By Gwynne Dyer
The final report of the United Nation’s climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has come out at last. The desperate optimism that characterised
the last few volumes (this is Part Four of four) has frayed away to almost nothing. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres bluntly called it a ‘survival guide’. But it’s not even that, really.
It lists all the things that the world’s countries could and should be doing, but so did every previous report and most countries are still falling far short of the minimum
The report’s authors even admit that the ‘aspirational’ goal of never letting the average global temperature exceed 1.5 degrees C higher than the pre-industrial level will definitely be missed. It was formally adopted by the IPCC only five years ago, but it’s already too late to stop short of +1.5°C.
“It has always been clear in the IPCC and in climate science that it’s not very likely that we will always stay below 1.5°C,” said Dr Oliver Geden, who was on the report’s core writing
Well, it was always clear to me, too, but I don’t remember the IPCC ever officially admitting it before last
weekend. The new buzz-word is ‘overshoot’, as in ‘Yes, we’re going to overshoot 1.5°C for a while, but don’t despair. We’ll get back down below that level as fast as we can.’ Good luck with that.
They’re clutching at straws. The scientists pull their punches and sound positive because they have to keep the governments committed to the process. The governments can’t afford to get too far ahead of public opinion in their own home countries. And the last exits on the Highway to Hell are flashing by right now.
We already have all the technology, wealth and knowledge we would need to cut emissions fast now and stay below 1.5°C, but the political will is not there and even the IPCC implicitly recognises it. People aren’t yet suffering enough to give the issue their full attention.
By the mid-2030s, when we’re in ‘overshoot’, the political will and the sense of urgency will certainly be available, because wild weather of every sort will be hitting people hard. However, by then we will have left it so late that we will urgently need a technology that delivers results very fast and holds the heating down.
‘Carbon dioxide removal’ (CDR), which can pull huge amounts of greenhouse gases back out of the atmosphere, is the IPPC’s preferred ‘saviour’ technology at the moment. No doubt it will be a huge part of the solution in the long run, but it cannot save us in the short run. It is slow-acting and expensive; the very opposite of a quick fix.
If we are really expecting the heating to rise past below 1.5°C so soon, the only thing that will temporarily hold the heat down, avoid crossing ‘tipping points’, and enable us keep on with the real work of cutting emissions is geoengineering: ‘solar radiation management’ (SRM).
Reflecting one or two percent of incoming sunlight sounds dangerous and expensive, but it is actually cheap, and so far no major down-sides have been identified.
A big, well-funded research project should be underway right now to confirm SRM’s potential and identify any risks, so it is available to deploy by the mid-2030s if we need it (and it looks like we will). Yet any open-air research on it, even at the smallest scale, is still effectively banned.
The Puritans still rule.