Two Steps Forward

IPCC's latest report, and other troubling news

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Adapted from the weekly GreenBuzz newsletter, published Mondays.

I read the news today, oh boy.

It's a confounding and distressing time — and I'm not even referring to the political turmoil and dysfunction in [insert your country's name here]. Every day, it seems, is another startling revelation about the climate and the natural environment overall, not to mention some gaping holes when it comes to social equity and inclusion.

But let's stick with the environmental stuff.

This morning, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on the risks and benefits of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, along with recommended pathways for limiting temperature increases to that level. Staying within 1.5 C, said IPCC, would require "rapid and far-reaching" transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities. In short, changing almost everything.

The report results from a request embedded in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Since then, the gap between science and politics has widened, placing the Paris goals increasingly out of reach. Many countries are struggling to get on a path to meet them.

According to IPCC, staying within 1.5 degrees warming would require, in effect, a radical transformation of unprecedented scale to avoid climate catastrophe. The report stated that based on current forecasts, we are likely to reach the 1.5 degrees threshold sometime between 2030 and 2052.

"One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1 degrees C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes," said Panmao Zhai, co-chair of one of the IPCC working groups. The report said the impacts of 1.5 degrees temperature rise would be materially and noticeably different from the impacts we're currently seeing.

The report, written by 91 scientists from 40 countries and involving more than 6,000 peer-reviewed studies, makes for grim reading. It stated global carbon dioxide emissions must be cut nearly in half by 2030 to avoid a catastrophic loss of coral reefs and Arctic ice, and intense floods and droughts. Achieving this will require "unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" costing $2.4 trillion a year worldwide.

"This is difficult, but by no means impossible," said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, in response to the report. "We know how to do it, and we know that it will lead to a much healthier economy and much healthier citizens. We now know that accelerated climate action can lead to large economic benefits, including a $26 trillion win. But this will require the emergence of global leadership that is missing today. Identifying and supporting this leadership must be a top priority."

Sorry, but that's not the only bad news. Consider another story from the past week:

The growth of the petrochemical industry — from the manufacture of plastic, fertilizer and pharmaceuticals — will erode climate benefits resulting from reductions in other sectors, according to a report issued Friday by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

It noted that "Petrochemicals are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil consumption. They are set to account for more than a third of the growth in oil demand to 2030, and nearly half to 2050, ahead of trucks, aviation and shipping."

It added: "The growing role of petrochemicals is one of the key 'blind spots' in the global energy debate. The diversity and complexity of this sector means that petrochemicals receive less attention than other sectors, despite their rising importance."

Petrochemicals already are a major component of the global energy system, and their growth is accelerating. Demand for plastics has outpaced all other bulk materials, such as steel, aluminum or cement — nearly doubling since the start of the millennium. "The United States, Europe and other advanced economies currently use up to 20 times as much plastic and up to 10 times as much fertilizer as India, Indonesia and other developing economies on a per-capita basis, underscoring the huge potential for growth worldwide," the IEA said.

The report brings to mind another, similarly troubling IEA report issued last year. Its World Energy Outlook 2017 (PDF) found that that greenhouse gas levels will keep rising despite the advent of the electrification of cars and other vehicles. It expects the number of electric or hybrid vehicles to rise to 50 million by 2025 and to 280 million by 2040 — but the global car fleet during that time will double, from 1 billion today to 2 billion in 2040.

Moreover, increased emissions from the growth of aviation and ocean-going vessels during that period will more than offset the emissions reductions from electric cars.

Ouch.

Predicted IEA: "CO2 emissions from oil use in transport almost catch up with those from coal-fired power plants (which are flat) by 2040, and there is also a 20 percent rise in emissions from industry."

So, as IPCC noted, we're a long way from where we need to be. What will it take? Leadership, of course, along with tough — really tough — policy decisions at every level. And money — lots of it, much of it with the potential for attractive returns.

In its 2017 report, IEA offered scenarios that could lead to "climate stabilization, cleaner air and universal access to modern energy, while also reducing energy security risks." To do that, low-carbon sources would need to double their share in the energy mix, to 40 percent in 2040, all avenues to improve efficiency would need to be pursued, coal demand would need to go into an immediate decline and oil consumption would need to peak soon thereafter.

It's a Herculean task, to be sure. Are we up to it? Hard to know. Right now, the headlines aren't promising.