We are not on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees

We must act at all levels if we are to avoid the impact of further climate change

Monday marked the publication of the third and final working group report from the current report cycle of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These happen every seven to eight years and have huge importance in guiding international policy decisions.

They represent a comprehensive assessment of the underlying scientific literature by hundreds of international experts in the field. Their summaries are approved line-by-line by all governments. They therefore represent the most comprehensive and rigorous snapshots of the scientific knowledge base arguably in any branch of science.

The first working group reports looked at the impact of climate change. The second looked at how it could be mitigated. The final syntheses report focuses on progress in reducing emissions of the heat-trapping gases that are without doubt responsible for the climate changes we are witnessing.

The report makes clear that there are options that can at least halve global emissions by 2030. We have the tools available to us to enact the changes required

If the report were to constitute our global school report card we would, sadly, have been given an F, or perhaps being charitable an E-. We are not on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. In fact, we are still heading fundamentally the wrong way. Average annual emissions of heat-trapping gases during 2010-2019 were the highest in human history, despite our knowledge of the harm they are doing.


There are, however, glimpses of progress in the report. An increasing number of policies and laws have helped to enhance energy efficiency and deployment of renewables as well as reduce deforestation and other harmful practices. Here in Ireland, we have recently got our legislative house in order. But now comes the hard part: converting that into real and tangible action on the ground. Our politicians must hold their collective nerve and recognise that there is no viable alternative to aggressive climate action.

The report makes clear that there are options that can at least halve global emissions by 2030. We have the tools available to us to enact the changes required. Renewable energy and battery storage have become 85 per cent cheaper over the past decade. Alternative fuels such as biogas and hydrogen are increasingly available. Widespread electrification, managing demand and improved efficiency can reduce emissions and increase our energy security. Reducing demand across numerous sectors by working from home and reducing consumption of goods and improving their delivery can further reduce emissions. Retrofitting existing properties and ensuring all new builds are to the highest energy standards can reduce domestic demand. Finally, how we use and manage our land can bring significant benefits.

So, we know what needs to be done and we also are talking about solutions that are to hand today rather than mythical future technologies. That is not to pretend that there would not be substantial challenges. Equally, many of these options are win-win activities that would bring economic and social benefits while simultaneously reducing the harm to the climate. Our governments must be brave.

The report goes on to make clear that the next few years will be critical, and that there are ways to improve our chances of success. Efforts to limit global warming that provide broader benefits to society such as improved transport links, or more liveable homes and cities can increase the pace, depth and breadth of emissions reductions.

Action is required across government, setting and implementing strategies and building consensus among disparate stakeholders. Nationally, this means the Climate Action Plan needs to be more than a document and translated to sustained action. We also need to work across Europe and the globe to enable change. We need our governments not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk.

What if we do not grasp this opportunity? The report makes clear that unless there are immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, 1.5 degrees is beyond reach. To keep 1.5 degrees within reach we need to peak global emissions by 2025, and reduce from 2019 levels by almost half by 2030.

Methane emissions would need to be reduced by a third. Rapid and sustained reductions would need to continue and we would need to reach net zero emissions of carbon dioxide by the early 2050s. Even if we did so we’d probably temporarily exceed 1.5 degrees before falling back below this level later this century. If, instead, ambitions were to limit warming to 2 degrees we’d still need to peak global emissions by 2025 and reach net zero carbon dioxide emissions by the 2070s. Because from some sectors and activities it will be very hard or impossible to eliminate entirely carbon dioxide emissions, we will need to remove carbon dioxide at scale.

We know how to halt further harm. The science is clear. Now it's over to each and every one of you. . .

The final key point arising from the report is that accelerated climate action is critical to sustainable development. Current climate change is a result of more than a century of unsustainable energy, land use, lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production. The resulting climate changes increasingly threaten the health and livelihoods of people around the world as well as having an impact on the natural world.

Accelerated and equitable climate actions both in mitigation and adaptation are critical to sustainable development. Change will be disruptive, but a low-carbon economy can create more long-lasting jobs. Equitable and just transitions can lead to deeper ambition for accelerated climate action. Governments must support a transition to sustainable development to pass on to future generations a world that is at least as good as today’s.

Climate change is the story of our lifetimes. But it is rarely the story of today. There is almost always a more pressing issue be it a pandemic, a war, housing, healthcare or any number of other issues. Yet, if we do not act on climate change we will pay a heavy price.

The three IPCC reports published since last August leave no doubt about the seriousness of the issue and the need for immediate and sustained action. At all levels from individuals to government, and across all sectors, we must act if we are to avoid the significant impact of further climate change.

We know the climate is changing and its due to us. We know that ongoing climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and planetary health. And, finally, we know how to halt further harm. The science is clear. Now it’s over to each and every one of you. . .