The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC, released today, heralds the end of the fossil fuel era. We have entered a new reality where fossil fuel companies have lost their legitimacy and social licence to operate and where we must embark on a just transition to protect people and their rights as we embrace unprecedented levels of climate action. We need to jump start a collective consciousness to save ourselves.
The most climate vulnerable countries, including the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) showed tremendous foresight when they made and won the case for the 1.5oC goal at COP 21 in Paris. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. We will be safer as a result of their leadership.
The Report shows that the previous goal of 2oC is considerably riskier and more dangerous than 1.5oC. Limiting warming to 1.5oC would reduce the number of people exposed to climate risk and poverty by several millions by 2050. However, the 1.5oC goal is not without risks and these will disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities. For example, 1.5oC pathways include large scale land-use changes to grow fuel for bioenergy that could compete with food production and cause food insecurity.
The Report paints a picture of the pathways to 1.5oC. One pathway will achieve climate justice by ensuring the participation of local communities and indigenous peoples’ in decision making and designing equitable climate actions that protect human rights and enable poverty reduction and sustainable development. The other route to 1.5oC risks increasing inequality, and forcing trade-offs that will disadvantage the poorest and most vulnerable people who are least responsible for climate change. I welcome the fact that this IPCC Report gives more attention to the role of ethics, equity, justice and gender equality than its predecessors, while making clear the fact that poverty reduction and climate action can be mutually beneficial.
Reaching the 1.5oC goal will require adaptation and mitigation at an unprecedented scale and with intense urgency; emissions have to fall dramatically in the next 10 years if we are to reach zero carbon by 2050. This is a challenge for all countries, but particularly for LDCs and SIDS that will have to develop and eradicate poverty without fossil fuels; something that has never been done before. Renewable energy will have to supply 70-85% of electricity in 2050 if we are to achieve the 1.5oC goal, and this means supplying all current electricity consumers as well as the 1.4 billion people who currently have no access to electricity. The report leaves no question that coal has no future and that gas has only a limited future with Carbon Capture and Storage.
The authors of the report looked at six conditions of feasibility to see if reaching 1.5oC was possible within the laws of physics and chemistry, and in terms of technology and investment. For these four conditions they could model and make predictions, but for the last two, the capacity of government and institutions to act, they couldn’t comment. These last two conditions depend on human nature and require political leadership and a readiness to change the way we do business and live on planet earth.
Transitions of the scale needed to achieve the 1.5oC can only be achieved if there is public support for change and sufficient international cooperation to enable all people and all countries to play their part in the transition. The IPCC 1.5oC Report is both a final warning and a call to action. All countries need to follow the courageous leadership of the most climate vulnerable countries, as their vision and their lived experience can inspire ambition and protect us all.
Mary Robinson is the seventh President of Ireland, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Jusice