Climate

The IPCC says we already have the tech tools to stop climate change

The world’s landmark climate report makes it clear that technology isn’t stopping us from solving climate change. It’s our political system and entrenched fossil fuel interests.

Rows of solar panels

The latest U.N. climate report came out Monday.

Photo: American Public Power Association/Unsplash

The last in a series of major United Nations climate reports arrived with a thud on Monday. But if the previous two reports chronicled all the ways in which the climate crisis is an existential danger, the new report is a call to action. Call it the get-shit-done report.

The most important top-line message from it to the world: We have the technology we need to create a habitable future available to us right now. It’s largely money and politics standing in the way of getting to that better place.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change synthesizes years of research to give us the lay of the climate land. The report put out on Monday is the final in a trio that have come out over the past year. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called a February report focused on climate adaptation an “atlas of human suffering,” so suffice to say, they haven’t exactly been uplifting reads.

The latest iteration certainly contains its fair share of doom and gloom — Guterres called it a "damning" verdict of the world's failures — noting that the world’s current climate pledges make it unlikely that we’ll hit the 1.5-degree-Celsius target that’s crucial for the continued survival of many small island nations and communities whose livelihoods depend on keeping the climate stable. But the report also makes it clear that that is a choice; if the world collectively chose to, the authors write, it could get on the right track starting today.

"Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals," Guterres said at a press conference. "But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels."

The report notes that’s true from a technological as well as a cost perspective. Solar and wind are among the key technologies ready for prime time, as are deeply unsexy energy efficiency technologies like insulation, heat pumps, LED lights and more. The cost of these technologies has fallen steadily — or, in the case of solar panels, precipitously, by a staggering 85% over the preceding decade. That’s led to widespread deployment already.

“Electricity systems powered predominantly by renewables are becoming increasingly viable,” the report said.

Storing that energy will be vital to staving off the worst impacts of climate change, whether in utility-scale batteries or electric vehicles. The cost of EV battery storage also fell by 85% in the 2010s, allowing deployment to increase a hundredfold over that period. The report points out that a “variety of systemic solutions to accommodate large shares of renewables in the energy system have emerged.”

In the world of climate mitigation, anything that costs less than $100 per ton to cut carbon is generally a pretty good deal. To underscore just how good a deal wind and solar are, the two technologies alone could shave nearly 8 gigatons — that is 8 billion tons — of greenhouse gas emissions off the global budget by 2030 for less than that price per ton.

Other tech solutions ready to be deployed this decade for similarly bargain-basement prices include EVs, getting more butts on e-bike seats and in public transit and more efficient electric appliances in homes around the world. The report shows building out more efficient, walkable cities and the aforementioned efficient appliances and homes are among a suite of demand-side tweaks that could cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% to 70% by 2050. In other words, it’s not just about the technology that delivers and stores electricity, but also about ensuring we use it in a smart manner.

"Half-measures will not halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which is what we need to do," Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said. "The IPCC tells us we have the knowledge and technology to get this done."

Notably absent from the realm of cost-effectiveness and scale needed are things like nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage, which the IPCC notes “have seen minimal cost reductions and their adoption has grown slowly” over the past decade. Carbon dioxide removal — a technology to pull carbon pollution from the air that we almost surely will need at some point for sectors like cement and aviation that don’t have easy solutions — is also not going to save us anytime soon, because it’s simply not ready to use at scale yet. That’s not to say these technologies can’t play a role, but the report makes clear that the shiny tech solutions may be our least useful ones in the immediate future. That matters so much, because a ton of carbon emissions cut this decade is one less to pull out of the air in 10 years' time.

Despite having all these wonderful, cheap tools at our disposal, the world has so far failed to value them properly, the report explains. The authors write that our current fossil fuel infrastructure alone could extract enough oil, gas and coal from the ground to blow past the 1.5-degree-Celsius target. And banks continue to pour massive sums of money into fossil fuels; a recent report from an array of climate groups shows 60 major banks have financed fossil fuel projects to the tune of $3.8 trillion (yes, trillion) since the world inked the Paris Agreement in 2015. Heck, on the same day the new IPCC dropped, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon called for the U.S. to export more methane gas to Europe and wrote that “we also need immediate approval for additional oil leases and gas pipelines” in a letter to shareholders.

In comparison, the IPCC notes that the investments needed in renewables remain three to six times below where they need to be this decade. That mismatch in money is one reason for the world’s failure to get on the right track. So, too, are the fossil fuel interests being financed, and the ways in which they have gummed up the political system. The IPCC report shows clear ways in which public R&D and improved international cooperation could speed up the deployment of the climate tech we have right now and make it even more cost-effective. Look no further than last month’s nickel pricepocalypse — driven, in part, by the Russian war against Ukraine — to see why more stability might be a good idea if the goal is to get more renewables and batteries deployed ASAP.

Yet the death of the Build Back Better Act at the hands of Sen. Joe Manchin, the biggest recipient of fossil fuel money in the Senate, shows the entrenched industries continue to find the pressure points in the political system to prevent climate action. The IPCC report itself was the subject of intense debate due to, according to Climate Home News and The Guardian, wrangling between scientists and policymakers over the role of carbon capture and other technologies. On one side, fossil fuel-dependent countries like Saudi Arabia reportedly wanted to water down language around ending fossil fuel use while promoting carbon capture, which has yet to work at scale. On the other, scientists and policymakers from the EU wanted to highlight the role of renewables. (For what it’s worth, the scientists are generally less politically motivated than the policymakers weighing in on the report’s final draft.) Of course, physics will decide our ultimate fate.

While the final draft of the report does carve out a relatively small role for those types of technology, the reality is that fossil fuels are an old technology that needs to be largely relegated to the past. And as the new report makes clear, we have replacements right there at the ready.

"We need to get on with this now, or 1.5 degrees will slip beyond reach," Jim Skea, the report's co-chair, said.

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