This week, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the Synthesis Report, the fourth installment of their sixth Assessment Report (AR6). The Synthesis Report brings together the findings of the three previous AR6 reports and draws on the findings of hundreds of scientists to provide a complete picture of the status, impacts, and potential solutions for global climate change. According to the findings, global communities are currently experiencing climate-related losses affecting their homes, livelihoods, and health. These communities stand to lose even more as violent weather extremes and water scarcity become more common as we move toward climate tipping points.
This week’s report clearly illustrates how, without significant and immediate action, the consequences of rising temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions will become amplified and irreversible.
The good news is, there is still time to act. In its report, the IPCC maps out pathways to limit warming and support impacted communities, ecosystems, and economies. Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels—a hard limit that prevents severe, difficult-to-reverse impacts of climate change—will require a sustained emissions reduction of 60% by 2035, compared to 2019 levels. These must be paired with significant increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide removal and efforts to increase the resilience and adaptability of our most vulnerable ecosystems and communities.
Below are Carbon Direct’s four key takeaways from the 2023 IPCC Synthesis Report.
Progress, but more is needed, fast
One noteworthy change since the last Synthesis Report was published in 2014 is the need to move quickly in all sectors. While the progress to date proves that lasting, meaningful emissions reduction is possible, current public and private sector efforts fall short of the mitigation pathways laid out by the IPCC. This underscores an urgent need for widespread, drastic public policy changes in tandem with decarbonization options, including sizable commitments to new technology and infrastructure.
To meet targets, we now need an all-of-the-above approach that includes aviation, agriculture, shipping and heavy industry. These sectors are difficult, very expensive, or impossible to electrify, demanding innovative approaches including clean fuels and direct carbon management.
Notably, the IPCC Synthesis Report shows a renewed focus on both carbon dioxide reduction and removal—actions to be taken in the near term, approaching 2030, and in the critical decades beyond. The new report also recognizes that the risk of overshoot (exceeding our carbon budgets) is very high. This leads to an important scientific finding: Carbon removal must play an essential role in achieving key climate goals.
Carbon removal is more important than ever
Ten years ago—the last time the IPCC published a full Assessment Report—carbon dioxide removal was a small part of global climate change conversations. Today, the scientific community sees carbon dioxide removal as a necessary and scalable solution that complements other climate actions. According to the report “reaching net zero GHG emissions primarily requires deep reductions in CO2, methane, and other GHG emissions, and implies net-negative CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) will be necessary to achieve net-negative CO2 emissions.”
As one promising carbon management option, carbon capture and storage offer the option to permanently store emissions, reducing outputs from existing facilities and infrastructure. According to the report, “global modeled mitigation pathways reaching net zero CO2 and GHG emissions include transitioning from fossil fuels without carbon capture and storage (CCS) to very low- or zero-carbon energy sources, such as renewables or fossil fuels with CCS, demand-side measures and improving efficiency, reducing non-CO2 GHG emissions, and [carbon dioxide removal].” In their inclusion of carbon capture and storage among a list of mitigations, the IPCC marks it as essential to emissions targets.
Accounting for justice and equity in carbon removal
Despite the promise, carbon dioxide removal, like many forms of emissions mitigation, has social, economic, and environmental sustainability implications. Just as the impacts of climate change stand to disproportionately impact indigenous and disinvested communities, the report warns that some removal programs can also have adverse effects, stating that the ”impacts, risks, and co-benefits of [carbon dioxide removal] deployment for ecosystems, biodiversity and people will be highly variable depending on the method, site-specific context, implementation and scale.”
As a solution, the IPCC Synthesis Report calls for more engagement through “attention to equity and broad and meaningful participation of all relevant actors in decision making at all scales” to help build trust, and fairly share the benefits and burdens of removal programs. We note that residual threats to biodiversity, water, and underserved populations require expertise, focus, attention, and a trained workforce—all of which are underdeveloped in many climate mitigation efforts.
The call for scalable carbon management and removal
Greater ambition in climate must now be married to greater action. The new IPCC Summary Report highlights undisputed climate math and nests it in compelling, comprehensive science, leading to a clear message that both reductions and removal strategies are necessary to limit the impacts of climate change.
That said, the urgency of the problem has placed us beyond the old domain of moral hazard and partial implementation, as all of the above is the new recipe for success. As the science and means for action scale, it is imperative that we do what we can to learn more and improve. Scientists, business leaders, and policymakers should all strive for a deeper understanding how, when, and which carbon management tools and technologies should be used to be effective and equitable to achieve just and sustainable ends.
This article is also published in Carbon Direct. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.