These may be the UN climate panel's last words before we hit 1.5 C limit

The UN’s international science panel on climate change has released what is likely its final report before the world hits 1.5 C of warming. That’s one of the temperature targets that countries aimed not to exceed when they signed the Paris Agreement on climate change. Here are the report's key messages.

IPCC says we'll likely exceed lower Paris target, but there's still hope if we do these things

A man walks through the wreckage of a home. The sea can be seen in the background.
A man walks through the wreckage of the beachfront home that collapsed following beach erosion from Hurricane Nicole on Nov. 12, 2022, in Wilbur-By-The-Sea, Fla. A new UN report has some key points to make before the world hits 1.5 C of warming, a threshold where scientists say 'risks start to pile up.' (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

The UN's international science panel on climate change has released what is likely its final report before the world hits 1.5 C of warming, one of the temperature targets that countries aimed not to exceed when they signed the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2016.

"Humanity is on thin ice — and that ice is melting fast," United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at Monday's release of the latest synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once."

This is likely the last warning the Nobel Peace Prize-winning collection of scientists will be able to make about the 1.5 mark, because their next set of reports will likely come after Earth has either breached the mark or locked into exceeding it soon, several scientists, including report authors, told The Associated Press.

Here are the key messages from Guterres and the report.

Rich nations must eliminate coal by 2030 and gas-fired electricity by 2035

Stepping up his pleas for action on fossil fuels, Guterres not only called for "no new coal" but also for eliminating its use in rich countries by 2030 and poor countries by 2040. He urged carbon-free electricity generation in the developed world by 2035, meaning no gas-fired power plants, either.

That date is key because nations soon have to come up with goals for pollution reduction by 2035, according to the Paris climate agreement.

Antonio Guterres stands behind a podium with the UN logo.
"Humanity is on thin ice — and that ice is melting fast," United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at Monday's release of the latest synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once." (Reuters)

New target for emissions cuts by 2035

After contentious debate, the UN science panel calculated and reported that to stay under the warming limit set in Paris, the world needs to cut 60 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, compared with 2019, adding a new target not previously mentioned in the six reports issued since 2018.

Scientists say we'll probably hit 1.5 C. That's bad, but there's still hope

"The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts for thousands of years," the report said, calling climate change "a threat to human well-being and planetary health."

"We are not on the right track, but it's not too late,'' said report co-author and water scientist Aditi Mukherji. "Our intention is really a message of hope, and not that of doomsday.''

With the world only a few tenths of a degree away from the globally accepted goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C (2.7 F) since pre-industrial times, scientists stressed a sense of urgency. The goal was adopted as part of the Paris climate agreement and the world has already warmed 1.1 C (2 F).

The industrial backdrop of a BP refinery and a Uniper coal-fired power plant is seen in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, March 6, 2023.
Two wind turbines peek out behind a BP refinery and coal-fired power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. A new UN report calls for an end to coal use in rich countries by 2030, and carbon-free electricity by 2035. (Martin Meissner/The Associated Press)

After 1.5 C, "the risks are starting to pile on," said report co-author Francis X. Johnson, a climate, land and policy scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute. The report mentions "tipping points" around that temperature of species extinction, including coral reefs, irreversible melting of ice sheets and sea level rise on the order of several metres.

"The window is closing if emissions are not reduced as quickly as possible," Johnson said in an interview. "Scientists are rather alarmed."

"1.5 is a critical limit, particularly for small islands and mountain [communities], which depend on glaciers," said Mukherji, who's also the climate change impact platform director at the research institute CGIAR. 

Many scientists, including at least three co-authors, said hitting 1.5 C is inevitable. 

"We are pretty much locked into 1.5," said report co-author Malte Meinshausen, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. "There's very little way we will be able to avoid crossing 1.5 C sometime in the 2030s," but the big issue is whether the temperature keeps rising from there or stabilizes.

Scientists emphasize that the world, civilization or humanity won't end if and when Earth hits and passes the 1.5 degree mark.

Mukherji said "it's not as if it's a cliff that we all fall off." But an earlier IPCC report detailed how the harms — from coral reef extinction to Arctic sea ice absent summers to even nastier extreme weather — are much worse beyond 1.5 C of warming.

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But 1.5 C may still be achievable

Guterres insisted "the 1.5-degree limit is achievable."

Science panel chief Hoesung Lee said so far, the world is far off course.

"This report confirms that if the current trends, current patterns of consumption and production continue, then ... the global average 1.5 degrees temperature increase will be seen sometime in this decade," Lee said.

A dark, black and white image of a dry lakebed in France
A usually submerged section of the lake Serre-Poncon is dry in southern France, on March 14, 2023. A new UN climate report is probably the last before the world hits 1.5 C of warming. (Daniel Cole/The Associated Press)

However, he said scientists hope the solutions outlined in the report will stabilize the globe's temperature around 1.5 C.

Asked whether this would be the last report to describe ways in which 1.5 C can be achieved, Lee said it was impossible to predict what advances might be made that could keep that target alive.

"The possibility is still there," he said. "It depends upon — again I want to emphasize that — the political will to achieve that goal."

We need to plan for a future warmer than 1.5 C

"It is certainly prudent to be planning for a future that's warmer than 1.5 degrees," said IPCC report review editor Steven Rose, an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute in the United States.

If the world continues to use all the fossil fuel-powered infrastructure that either exists now or is being proposed, Earth will warm at least 2 C, the report said.

Poor countries need huge boost in climate funding

The report and the underlying discussions also touch on the disparity between rich nations, which caused much of the problem, and poorer countries that get hit harder by extreme weather.

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If the world is to achieve its climate goals, poorer countries need a "many-fold" increase in financial help to adapt to a warmer world and switch to non-polluting energy. Countries have made financial pledges and promises of a damage compensation fund.

If rich countries don't cut emissions quicker and better help victim nations adapt to future harms, "the world is relegating the least developed countries to poverty," said Madeline Diouf Sarr, chair of a coalition of the poorest nations.

What's not included in the report: latest data, instructions on what to do

Because the report is based on data from a few years ago, the calculations about fossil fuel projects already in the pipeline do not include the increase in coal and natural gas use after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, said report co-author Dipak Dasgupta, a climate economist at The Energy and Resources Institute in India. The report comes a week after the Biden administration in the United States approved the huge Willow oil-drilling project in Alaska, which could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day.

Demonstrators hold up signs calling for action on climate change.
People take part in a Fridays for Future protest rally in Berlin, Germany, on March 3, 2023. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

The report offers hope if action is taken, using the word "opportunity" nine times in a 27-page summary. Though "opportunity" is overshadowed by 94 uses of the word "risk."

The head of the IPCC said the report contains "a message of hope in addition to those various scientific findings about the tremendous damages and also the losses that climate change has imposed on us and on the planet."

"There is a pathway that we can resolve these problems, and this report provides a comprehensive overview of what actions we can take to lead us into a much better, livable future," Lee told The Associated Press.

Lee was at pains to stress that it's not the panel's job to tell countries what they should or shouldn't do to cap global temperature rise at 1.5 C.

"It's up to each government to find the best solution," he said.

Activists also found seeds of inspiration in the reports.

"The findings of these reports can make us feel disheartened about the slow pace of emissions reductions, the limited transition to renewable energy and the growing, daily impact of the climate crisis on children," said youth climate activist Vanessa Nakate, a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

"But those children need us to read this report and take action, not lose hope."

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