5 April 2022
The third and final Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group report landed yesterday late afternoon – and we took some time last night to go through it.
The report is the third of its kind – the first one back in November looked at the physical science of what’s happening, the second focused on adaptation and this latest one is very much focused on mitigation (i.e. reducing emissions).
Mirroring the urgency in reports that came before it, the body warned that its “now or never” if the world is going to keep global temperature increases to 1.5 C.
A number of things struck us in this document – and this list is by no means exhaustive. The full report itself is over 2000 pages, so there’s a lot to unpack within it and you can expect media outlets the worldover will be taking their time going through it all.
But – in the meantime, read on.
Greenhouse gas emissions are declining in some places & annual human-made emissions over the last decade were higher than ever.
One thing that stood out yesterday in the aftermath of the report’s publication was a thread on Twitter by Sarah Burch, an IPCC lead author.
In her highlights of the document, she stressed an important point: some countries have seen continuous downward trajectories in their greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time annual emissions over the past ten years were the highest in human history.
The report notes that at least 18 countries have seen sustained greenhouse gas emission reductions for longer than 10 years, but that trend unfortunately does not track with the global picture.
On average, between 2000 and 2009, greenhouse gas emissions the worldover were growing annually by 2.1 per cent. That figure of growth did come down between 2010 and 2019, to 1.3 per cent – but that still means we were adding to the planet’s cumulative amount of emissions, even if it was at a somewhat lower rate.
So while some were cutting their emissions as others were seeing theirs grow, we’re left with year-on-year increases in the last decade that brought us to having the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions humans have ever seen.
This is not a crisis of equal making.
A point that has been repeatedly made by activists and organisations was echoed in this latest report: regional contributions to the climate crisis have “continued to differ widely.”
And there’s a couple of different ways in which they vary.
First, let’s look at the timeframe of this. The sheer current amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere did not happen steadily from the 19th century up until now. From 1850 to 1990, we saw about 58 per cent of total cumulative emissions occur.
But from 1990 to 2019, the report notes that the remaining 42 per cent of cumulative emissions took place and 17 per cent of these emissions happened within the last decade alone. Those figures – to put it mildly – are staggering.
And while we’re on the topic of historical cumulative emissions (which is a fancy way to say the total amount of human-emitted greenhouse gas emissions since 1850) – this is a burden shared unequally by time and by region.
From 1850 to 2019, North America accounted for almost a quarter of cumulative emissions. Europe didn’t lag too far behind clocking in at 16 per cent.
In comparison, Africa made up 7 per cent of global emissions in that same time frame, while Southern Asia accounted for 4 per cent.
And lastly, there is the household-by-household inequality of creating the climate crisis. The report notes that 10 per cent of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute a “disproportionately large share” of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Here’s just one example: the top ten per cent of households worldwide are responsible for at least over a third of global consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions.
Addressing the climate crisis shouldn’t be on the far-off horizon – there are near-term options.
You might sometimes hear policymakers or analysts say that significant emissions cuts are a long way away due to the time it will take to build the necessary infrastructure, but yesterday’s report hammered home the fact that there are actions ready to be deployed at scale in the near-term.
They include solar and wind energy, electrifying and greening our cities, energy efficiency measures, demand-side management and reduced food waste and loss.
And they’re becoming increasingly cost-effective, too. When it comes to solar and wind energy, they’ve never been cheaper. Unit costs have dropped by 85 per cent and 55 per cent for both respectively since 2010.
Urban areas can make a huge difference.
The last working group report drove home the point that ensuring our cities adapt to the climate crisis is critical, and unsurprisingly this report stressed that they also have a huge role to play in driving down emissions.
Urban areas now account for between 67 and 72 per cent of the global share emissions, which is up from 2015 when they made up about 62 per cent.
But there’s a number of ways we can reverse this trend, according to the IPCC. We can change the material consumption in our cities. We can electrify their transport and heating systems and use renewable energy to do so. We can green our cities with pockets and corridors of nature that will absorb more planet-warming emissions.
And all of that would have an array of co-benefits. Reducing the amount of fossil fuel cars in urban areas would greatly improve air quality and active transport like walking and cycling would simultaneously lead to better health outcomes.
Methane emission reductions are key to reducing short term warming.
And finally, another motif throughout yesterday’s report was the role of methane emissions, also referred to as CH4 emissions.
The first working group report that was published back in August stressed that strong, rapid reductions in methane were needed in order to limit further warming – and that call was repeated in this latest publication, which said that the potent greenhouse gas needs to decline by a third over the next decade.
Methane is a powerful warming gas that has over 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide in a twenty year period. It’s often referred to as a “live-fast, die-young” greenhouse gas – as it generates more warming in the short-term despite having a shorter life-span than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Reducing methane will be a critical challenge for Ireland over the coming years – as its largest emitting sector, agriculture, is responsible for the country’s largest share of it.
In particular, when it comes to the ongoing growth of emissions within the sector, the national dairy herd has consistently expanded year-on-year over the past decade, and from 2014 to 2019 alone its numbers increased by almost a quarter, while milk production rose by 41 per cent.
The Environmental Protection Agency has previously referenced the Food Wise 2025 Strategy and the removal of aforementioned dairy quotas as key factors for the industry’s growth.
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