IPCC says coal must go in urgent race to limit global warming

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It’s over to the Morrison government, as IPCC warns of increasing urgency of emissions reduction task, and of the “very, very substantial” cut in coal use essential to this.

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As Australia’s Prime Minister plays with lumps of coal and prays for rain, a major new scientific report has called for the urgent, world-wide phase-out of fossil fuels, as the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C drifts rapidly and dangerously out of reach.

The report – more than three years in the making,  via more than 91 authors and editors who reviewed more than 6000 scientific papers and 42,000 comments – was tabled on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

And it makes for sobering reading. (Click here to read 8 things you need to know about the 1.5°C report.)

The key finding is that if we are to have any hope of stabilising global warming at 1.5°C – and as one IPCC co-chair stressed, the report makes it “very clear” that half a degree matters greatly to the impact on the planet – global emissions of carbon dioxide must reach net zero by 2050.

This means not only eradicating fossil fuels like coal from global energy systems within decades, but that energy sector emissions would need to balanced by removing carbon dioxide from the air, through methods including re-forestation, and carbon capture and storage technologies that remain largely un-proven.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C requires changes on an unprecedented scale. It means deep emission reductions in all sectors, the use of a wide range of technologies, behaviour changes, and a significant increase in investment in low-carbon options,” said IPCC co-chair Jim Skea (pictured above) in a press conference broadcast live from Incheon, South Korea.

“If we overshoot 1.5°C global warming, then we would rely on carbon dioxide removal to go back to this level,” added co-chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte.

“Early action to limit, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s possible… but if this is to be achieved there is an urgent need to accelerate,” she said.

The good news, if you had to identify some, is that the science – and this report is being heralded as an unprecedented cross-disciplinary scientific achievement – finds that stabilising global warming is technically, practically and humanly possible. It even has numerous side benefits beyond keeping the planet inhabitable.

The bad news – or as one co-chair put it, the “wishful thinking” to emerge from the report – is that it is now over to the world’s politicians to heed the messages of the report and to see the urgency of the issue.

“This report was specifically requested by the governments who make up the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change… (to) be followed up (at the next COP) in Poland in December,” said Skea.

“Frankly, we’ve delivered a message to the governments, we’ve given them the evidence, and it’s really up to them to decide that last step of feasibility and what can be done.

“It’s their job. We’ve done our job, we’ve now passed the message on, and it’s their responsibility – having invited us to produce this report – to decide whether they can act on it,” he said.

In Australia, all eyes must now turn to the country’s newest iteration of Coalition government, which has given up all pretense of factoring emissions into energy policy and seems to prides itself on “not entering the debate” on climate – even as half of the nation succumbs to extreme drought conditions.

For his own part, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has gone all out to appear robustly blasé on the topic, telling the ABC’s Insiders program that Australia’s efforts to meet its Paris agreement targets would be met “in a canter.”

This is not what the government’s own data says, however. On Monday, Morrison went further, or deeper, backwards, promising not to spend money on climate conferences and “all that nonsense.”

But the recent pearl of wisdom offered by back-bencher Craig Kelly probably more accurately sums up the collective view of global warming help by the increasingly Conservative LNP: “The climate was always dangerous. We didn’t make it dangerous, [and] it’s fossil fuels that protect us from that climate.”

Even if Morrison’s confidence on cutting Australia’s emissions in line with Paris was based in reality, it is not enough – full stop.

Currently, the world is on track for global warming of between 2.7 to 3.7°C by 2100, according to Kelly Levin, a scientist with the nonpartisan World Resources Institute.

And to reach net zero emissions by mid-century – as the IPCC report has said we must – global emissions in 2030 would need to be about 50 per cent less than 2010 levels. Current emissions projections show the world is on track to increase emissions through 2030.

Back in Australia, it will be particularly interesting to see how the IPCC’s message on coal is received – or ignored, as the case may be.

“It’s very clear that in the scenarios of pathways that we have assessed in this report, that coal use goes down very, very substantially by the middle of the 21st Century,” Skea told reporters.

“This is an essential component of any of the transitions that you would need to keep global warming within 1.5°C with either no, or limited overshoot.

“So again, that’s a clear message to the countries, I mean, we can’t decide on countries’ energy policies… We can tell them, as we were invited, what would need to happen to put you on that pathway,” he said.

“But the question as to whether this will happen… this is over to the governments when they meet in Poland at the end of the year, and work on the evidence that we have provided them with.”

“The message is that countries will need to co-operate. We don’t have a top down agreement with Paris – it’s bottom up. But they need to take collaborative and coordinated action if we’re actually going to achieve a goal of 1.5°C of warming.

“The message is: over to governments at this stage. We’ve told you the scientific facts, the evidence, the cost, it is up to the governments, now, to decide what to do with it.”

And there’s not much time to get it right.

“The report shows that we are at the crossroads, and what is going to happen from  now until 2030 is critical, especially for CO2 emissions” said France’s Masson-Delmotte (pictured above).

That’s just under 12 years – or in more provincial terms, four terms of future Australian governments.

And as the UK’s co-chair, Skea added, making substantial reductions in fossil fuel generation within that period is not optional, but essential.

“(It’s not) reforestation or fossil fuels,” Skea pointed out. “Saying option option x or option y is not the way this report is framed. The word ‘or’ does not work in relation to the addition of 1.5°C warming. The only linking word you can use is ‘and’.

“There is a very clear message, that in the pathways that we have assessed, that all options need to be exercised in order to achieve the kind of level of ambition of 1.5°C.

“We can make choices about how much of each option we use, and trade off a bit between them, but the idea that you can leave anything out is not possible.”

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