Technology Can Fix the Climate Mess—but Not Without Help

This morning, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dropped its most contentious report yet. Following previous installments on how humanity’s abuses of the land and the sea are exacerbating climate change, and how things are generally not good (although hope is not altogether lost ), this one tackles the thorniest question: how we’re supposed to come together as a species to fix this mess. The assessment, which was authored by hundreds of scientists, makes it clear that humanity has the tools to fight climate change. It just lacks the political will to do it.“The jury has reached the verdict and it is damning,” said António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, during a Monday press conference announcing the findings, calling the report “a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame cataloging the empty pledges that put us firmly on track toward an unlivable world.”He invoked climate catastrophes—“unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, the extinction of a million species of plants and animals”—and warned against those who would brush the report aside. “This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies,” he said. One of the report’s more sobering conclusions is that we would need to cut emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and keep warming to the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius . Yet countries’ current climate pledges are setting up an increase in emissions between now and then, the report’s authors conclude. We need emissions to peak by 2025, they write, but without dramatically strengthening mitigation efforts, we’re on track to see an alarming 3.2 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century.“The IPCC tells us that we have the knowledge and the technology to get this done through a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable and alternative fuels,” said Inger Andersen, under-secretary-general of the UN and executive director of the UN Environment Program, speaking at the press conference. These changes must be accomplished, Andersen continued, “through moving from deforestation to restoration, through backing nature in our landscapes, oceans, and cities; through transforming our cities into green and clean spaces; and through behavior changes to address the demand side of the equation.”

The report focuses on solutions and concludes that there are actually options available in every sector—including energy, industry, and transportation—to halve emissions by 2030, and to even reduce them by as much as 70 percent by 2050. But at the moment we’re headed in the wrong direction. By building more fossil fuel energy infrastructure, for instance, we’re locking in the creation of future emissions, instead of going all-in on renewables.

“Despite the fact that the growth rate of emissions has slowed over the last decade, emissions have continued to climb,” says James Edmonds, a lead author of the report and a researcher at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a collaboration between the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland in College Park. “The good news story is that over recent years, humans have come up with some technology improvements that have been extremely valuable.”