Energy & Environment

UN calls for ‘substantial reduction’ in fossil fuels to limit climate change

The United Nations’ climate change panel is calling for a “substantial reduction” in the global use of fossil fuels in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. 

Warning there is limited time to act, the latest report from the panel says that by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by at least 43 percent to prevent 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming at the end of the century — a key threshold that would help the world evade much of the potential climate damage.

“We have a really, really stark task ahead of us,” said Stephanie Roe, a lead author of the report and global climate and energy lead scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. 

“The amount of emission reductions that we need to achieve over the next decade is unprecedented and … it needs to be almost immediate, as soon a possible, and it needs to be at a very large scale,” Roe said.

The report also calls for emissions to reach their peak in the next few years, before 2025 at the latest. 

Jim Skea, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which produced the report, warned that the next few years are critical. 

“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” Skea said in a statement. 

To make the necessary reductions, the report calls for limiting the use of fossil fuels. 

Combustion of fossil fuels and industrial processes are responsible for about 78 percent of climate-warming emissions over the past several decades. 

In particular, the U.N. report calls for limiting the use of coal by 95 percent, oil by 60 percent and natural gas by 45 percent in 2050 when compared to their use in 2019. 

To limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius — which would allow substantially more climate-caused harm —  the use of these fuels would need to be cut by 85 percent, 30 percent and 15 percent, respectively, by 2050 compared to their 2019 level.

These declines factor in the use of carbon capture, a still developing technology that is used to capture and store emissions from burning fossil fuels and other emitting activities

Without carbon capture, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require a 100 percent cut in the use of coal and a 70 percent cut in the use of natural gas by 2050, the report said. 

The report says that existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure will leave the 1.5 degree target out of reach unless steps are taken quickly to cut emissions. 

Many of the world’s largest emitters — including the U.S., China, Russia and India — have been hesitant to cut down their use of these fuels. 

The report comes amid some calls for countries like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to produce more oil amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many buyers in the West have avoided Russian barrels — and the U.S. banned their import — resulting in increased demand and rising prices. 

The new price spikes came on top of already-high prices because supply had not totally recovered from cuts that occurred during coronavirus lockdowns. 

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres on Monday said that investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure would be “madness.”

“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels,” Guterres said. 

“Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness,” he added. 

According to Roe, the language surrounding limiting fossil fuel use was one of the sticking points as negotiations ran long and delayed the report’s release. IPCC reports are approved by member countries.

“The science is pretty clear in terms of where it needed to be, and so…the terminology is more of a political issue,” Roe said. 

Similarly, at last year’s global climate summit, fossil fuel language was weakened as countries including India opposed calling for a “phase out.”

This third installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth climate report focuses on climate solutions. Earlier installments, issued last year and earlier this year, highlighted the “unequivocal” scientific basis for climate change and its deadly impacts.

These and other reports have linked climate change to rising sea levels, floods and heat waves, as well as more intense hurricanes. 

A prior special report from the IPCC warned that if warming is not limited to 1.5 degrees, it would result in hotter temperatures and more hot extremes, among other risks. 

While fossil fuels are the main driver of climate change, other sectors like agriculture and construction also contribute to warming temperatures, and the report calls for limiting their emissions as well. 

It said that policies to limit emissions from the agriculture, forestry and other land use sectors “can deliver large-scale GHG emission reductions” but also warned that it “cannot fully compensate for delayed action in other sectors.”

Meanwhile, it was bullish on opportunities for the growth of clean energy. 

It noted that cost reductions in wind power, solar power and batteries have “increased the economic attractiveness of low -emission energy sector transitions” and said that electricity systems that are mostly renewable are “becoming increasingly viable.”

This story was updated at 12:34 p.m.

Tags Antonio Guterres Climate change gas prices United Nations Climate Change Conference

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