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The IPCC Wraps Up — for Now

The UN panel will write its next round of reports against the backdrop of a world hitting its climate deadlines — and facing the consequences.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Our world is on the edge of a climate precipice, says a major new report from a panel of UN climate scientists, and the next decade will be crucial in deciding what its future will look like. But catastrophe is not inevitable, the scientists said, and the report laid out a path back from the edge.

“The climate time-bomb is ticking,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, calling the report a “survival guide for humanity.”

This report, known as a “synthesis,” brings together the key findings of the work done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) over the last few years as part of its regular review of climate science and the state of the world’s efforts to address climate change. If climate science is over, this report is the endcap. The next round of IPCC reports won’t be published until around 2030, which means they’ll be written against the backdrop of a world hitting its climate deadlines — and facing the consequences.

Earth has warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times, a change the report says was “unequivocally caused” by human activities, primarily greenhouse gas emissions. That brings us perilously close to the crucial figure of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the target agreed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement that is commonly considered the upper edge of acceptable warming before climate impacts become catastrophic.

Despite pledges to reduce emissions, carbon emissions have been increasing, the report says, and the impacts of climate change are already appearing faster and more intensely than previously predicted. But there is still time to change course, and every bit of progress will be crucial — the severity of climate impacts depends on fractions of degrees, and even if we blow through our 1.5 degree target, we should be doing our best to stop any additional warming.

“Almost irrespective of our choices in the near term, we will probably reach 1.5 degrees in the first half of the next decade,” said Peter Thorne, a lead author of the synthesis report, in a press conference on Monday. “The real question is whether our will to reduce emissions means we reach 1.5 degrees, maybe go a little bit over, but then come back down, or whether we go blasting through 1.5 degrees, go through even 2 degrees, and keep on going. So the future really is in our hands. That’s why the rest of this decade is key.”

The report doesn’t include any new solutions; we already know what needs to happen. To keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, greenhouse gas emissions would need to peak in the next two years, and carbon dioxide emissions would have to be reduced by 65% by 2035, the report says — a new benchmark that illustrates just how drastic cuts to emissions would have to be to avert catastrophe.

But the report comes amidst a mixed backdrop. Last year President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act — which “stand[s] to turbocharge the transformation of the American energy system” — into law, and Europe has seen a major push in decarbonization, particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2020, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged his country’s carbon emissions would peak by 2030.

But that’s not the whole story. Major polluters, including the U.S. and China, are still approving new fossil fuel extraction projects that will doubtless contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Even though renewable energy generation surpassed coal in the U.S. last year, carbon emissions still rose by 1.3 percent — and new major drilling projects in Alaska haven’t even started yet.

Even the IPCC’s work itself has previously been delayed by fossil fuel interests — UN member states have to approve the language of the text, and last year the Saudi Arabian government successfully lobbied to delay the release of a report in order to tone down language that called for the phase-out of fossil fuels and inject an emphasis on unproven carbon-capture technologies. Negotiations for this year’s synthesis report, which was supposed to be approved on Friday, dragged into Sunday as countries quibbled over language.

In November, countries will gather in Dubai for the UN’s climate conference, where they will witness the conclusion of the first global stocktake, which assesses the world’s progress towards the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. Combined with the stocktake, the findings in the synthesis report will provide a firm scientific foundation for negotiations at the conference. What remains to be seen is whether the science can outweigh capital — last year, major oil producers blocked an effort to include language calling for a “phase-down” of all fossil fuels in the final agreement.

The IPCC was founded in 1988 to provide a comprehensive look at everything we knew about climate change and how it might impact our lives in the future; at the time, climate change was more of an abstraction than a lived reality, and the panel’s reports gave shape to that abstraction. The release of the synthesis is a sign that the IPCC’s work, for now, is done. In the press conference on Monday, the report’s authors stressed the urgency of action from governments, businesses, and individuals alike.

“We at all levels: governments, communities, individuals, have made climate change someone else’s problem,” said Thorne. “We have to stop that. We have to act now.”

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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