slash emissions at the pace required but also “a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” The IPCC points to solar and wind energy, energy efficiency, green infrastructure, better crop management and reducing food waste as “increasingly cost-effective” and “technically viable.”
In response to the IPCC’s report, Climate Action Network International head of global political strategy Harjeet Singh said: “Governments have no excuse to ignore the emphatic warning for this critical decade.
“Every fraction of a degree of warming puts us closer to breaching the 1.5 C survival threshold… Governments must strengthen efforts to protect communities from worsening and irreversible climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and melting of glaciers, which pose an existential threat to many communities,” he said.
“Scaling up finance must be the key lever to make the transition to a climate-safe future in a just and equitable manner.”
The IPCC specifically highlighted limited financing options as a barrier to cutting emissions and adapting to climate change in developing countries. It also noted that funding for fossil fuels still outpaces money for addressing climate change, and that improving access to finance for low-emission technologies would help speed up climate action this decade, when urgent action is required.