In some of its strongest language yet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in its Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report released today that unless we do more than we are doing now, “warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally.” Those impacts include extreme weather events, global and regional food insecurity, and extinction of many species. Doesn’t sound like a good time to me.
The report, as you would guess by its name, synthesizes the results from three previous reports on the causes, impacts and potential solutions for climate change. The BBC summarized the main points of this report:
- Warming is “unequivocal” and the human influence on climate is clear
- Since the 1950s the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia
- The period from 1983 to 2012, it says, was likely the warmest 30 year period of the last 1,400 years
- Warming impacts are already being seen around the globe, in the acidification of the oceans, the melting of arctic ice and poorer crop yields in many parts
- Without concerted action on carbon, temperatures will increase over the coming decades and could be almost 5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century
Part of the “concerted action” mentioned in that last point is changing the way we provide energy to our homes, schools, businesses, etc. We need to increase low-carbon methods (renewables, nuclear, and fossil fuel using carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems) from the current 30% of production to 80% by 2050 and 90% by 2100. We also need to stop burning fossil fuels without CCS for energy production by 2100. By the way, there is only one commercial plant in the world currently using CCS, so don’t expect that to be the solution. We’ve got our work cut out for us.
“There is a myth that climate action will cost heavily, but inaction will cost much more,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the release of the IPCC report. A September report by the Center for American Progress outlines how it can be done in the U.S. We need a combined public-private investment of $200 billion annually in clean energies. These investments cover both increasing efficiency of buildings, transportation, and industry and boosting renewable energy production. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the investments could result in a 2.7 million net increase in jobs and $200 billion in annual revenue for the government. The White House Council of Economic Advisors reported that failure to prevent global temperature increases beyond the limits recommended by the IPCC would result in annual economic damages of $150 billion. So pay now and boost the economy or pay to clean up our mess later.
Don’t think that stopping greenhouse gas emissions by energy production or transportation is the end of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change either. First, the IPCC report points out that many aspects of climate change (ice sheet melt, sea level rise, etc.) will “continue for centuries” even if we stop polluting. Second, air pollution isn’t the only way us humans cause climate change. We also do so by putting too much nitrogen into soil and bodies of water, cutting down trees for agriculture or development, or even just by tilling the land for farming.
The time to act was yesterday. We can’t do that, so, by golly, we better act now.
UPDATE: Title changed from “Renewable Energy” to “Low Carbon Energy” to reflect range of technologies recommended by IPCC.