Did last Monday mark a tipping-point in the climate change debate? No-one could claim that the release of the new special report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C failed to make an impact. Commissioned by the UN in the wake of the historic 2015 Paris Climate Accord, it’s an impressive, exhaustive and authoritative piece of work, created by 132 authors drawing on over 6000 peer-reviewed articles and distilling their findings into a meaty 700-page document. The IPCC has been producing thought-provoking reports for over 25 years, but arguably none has achieved quite as much cut-through as this latest offering.
The report develops its position from a clear starting-point: the world has already warmed by 1°C (average) compared with pre-industrial levels, resulting in unwelcome consequences such as more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice. It goes on to argue that this figure is likely to rise to 1.5°C at some point between 2030 and 2052, presenting the world with a $54 trillion bill and leaving a trail of environmental and ecological damage that will have serious implications for coastal communities, food security, water security and much more besides. But most shocking of all, achieving even this unappetising outcome will require radical changes to the way we live – and, not least, rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, with net-zero emissions the goal by mid-century.
Ratcheting up the heat even further (in every sense), the report uncompromisingly spells out the cost of failure. Should the rise in global temperatures creep above 1.5°C and reach 2°C, the global bill will grow to $69 trillion, sea levels will rise an additional 10cm by 2100 and coral reefs will virtually disappear. It’s worth noting, however, that the current scientific consensus is that the world is on track for an even bigger rise of 3°C – with potential impacts of a different order altogether…
The blunt message, then, is that the global community needs to act now – or pay later.
The report will definitely provide plenty of discussion points for the upcoming Climate Change Conference due to take place this December in Katowice, which should prove an ‘interesting’ choice of venue in view of Poland’s robust determination to keep burning its coal resources to meet its power and industrial-process needs. For the global combustion industry, meanwhile, the new report presents no shortage of food for thought. Interpreted by many commentators as sounding the final death knell for fossil fuels, this arresting document certainly constitutes a clear manifesto for a decisive switch to clean energy. As the old saying goes, there really is no alternative.
But must this inevitably mean a fossil fuel wipe-out and combustion becoming restricted to a green redoubt based on the burning of biofuels or ‘green’ hydrogen (i.e. derived from renewable energy sources)? Or does it create real momentum for change and fresh incentives for innovation, with opportunities for more urgent action in areas such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and so-called ‘blue’ hydrogen? As policy-makers worldwide strive for realistic answers to the threat posed by climate change, can the sector deliver a suite of next-generation solutions on a uniquely challenging timescale? Can it make the case for combustion in a world where the green debate appears to be taking another dramatic turn?
In many ways and on many levels, the IPCC special report makes worrying reading. At its heart, though, it throws down a gauntlet that industry, academics, governments and society as a whole need to take up with minimal delay. Climate change is a problem with no single, simple fix. But the future is yet to be written.