IPCC report: increase renewables and reduce coal to avert a climate change catastrophe
More than a decade ago, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations under the banner of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of the impacts of rising global temperatures. Last month, the IPCC issued a new warning: climate change is occurring earlier and more intensely than ever anticipated, calling for urgent changes within the next decade if humans are to mitigate the seemingly inevitable impacts of global warming.1 The dire warning concludes that the scale of changes to our energy, land, urban, infrastructure and industrial systems required to limit warming to 1.5°C have “no documented historic precedent”.2 Importantly, the report also notes that there is still time to act, but that it will require a rapid scaling and investment in renewables.3
The IPCC’s landmark Global Warming of 1.5°C report, which was authored by 91 scientists from 40 countries,4 projects dire changes that could occur under both 1.5°C and 2°C increases in global temperatures from pre-industrial levels. The impacts are significantly worse if the increase is greater than 1.5°C. The report describes a world with increased food shortages, droughts, wildfires, heatwaves and a mass die-off of coral reefs – all within our population’s lifetime.5 Should temperatures continue to increase at the current rate, these environmental and social costs are estimated to cost trillions of dollars and have potentially irreversible effects on the planet.6
The tipping point
The reason this report was titled Global Warming of 1.5°C and why the 2015 Paris Agreement targeted limiting the increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is because warming above this level is expected to significantly increase the breadth and severity of the impacts of climate change. For example, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is projected to reduce the increase of ocean temperatures as well as associated acidity and oxygen levels, thereby potentially reducing risks to marine biodiversity, fisheries, ecosystems.7 On the other hand, if the increase is above 1.5°C, these factors may not only impact the ocean, but land and atmospheric conditions too, and can have a compounding effect. Similarly, if we reach a temperature tipping point that the Artic permafrost thaws it is expected to further accelerate the impacts of climate change due to the release of additional climate warming gases currently frozen.
IPCC observed warming and predictions8
The report highlighted that “human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C” and that “global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate”.9
Excerpt from IPCC report warning on levels of risks and impacts under increasing temperatures10
The charts (above) from the report demonstrate that even at current levels (1°C above pre-industrial levels), we are likely creating severe risks for widespread coral loss and medium-to-severe impacts for ocean fisheries, the Artic region and coastal flooding due to rising sea levels. At a 2°C rise, these risks will likely increase significantly in both probability and severity, and a much wider range of risks and second order effects such as impacts to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply and economic growth are projected.11
What actions are needed?
Fortunately, as the world is heating up, so too is investment in the renewable energy sector. Individuals and corporations alike are seeing the real time impacts of climate change – coral bleaching on the Great Barrier reef, coastal flooding in Florida and the increase of droughts, fires and intense storms worldwide – and are deciding to act and invest in renewables, even if governments are not.
The report calls for drastic actions, noting “deep emission reductions in all sectors” and a “significant upscaling of investments” is required to avoid the IPCC’s dire predictions.12 To keep warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot, renewables are projected to account for 70–85% of electricity generation13 – more than a 250% increase from today.14 In dollar terms, the projected investments in clean electricity generation over the period 2016–2050 are “0.09–1.0 trillion USD yr–1”.15 That’s a trillion USD a year for the next 34 years that needs to be spent on new solar generation around the world. The report also suggests that wind and other renewables would also require hundreds of billions a year.16 At the same time, coal-fired generation would need to see a steep reduction and almost complete shut down by 2050 to produce only 0–2% of all electricity to ensure temperatures remain at 1.5°C or below. As Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University and an author of the report stated, “This report makes it clear: there is no way to mitigate climate change without getting rid of coal.”17
New Energy Solar strongly believes that the world could move to electricity generation that does not require coal. In the short to medium term, renewables and gas could supply reliable and reasonably priced electricity, while in the medium to longer term, renewables and storage could deliver emissions-free electricity. Significant investment is required to do this, but there are trillions of dollars around the world currently looking for investments. The other question is, can we afford not to?
The IPCC’s predictions of the impacts to environment and society are calamitous if no action is taken. Positively, current trends demonstrate that a considerable investment is happening today. But while the global transition towards renewable energy is underway, an unprecedented increase in investment is required to realise this urgent transition. This essential movement to a sustainable future will see a much greater role for solar in providing for our energy needs and a world without coal-fired generation.
For market updates and information on sustainable investment opportunities, subscribe to the New Energy Solar newsletter today.
Tom was the inaugural CEO of New Energy Solar, having launched the business in December 2015 in his then-role as Chief Operating Officer of Walsh & Company. Based in the US, he currently serves as Executive Director for the New Energy Solar team.