The unrestricted use of fossil fuels must end soon if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.
That is the central message of a stark new report from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The IPCC urges that by 2050, most of the world’s electricity must – and can – be produced from low carbon sources.
Fossil fuels, without carbon capture and storage (CCS), should be phased out “almost entirely” by 2100.
The short Synthesis Report was published on Sunday in Copenhagen, after a week of intense debate between scientists and government officials.
The report says the world faces “severe, pervasive and irreversible” impacts without effective action on carbon.
“It’s very clear from the report that fossil fuels have had their day,” said Prof Arthur Petersen from UCL and a member of the Dutch government’s team in Copenhagen.
“Of course it is up to politicians to decide which risks they want to take with climate change, so it is not policy prescriptive in saying that these reductions should take place, but it is absolutely clear that the reductions should take place if you want to limit (temperature increases) to 2C.”
Rapid phase out
For electricity production, this would mean a rapid move away from coal and into renewables and other low carbon forms, including nuclear.
The report suggests renewables will have to grow from their current 30% share to 80% of the power sector by 2050.
In the longer term the report states “fossil fuel power generation without CCS is phased out almost entirely by 2100”.
The chair of the IPCC Dr Rajendra Pachauri said that greener electricity is key.
“If the world wants to go on this pathway of keeping temperatures increases below 2 degrees C by the end of the century, then by the middle of the century we will have to treble or quadruple the use of low carbon or zero carbon energy from renewables, and sources like bioenergy, nuclear and carbon capture and storage.”
The Synthesis boils these three into one, with the intention of informing politicians engaged in attempts to deliver a new global treaty on climate by the end of 2015.
It re-states many familiar positions:
- Warming is “unequivocal” and the human influence on climate is clear
- Since the 1950s the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia
- The period from 1983 to 2012, it says, was likely the warmest 30 year period of the last 1,400 years
- Warming impacts are already being seen around the globe, in the acidification of the oceans, the melting of arctic ice and poorer crop yields in many parts
- Without concerted action on carbon, temperatures will increase over the coming decades and could be almost 5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century
Politicians have agreed that a rise of 2C is the threshold of danger. In this report the IPCC authors outline a number of routes to keep to that level by the end of the century.
Countries will need to adapt rapidly, but almost all scenarios see near zero emissions by 2100.
“We can’t afford to burn all the fossil fuels we have without dealing with the waste product which is CO2 and without dumping it in the atmosphere,” said Prof Myles Allen from Oxford University, and a member of the IPCC core writing team.
“If we can’t develop carbon capture we will have to stop using fossil fuels if we want to stop dangerous climate change, that is a very clear message that comes out of the IPCC reports.”
The clarity of the language over the future of coal, oil, and gas was welcomed by campaigners.
“What they have said is that we must get to zero emissions, and that’s new,” said Samantha Smith from WWF.
“The second thing is they said that it is affordable, it is not going to cripple economies.”
In their discussions on fossil fuels, there was a fierce battle over a chart that showed how much the electricity sector needed to curb its carbon.
According to one observer, “the Saudis went ballistic” over its inclusion.
Another significant fight was over the inclusion of text about Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
It quickly became a standoff between those who want the focus to be on cutting emissions against those who think the right to develop economies must come first.
An unlikely alliance between Bolivia and Saudi Arabia ultimately saw the section dropped entirely from the underlying report.
“There was a box in the draft, and in the end that box wasn’t included in the underlying report,” said Prof Petersen.
“History will tell us whether it was wise or not, there are lessons to be learned here.”
Some of those attending said they believed that that tackling climate change and sustainable development went hand in hand.
“Different countries come to different perspectives” said Prof Jim Skea from Imperial College and a review editor of the report.
“But from the science perspective, we need them both. We need to walk and chew gum at the same time.”