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The Most Important Insights from the IPCC 1.5 °C Report

IPCC reports tend to be long and boring. Here is the short and interesting version of the latest report:

1.5 °C emissions pathways are truly daunting

It is difficult to see any realistic way in which we will achieve the 1.5 °C emissions reduction pathways illustrated below. Immediate and sharp reductions are needed, but even full adherence to all national Paris agreement commitments will result in annual emissions by 2030 that are double the requirement for achieving 1.5 °C. 

Large negative emissions will be required

As clearly illustrated in the figure above, most scenarios achieve net-zero emissions around 2050 and net-negative emissions afterwards. The illustrative scenarios (P1-P4) in the above figure are given below, showing that only P1 can achieve this outcome without bioenergy with CO2 capture and storage (BECCS). This scenario relies heavily on massive reductions in global energy consumption: 26% below today's levels by 2030. Given the growth demands of 6 billion (and counting) developing world citizens, we will do well to keep global energy consumption from increasing 26% by 2030. 

1.5 °C instead of 2 °C is important

As illustrated below, the five main reasons for concern increase significantly from 1.5 to 2 °C. Unique and threatened ecosystems (e.g. coral reefs, glaciers and the Arctic region) will be most severely affected by a further increase to 2 °C. The one that I'm most concerned about is the "distribution of impacts" risk rising from moderate to high. This essentially means that those billions of people least responsible for climate change will be at high risk of facing its worst impacts. The risk of large-scale singular events (e.g. massive sea level rise due to disintegration of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets) also becomes uncomfortably high at 2 °C.

Significant increase in available carbon budget

Even though the climate change community does not like to admit it, it has been clear for several years that climate models have been overpredicting global warming. The new IPCC report finally moderates climate models with actual observations and thereby calculates significant increases in carbon budgets. In essence, the budget that was previously linked to a 2 °C rise will now only lead to a 1.6 °C rise. 1.5 °C may well be practically impossible, but the sizable boost in carbon budget means that 2 °C now becomes a more realistic possibility. 

Synergies with sustainable development goals

The report is confident that the 1.5 °C scenario has much greater synergies than trade-offs with other sustainable development goals. It is clearly acknowledged that low energy demand (e.g. the P1 scenario discussed above) and low general consumption are critical for increasing synergies and limiting trade-offs. This is something I wholeheartedly agree with, but I think the rate of consumer demand reduction assumed in preparing the figure below is unfortunately completely unrealistic. 

Aim for the stars and maybe reach the moon

In general, my impression of the IPCC 1.5 °C report is that it was written to encourage the world to try and reach 1.5 °C and, in so doing, maybe achieve 2 °C. Even though I think that 1.5 °C is essentially impossible, the significantly increased carbon budget means that 2 °C could be achieved if enough people commit to the 1.5 °C ideal. I sincerely hope that this report will contribute significantly to the growing sense of climate urgency around the world.  

Content Discussion

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on October 10, 2018

Great breakdown of the key takeaways-- even for energy industry wonks it's true that the reports can be a slog to get through. I also appreciate you pointing out how, despite the doom and gloom message, there were reasons for optimism spread throughout as well. It's a daunting challenge, but one I'm (perhaps naively) confident the world is ready to address in a real way

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on October 11, 2018

Thanks, Matt. Personally, I'll start believing the world is ready to address the climate change issue when CO2 pricing schemes start to gain some real momentum all around the world. The complicated mishmash of clean energy policies currently in place may well be doing more harm than good.

Aside from that, there are signs that the typical Western consumerist mindset is slowly going out of fashion, but still not nearly quickly enough. 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on October 10, 2018

Just curious (and lazy), what is "AFOLU" ? Otherwise, delighted to finally see a conclusion that "bioenergy" and black dirt are considered good science. After 30 years solitude in the wilderness, this cranky old man can wither in peace. Best regards, young dude.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on October 11, 2018

AFOLU stands for "Agriculture, forestry and land use". Essentially all the major greenhouse gas sources not directly attributable to fossil fuel combustion or transformation. The negative emissions from AFOLU in the graph above come primarily from reforestation. 

Yes, as meaningful climate action continues to be delayed, the world will increasingly be forced to acknowledge the merits of bioenergy as a direct practical substitute for fossil fuels and a potential CO2 sink. Interestingly, bioenergy was a major focus of the recent IEA short-term renewables outlook, where it is acknowledged that bioenergy currently provides 4x the energy of wind and solar combined. It will also account for 30% of renewable energy growth over the next 5 years.