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IPCC: the world must go renewable
Damian Carrington for The Guardian in Berlin
13th April 2014
Th latest IPCC climate change report says that averting catastrophe is eminently affordable, reports Damian Carrington. A global roll-out of clean energy would shave only a tiny fraction off economic growth, and bring huge benefits in clean air and energy security.
This report puts the fossil fuel companies and their financiers on notice: the era of fossil fuel energy is ending.
Catastrophic climate change can be averted without sacrificing living standards, according to a landmark UN report published on today.
It concludes the transformation required to a world of clean energy and the ditching of dirty fossil fuels is eminently affordable.
The authoritative report, produced by 1250 international experts and approved by 194 governments, dismisses fears that slashing carbon emissions would wreck the world economy.
Going renewable would bring negligible costs, and many benefits
It is the final part of a definitive trilogy that has already shown that climate change is "unequivocally" caused by humans and that, unchecked, it poses a grave threat to people and could lead to lead to wars and mass migration.
Diverting hundred of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluded.
Furthermore, the analysis did not include the benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which could outweigh the costs.
The benefits include reducing air pollution, which plagues China and recently hit the UK, and improved energy security, which is currently at risk in eastern Europe after the actions of major gas-producer Russia in Ukraine.
The new IPCC report warns that carbon emissions have soared in the last decade and are now growing at almost double the previous rate. But its comprehensive analysis found rapid action can can still limit global warming to 2C, the internationally agreed safety limit, if low-carbon energy triples or quadruples by 2050.
"It is actually affordable to do it and people are not going to have to sacrifice their aspirations about improved standards of living", said Professor Jim Skea, an energy expert at Imperial College London and co-chair of the IPCC report team.
"It is not a hair-shirt change of lifestyle at all that is being envisaged and there is space for poorer countries to develop too."
Major political and commercial change
Nonetheless, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change at the lowest cost, the report envisages an energy revolution ending centuries of dominance by fossil fuels and which will require major political and commercial change.
On Thursday, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for an anti-apartheid style campaign against fossil fuel companies, which he blames for the "injustice" of climate change.
Along with measures that cut energy waste, renewable energy - such as wind, hydropower and solar - is viewed most favourably by the report as a result of its falling costs and large scale deployment in recent years.
"Renewables are going to be ubiquitous no matter which part of the world you look at", said Skea. "Every country is pursuing the renewable option at the moment."
The report includes nuclear power as a mature low-carbon option but cautions that has declined globally since 1993 and faces safety, financial and waste management concerns.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) - trapping the CO2 from fossil fuel burning - and then burying it is also included, but the report notes it is an untested technology at large scale and may be expensive.
Biofuels, used in cars or power stations, could play a "critical role" in cutting emissions, the IPCC found, but it said the negative effects of some biofuels on food prices and wildlife remained "unresolved".
Emissions can be cut in the medium term by replacing coal with less-polluting gas, the IPCC states, but gas will then also have to be phased out.
Current climate pledges do not go far enough
The report found that current emission-cutting pledges by the world's nations make it more likely than not that the 2C limit will be broken and it warns that delaying action any further will increase the costs.
Delay could also force extreme measures to be taken including sucking CO2 out of the air. This might be done by generating energy by burning plants and trees, which had absorbed carbon from the atmosphere, and then using CCS to bury the emissions.
But the IPCC warned such warned such carbon removal technologies may never be developed and could bring new risks.
The report's final 37-page summary emerged from a week of negotiations between the 194 countries, with long disputes over contentious sections running until 6am on the last night.
Entire section removed at insistence of rich countries
Objections from rich nations saw the complete removal of a section stating that hundred of billions of dollars a year would have to be paid by developed countries to developing countries, to ensure they grow their cities and economies in a non-polluting way.
Other objections, from major fossil fuel producing nations including Saudi Arabia, led to the weakening of statements that ending the huge subsidies paid for oil, gas and coal would help reduce emissions.
But the final document retained the conclusion that policies to cut carbon could devalue fossil fuels reserves.
"This is a very responsible report", said Professor Andrew Watson, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Exeter who was not part of the IPCC team. He said there were economic and social risks in transforming the energy system to cut carbon.
"However, there are even bigger risks if we do nothing and rely exclusively on being able to ride out climate change and adapt to it."
Welcomed by green groups
Environmental campaign groups, which have previously criticised the IPCC for being too conservative, welcomed the new report. Samantha Smith, leader of WWF's Global Climate & Energy Initiative, said:
"The IPCC report makes clear that acting on emissions now is affordable, but delaying further increases the costs.
"The energy sector is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and, therefore, is the key battleground of change. It is a super strong signal to investors: they can no longer say they did not know the risks."
Oxfam's climate expert Jan Kowalzig said: "This report puts the fossil fuel companies and their financiers on notice: the era of fossil fuel energy is ending."
Damian Carrington edits The Guardian's Environment Section.
This article was originally published in The Guardian and is republished here by kind permission via the Guardian Environment Network.
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