scorecardresearch Skip to main content

‘A file of shame’: Major UN climate report shows world is on track for catastrophic levels of warming

Flames burned near power lines in Sycamore Canyon near West Mountain Drive in Montecito, Calif.Mike Eliason/Associated Press

The world is on track to usher in a devastating level of global warming, warns a major report from the world’s leading climate scientists.

“It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said of the study in a statement.

To avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis, the analysis from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, leaders must make radical, immediate changes. That includes rapidly phasing out the use of fossil fuels.

The world has already warmed by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution, chiefly due to the burning of coal, oil, or gas. The more ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement aim to limit warming to 1.5 degrees; crossing that threshold would exacerbate hunger, conflict, and drought globally, destroy at least 70 percent of coral reefs, and put millions at risk of being swallowed by rising seas.

The world has only a 38 percent chance of achieving that goal, the new report says.

Advertisement



The report is the third of three crucial documents from the UN body released over the past eight months. While the first two studies examined the causes and effects of the climate crisis, Monday’s report focuses on what the world can do to fight it.

UN scientists have long warned that expanding fossil fuel infrastructure will make the 1.5-degree target unattainable. But the new report, released Monday, goes even further, showing that even continuing to operate existing infrastructure until the end of their lifespans would put that target out of reach.

“We cannot keep warming below catastrophic levels without first and foremost accelerating the shift away from all fossil fuels, beginning immediately,” said Nikki Reisch, climate and energy Program Director at the Center for International Environmental Law, in a statement.

Advertisement



Any chance of meeting the 1.5-degree target will require the world to use 95 percent less coal, 60 percent less oil, and 45 percent less gas by 2050.

The only other option, the report says, is to retrofit fossil fuel infrastructure with machines that suck carbon out of the air. But that technology has not been proven to work at scale. Though the use of some carbon capture technology will be “unavoidable,” the authors write, it should mostly be used for sectors that are more difficult to decarbonize, like the manufacturing of steel and cement.

The report says fossil fuel phaseout must be coupled with unprecedented investment in wind, solar, battery storage, and other forms of clean power. Right now, the world is spending far too little on the energy transition — it has to spend three to six times more on renewable power by 2030 to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the scientists say.

Right now, world leaders lack plans to phase out dirty energy sources; they also intend to bring more polluting projects online. If nations follow through with current expansion plans, the authors say they are not confident that global temperature rise won’t exceed 2 degrees Celsius — a level of warming that would vastly increase deadly extreme weather, destroy 99 percent of coral reefs, and make life in many regions untenable.

This puts officials in an uncomfortable position: To secure a livable future, they’ll have to wind down energy projects before they’re paid for.

Advertisement



The report does include small glimmers of hope. It notes that the rate of global greenhouse gas emissions growth has slowed — while emissions increased by more than 2 percent per year between 2000 and 2009, they increased by 1.3 percent every year on average from 2010 to 2019.

But that level of success is wholly insufficient, the report warns. To keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, global emissions must plummet by 45 percent this decade. Under the current climate pledges agreed upon by the international community, emissions would increase by 14 percent.

The report comes as world leaders are scrambling to replace oil and gas from Russia amid the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Last week, President Biden called on domestic fossil fuel producers to increase their output, instating a “use it or lose it” policy wherein companies sitting on unused oil and gas leases will be penalized for a lack of production. Some UK officials are calling for an increase in gas production within their nation’s borders as well.

“This is madness,” said Secretary General Guterres earlier this month.

Plans to increase gas infrastructure are especially troubling because though the fuel has been sold as a cleaner alternative to oil and coal, the main ingredient in natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide in the short term. Any path to limiting warming will require major, rapid cuts to methane emissions, the authors say.

Advertisement




Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.