[Commentary] Speeding up just climate action

Image shows smoke rising from a power plant chimney with a setting sun in the background
  • The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate mitigation exclusively focuses on how, where and what kind and scale of human actions can stop climate change and enhance human wellbeing.
  • It spotlights the need for focusing on people’s demand as users of goods and services to broaden the mitigation opportunities globally, and the increasing range of policies and laws that are leading to reduced or avoided emissions facilitated by consistently decreasing costs of improved technologies, specifically solar and wind energy, and batteries.
  • In this commentary, Joyashree Roy, coordinating lead author for the chapter on demand, services and social aspects of mitigation, discusses how accelerated and equitable climate action is critical to sustainable development to India.
  • The views in this commentary are that of the author.

Over the past eight months the three Working Groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have released reports as part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6).

The report Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change is the third and concluding instalment of the Working Group reports. This new report exclusively focuses on how and which human actions – through cooperation – can stop climate change, even while acknowledging the fact that various regions are at different levels of development in terms of financial resources, technological and institutional capacities.

The report is very clear in sending out the message that unless there are immediate and deep reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across all sectors and regions, limiting global warming to 1.5°C above the Industrial Revolution average, by 2100, will be an unreachable goal.

Various modelling results in this report show that it is theoretically possible to limit warming to 1.5°C, but the current action pledged globally until 2030, in all its dimensions, scale, scope and pace, is not enough. Given all the pledges, the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and policies implemented globally, the world is not on track to prevent the 1.5°C increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels by 2100. In fact, only an abrupt acceleration of global emissions reductions after 2030, would be a good chance of keeping the temperature rise below 2°C. However, it is clear that in terms of adverse impacts, a 1.8°C increase is better than 2°C, while 1.5°C is even better than 1.8°C in terms of impact on many already vulnerable human and natural systems.

The more we exceed 1.5°C, the more difficult and more expensive it will be to return to below 1.5°C. Every small increase in warming leads to further impacts. The global average temperature will stabilise roughly when the CO2 emissions reach net zero, so reducing CO2 is critical if we want warming to level off. Reducing other gases cannot substitute for getting CO2 to global net zero. However, reducing methane emissions is also important.

Read more: IPCC AR6 and its relevance to India

The next few years will be critical for taking action. So it is crucial that the development pathways in all countries should be reconfigured to shift towards sustainable development. The report suggests options for investments and economic activities that can be implemented to achieve this. If supported by governance, policy, and finance, these can not only create growth opportunities but can also help in reducing emissions by half by 2030. It is possible to achieve these reductions through a combination of technologies, better practices, and changes in demand for resources.

Image shows a thermal power plant with a field of sunflowers in the foreground
Decreasing emissions by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and promoting cleaner sources of energy is one solution, even if solar and wind projects have drawbacks of their own in India. Photo by Npl-User1234/Wikimedia Commons.

There are some new things in this report. One is that an increasing range of policies and laws are leading to reduced or avoided emissions. Another is that improved technologies, specifically solar and wind energy and batteries, are getting cheaper and have improved the possibility of deeper GHG emissions reductions by 2030 and 2040.

Despite these technological advancements, the world has experienced the highest decadal (2010-2019) increase in GHG emissions in human history and it is not on track to limit global warming to 1.5°C. So, there is a need for immediate action to scale up these low carbon developmental actions.

The key message is, accelerated and equitable climate action in mitigating, and adapting to, climate change impacts is critical to sustainable development.

Options to reduce GHG emissions by about half of the 2019 level, by 2030, are available at a cost of less than USD100 per ton of CO2 equivalent (tCO2-eq). Options costing less than USD20 tCO2-eq make up more than half of this potential. There is sufficient global capital and liquidity to close investment gaps. The majority of the lower 50% of emitters live in Africa, Southern and South-East Asia, Latin America and Caribbean, most without access to electricity or clean cooking services. There is a need for scaled-up public grants for low-income and vulnerable regions, greater financial flows from developed to developing countries and public-private cooperation. The lowest population quartile by income worldwide faces shortfalls in shelter, mobility, and nutrition. We also need targeted investment in infrastructure access and access to technology to provide these targeted services in an efficient way.

This report, for the first time, has been able to quantitatively indicate the mitigation potentials from the demand side by taking a timescale going up to 2050, besides techno-economic potentials until 2030. This broadens the scope of participation from people – investors, policy makers, professionals, citizens and consumers as role models in the mitigation efforts.

Read more: Misinformation leads to misperception, polarisation causing delay in climate action, says IPCC report

The report has indeed come up with various ways to improve our chances of success despite deficits and gaps in actions from the past.

Trends indicating chances of success since previous Assessment Report

There are many specific trends since the Fifth Assessment Report which indicate chances of success.

Between 2010 and 2019, the rate of growth of GHG emissions was lower than what it was in the 2000-2009 period. Since 2010, there have been sustained decreases in the costs of solar and wind energy, and batteries. An increasing range of policies and laws have enhanced energy efficiency, reduced rates of deforestation and accelerated the deployment of renewable energy, low-carbon heating systems and electric vehicles. Some countries have reduced GHG emissions from domestically produced goods and services by a third or more since their peak. Some other countries have achieved a steady decrease over several years at rates consistent with limiting warming to 2°C.

There is huge untapped potential in the near-term through changes across transport, industry, buildings and food, that will take away the supply side uncertainties, will make it easier for people to lead low-carbon lifestyles and improve wellbeing. Overall, socio-cultural factors supported by infrastructure access and technology adoption have the potential to enable reductions in GHG emissions by 2050 between 40% and 70%.

Image shows a slum in Mumbai, India with high-rise buildings in the background
Consumption of the bottom 90% of people contributes 48% of global GHG emissions while consumption of the top 1% contributes 15%. Photo by Sthitaprajna Jena/Wikimedia Commons.

However, unless it is linked to structural and cultural changes that make it easier for people to lead low-carbon lifestyles, individual choice alone can make only a modest contribution to reducing GHG emissions. It also needs to be noted that demand-side changes, that is changes relating to the amount of goods and services that people buy or use, cannot deliver the net zero goal on their own. Demand reduction and supply side decarbonisation are both needed and in fact complementary to each other. Demand side intervention makes it easier to achieve supply side decarbonisation.

These structural changes required for behaviour change are across transport, industry, buildings and food – in other words every aspect of society.

For example, it is possible to reduce carbon footprint if a comfortable public transit system is available, accessible, affordable and electrified and electricity is from no carbon sources, or if cycle paths make it easy for people to cycle to workplaces, rather than drive, say e.g., in a compact city design. If houses and workplaces correspond to people’s needs (large houses for big families and smaller ones for singles or couples) and are energy-efficient and powered using renewable energy, it makes it easier to live a low-carbon lifestyle. But this requires public investment in, and transformation across, every sector along with policies and incentives that encourage people to make low-carbon choices in all aspects of their lives. In our cities, where more than half the world’s population lives, packages of policies that design urban-scale changes that cascade across sectors can achieve greater emissions reductions than the sum of individual actions alone. Service level efficiency can be improved with lesser energy by improved end-use service delivery improvements.

Another example of how structural changes can influence behaviour change is sustainable consumption by intensive use of repairable products with a longer life, recycling, repurposing, remanufacturing, and procurement of material-efficient and energy-efficient products and services with reduced material input.

Higher income households have higher emissions related to transport, housing and entertainment such as recreational expenditure, travel and eating out, than low-income households which tend to have a larger share of necessities such as fuel for heating and cooking. The former also has higher capacity to lead climate action as beyond a threshold, increased material consumption is not closely correlated with improvements in human progress and wellbeing.

Some hard facts are that consumption of the bottom 90% of people contributes 48% of global GHG emissions while consumption of the top 1% contributes 15%. Consumption of the top 10% contributes 37%. Globally, the richest 10% households contribute about 40% of global GHG emissions, while the bottom 50% contribute less than 15%

Individuals with high economic status have high capacity to reduce emissions and can become role models for advocating stringent climate policies.

Read more: IPCC report shows a greater need for increased climate action

Multiple messages are relevant for India

Each government (or person) has to do what is right for them and definitely each government will take a different approach that suits their local contexts. However, as this is about global action the scientific information will empower us to take globally-aligned national decisions.

To limit warming to 1.5°C, coal use, without carbon capture and storage, would have to fall by about three quarters (58-92%) by 2030. But we will continue to use oil and gas until at least the middle of the century. Cost of fossil fuel infrastructure will increase and without carbon capture this will become increasingly stranded assets. More electrification of processes and services across sectors is expected. To meet the entire energy demand, the report is clear that the world cannot just rely on electricity. Other fuels like hydrogen and biofuels will be needed for shipping, aviation, and other sectors where it is harder to use electricity.

Demand-side potential can partially be tapped on the short term to reduce pressure on primary energy demand, which makes it an important category for immediate action when energy prices are high. Such measures save energy and energy bills for users and help avoiding emissions but do not reduce access to service levels as they are delivered more efficiently with less resources. Costs of achieving mitigation will vary from country to country, and it is difficult to provide a precise assessment because it depends on what measures are adopted which need to be worked out at the country level.

Image shows a traffic jam on a road in Mumbai.
Shifting towards electrified public transport might help significantly reduce our collective carbon footprint. Photo by Aleksandr Zykov/Wikimedia Commons.

In terms of the future, the report shows that international cooperation on technology development and transfer accompanied by capacity building and finance can accelerate the global diffusion of mitigation technologies, practices and policies. Accelerated international financial cooperation is critical to securing a low-carbon and just transition. There is a need for scaled-up public grants for low-income and vulnerable regions, greater financial flows from developed to developing countries and public-private cooperation.

However, the assessment also clearly states that effective national climate institutions coordinate across sectors, scales and actors, attend to diverse interests, engage in strategy setting engaging independent national experts/bodies transcending the mandates of line departments and help tailoring mitigation actions to local context and enable experimentation.

Information is empowering for just transitions

In rapid transition across various systems, especially energy and land systems, justice in transition will need to be addressed institutionally through various social protection mechanisms, public grants for vulnerable groups of specific job and livelihood categories to build trust in governance and social acceptance of change.

To limit warming to around 2°C would require GHG emissions to peak before 2025 and reduced by a fifth (21%) from 2019 levels by 2030. It would be necessary to reach net zero CO2 emissions in the early 2070s. Deep and sustained reductions of other gases would also be required.

With rapid and deeper GHG emissions cuts through 2030, we can minimise our chances of temporarily exceeding a 1.5°C temperature increase but some degree of what we call overshoot is almost inevitable.

Achieving global net zero GHG emissions requires the deployment of Carbon Dioxide Removal – that is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it on land, underground or in the ocean, e.g. through reforestation and new technologies. This can counterbalance those hard-to-eliminate emissions, e.g. from aviation, agriculture and industrial processes, which prevent us getting to actual zero emissions.

In the longer term, scaling up Carbon Dioxide Removal could also reverse global warming.

Upscaling the deployment of Carbon Dioxide Removal methods that are effective, while addressing potential side-effects, requires accelerated research and development and demonstration as well as agreed methods for measuring, reporting and verification.

Joyashree Roy is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand and Professor of Economics, Jadavpur University, Kolkata


Banner image: Air pollution by brick factories. Photo by Jimmy Nuetron/Wikimedia Commons.

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