Humanity still has time to arrest catastrophic global warming – and has the tools to do so quickly and cheaply, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found.
The latest IPCC assessment report, the world’s definitive stocktake of action to minimise climate change, shows a viable path to halving global emissions by 2030.
This outlook is much more favourable than in earlier assessments, made possible by tremendous reductions in the cost of clean energy technologies. But broad policy action is needed to make steep emissions reductions happen.
We each contributed expertise to the report. In this article, we highlight how the world can best reduce emissions this decade and discuss the potential implications for Australia.
Governments must go all-in on climate change
Frank Jotzo, lead author on policies and institutions
The IPCC identifies clean electricity and agriculture/forestry/land use as the sectors where the greatest emissions reductions can be achieved, followed by industry and transport.
Further low-emissions opportunities exist in other areas of production, buildings and the urban sector, as well as shifts in consumer demand. Overall, half the options to cut emissions by 50% cost less than US$20 a tonne.
While the IPCC does not provide a country-level assessment, it is clear Australia has all these opportunities.
The transition to zero-emissions electricity is well underway. Decarbonising industry and transport is a next step. Emerging technologies such as green steel and hydrogen offer Australia new, clean export industries. Fossil fuel use in turn is destined to fall, with coal dropping off particularly quickly.
And Australia’s large land mass provides massive opportunities to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere through plants – and in future, perhaps also through chemical methods.
The IPCC says comprehensive policy packages are needed to make deep emissions cuts happen.
It finds carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes have been effective, alongside targeted regulation and other instruments – such as support for research and development, uptake of advanced technologies and removing fossil fuel subsidies.
The report also emphasises the need for continued technological innovation, and to greatly scale up finance for climate action.
It puts weight on the importance of equity, sustainable development and comprehensive engagement across society to avert unmanageable climate change.
That requires climate action to take centre stage in society, involving all manner of groups. Independent institutions such as Australia’s Climate Change Authority have a strong role to play, and business should be actively involved.
So what’s the IPCC’s overriding message? The world’s governments must go all-in on addressing climate change. The opportunities are there and the toolkit is ready.
Annette Cowie, lead author on cross-sectoral perspectives
To have our best shot at holding warming to 1.5℃, the world must hit net-zero emissions by mid-century.
Agriculture is a big contributor to global emissions. But the IPCC confirms the land also has a central role in getting to net-zero through measures that remove CO₂ from the atmosphere and store it, such as tree planting, soil carbon management and the use of biochar.
Benefits returned to farmers include improved soil fertility and income from carbon trading.
The way we produce and distribute food accounts for more than one-third of global emissions.
The report says one of the biggest individual contributions we can make to reducing emissions is adopting a sustainable, healthy diet and reducing food waste. Such a diet is rich in plant-based food, with moderate intake of meat and dairy.
We can also tackle direct emissions from food production. Manure can be made into biogas and feed additives offer promising ways to reduce livestock methane.
Moving the dial on transport
Peter Newman, coordinating lead author on transport
Jake Whitehead, lead author on transport
A set of technological solutions now exist to reduce emissions across energy, buildings, cities, transport and to a large extent, industry.
They include solar and wind-based power – now the cheapest form of electricity. They also include batteries and storage, electrified transport and “smart” technology that integrates these measures into zero-emissions solutions.
The IPCC report shows in the past decade, unit costs for solar have fallen by 85%, wind by 55% and batteries by 85%. Never before has the world had such an opportunity to decarbonise.
In recent decades, transport has been the laggard in emissions reduction. But, as the IPCC finds, technologies now exist to change the trajectory. Solar-powered electrification is rolling out for cars, bikes, scooters, buses and trucks.
Continuing advances in battery and charging technologies could enable the electrification of long-haul trucks, including electrified highways.
The IPCC assessed 60 actions individuals can take to reduce emissions. The largest contributions come from walking and cycling, using electrified transport, reducing air travel, as well as shifting towards plant-based diets.
This highlights how our individual choices matter.
Technology alone is not enough to reduce transport emissions. Cities must become more oriented toward public transport, walking and cycling. Effective new ways of doing this include on-demand shuttles, trackless trams and high speed rail.
Governments should provide incentives to supply and use electric scooters, bikes, cars, trucks and buses. This would ensure individuals and businesses who want to reduce their emissions have ways to do so.
The IPCC says cheap green hydrogen will be important to decarbonise aviation, shipping and parts of industry and agriculture. Much work is required in the next decade to bring this solution to fruition.
While government funding is vital to decarbonise transport, this transition also presents significant economic opportunities.
Australia could support transport decarbonisation globally through the mining of critical minerals, as well as the manufacturing, reuse and recycling of electric vehicles.
It’s time to act
Huge untapped potential exists to reduce global emissions quickly.
But the window of opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels is closing at an alarming rate. As the IPCC shows, fundamental change to both production and demand is required.
Clearly, business-as-usual is no longer tenable. The IPCC makes one thing patently evident: the time for action is well and truly upon us.
About the authors
Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy and Head of Energy, Institute for Climate Energy and Disaster Solutions, Australian National University
Adjunct Professor, University of New England
E-Mobility Research Fellow, The University of Queensland
Professor of Sustainability, Curtin University