The report warns the world is off-track if it’s to limit global warming to 1.5°C this century, making the case for urgent action and investment in developing emission-removal and low carbon technology.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released a new report on the scientific, technological, environmental, economic and social aspects of climate change mitigation.
Worldwide, climate policies are being stepped up, investment is growing, and low carbon technologies are being deployed more widely and at lower cost than ever before.
Nevertheless, the report suggests that the cumulative impact of those policies remains well short of what is needed to limit warming to 1.5°C this century.
Closing this gap will depend to a large extent on how we utilise existing infrastructure and develop and deploy new infrastructure.
Here are five takeaways for infrastructure planners, investors and engineers.
1. Current policies will not stop 1.5°C warming
Globally, the number of policies and laws directed at climate mitigation has grown consistently since the previous IPCC assessment in 2014.
However, pledges set out in countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) announced prior to COP26 still mean it’s likely that warming will exceed 1.5°C this century.
The IPCC warns that avoiding this outcome will require ‘rapid and deep, and in most cases, immediate’ emissions reductions across all sectors.
2. Emissions can still be halved by 2030, but urgent action is needed
Nevertheless, the evidence shows that making those cuts is doable and global emissions could be halved by 2030. Action is needed very quickly, but the tools and technology already exist.
Options including solar and wind energy, energy efficiency and demand side management are technically viable, increasingly cost effective and generally supported by the public.
The report highlights dramatic falls in the cost of several low-emission technologies from 2010-2019, including solar power (85% cost reduction), wind energy (55%) and lithium-ion batteries (85%).
This has been achieved alongside large increases in their deployment, although with wide regional variations.
3. Deploying engineered emission removal technology is unavoidable
In contrast to those gains, however, larger-scale mitigation technologies, such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), have seen minimal cost reductions and slower deployment.
The report also makes clear that engineered carbon dioxide removal solutions will be necessary to achieve net zero in hard-to-abate sectors, including industry, aviation and shipping.
In the power sector, there’s a need to either retire fossil fuel plants early or retrofit them with CCS technology.
These technologies face various feasibility hurdles. Nevertheless, a 2021 study by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) urged the UK government to commit to the wide-scale deployment of new removal technologies by 2030.
4. Climate finance is up – but well below the level required
Climate finance flows rose by 60% from 2013/14 to 2019/20. However, growth has slowed.
Investment is unevenly spread across regions and sectors, and the total is well below the IPCC’s target of $100bn per year of climate finance by 2020.
In contrast, public and private finance flows towards fossil fuels remain greater than those towards climate adaptation and mitigation.
There needs to be an increase in climate mitigation investment – public, private, domestic and international – across all sectors and regions.
5. Low carbon technology will cost less than sticking with fossil fuels
While the investment challenge is significant, the long-term outlook of acting now is favourable.
Significantly, the IPCC finds that renewables, electric vehicles and energy efficiency measures would save money compared to continuing with fossil fuel alternatives.
The report suggests that the economic benefits of limiting warming to 2°C through mitigation measures outweigh the costs in most scenarios.
It also notes that climate adaptation and mitigation are critical to sustainable development.
In short: the net zero transition is affordable, inaction is not.
ICE’s view on the IPCC climate mitigation report
The IPCC’s findings are a stark warning of the scale of the challenge the world faces to limit global warming to 1.5°C and mitigate the impact of climate change.
As another IPCC report made clear last month, that impact is already being felt with extreme and slow-onset events compromising infrastructure systems worldwide.
However, there is a worldwide implementation gap between ambitious national targets and the actual emissions projected under current policies.
This is a familiar picture in the UK. Here, the government’s ambitious, legally binding 2050 net zero target has not yet been backed up with the detailed policies required to deliver it.
Last month, the NIC warned the government that inaction on key fronts – notably decarbonising heating and transportation – is putting its climate objectives at risk.
Meanwhile, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) cautioned that there is still no clear understanding of how much the transition to net zero will cost and how it will be funded.
As the latest IPCC report shows, the case for action is clear but time is short and answering these questions is increasingly urgent.