The Irish Times view on the UN climate change report: it’s now or never

The IPCC says it is “almost inevitable” temperatures will rise above 1.5 degrees – the level above which many of the effects of climate breakdown will become irreversible

The latest verdict of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes the world is not on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. In too many instances countries are escalating carbon emissions in spite of knowing the harm this is wreaking on Planet Earth. Regrettably, Ireland falls into this category in spite of much-vaunted climate ambitions. The gap between climate pledges and action has been laid bare.

The window to avoid the worst ravages of the climate crisis has narrowed so much that rising emissions must be halted by 2025, so critical milestones to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century are reached. Greenhouse gas emissions from 2010-2019 were the highest in human history. The world’s carbon budget is set to be expended in just eight years. As a consequence, humanity has reached its “now or never moment”. It must act if it is to avoid catastrophic impacts and heightened risk of irreparable harm to the planet.

The IPCC, in its assessment of mitigation options, highlights the single most-effective action to have a chance to keep within the critical Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees. That is rapidly switching away from fossil fuels, while scaling up renewable energy. The third part of its global assessment provides some hope. A significant number of countries are on a sustained path of emissions reductions. Halving emissions by 2030 can be achieved with current know-how, while renewables for some years now have been considerably cheaper than coal, oil and gas.

The twin goals of energy security and the clean energy transition are realisable at the same time

But in a disturbing finding it says it is “almost inevitable” temperatures will rise above 1.5 degrees – the level above which many of the effects of climate breakdown will become irreversible. The IPCC indicates it could be possible to bring them back down below this level by the end of this century. But this probably requires technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in the ground; an option unproven at scale and likely to be immensely expensive.

Inevitably, the Ukraine war, soaring energy prices and uncertainties over Russian oil and gas are immediate distractions. Many countries are likely to further increase use of fossil fuels from other sources in the short term. This risks delaying the urgent pursuit of a carbon-neutral world. It would be a disaster. After all, the twin goals of energy security and the clean energy transition are realisable at the same time. But, as underlined by the International Energy Agency director Fatih Birol, "the energy world is changing fast and needs to change faster still".

When the next global assessment by the IPCC comes out in seven years’ time, the world might be very close to or beyond 1.5 degrees. But that is not baked in yet because governments, businesses and citizens are in a position to take action and make rapid drastic reductions in their emissions.