UN Scientists: Only Drastic Lifestyle Changes Can Slow Climate Crisis

A comprehensive report by a panel of UN scientists details a long list of effective and available steps to slow the crisis. 'As emissions rise, so do the risks. The measures taken thus far are too weak,' says one expert

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
Emissions rise from the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant in Emmett, Kansas, on September 18, 2021
Emissions rise from the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant in Emmett, Kansas, on September 18, 2021Credit: Charlie Riedel/ AP
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The UN panel of climate scientists states in a comprehensive report published on Monday that the rate of technological development and policy measures designed to deal with the climate crisis have thus far not succeeded in changing the growth trend of greenhouse gas emissions. This fact increases the significant risks to humans around the world due to the climate crisis.

The UN scientists present not only grim data, but also detail a long list of effective and available steps to slow the crisis – not only on the technological front, but the socioeconomic one as well. Couched in diplomatic language, the scientists clarify that technological innovations, or steps such as carbon taxes, will not suffice, and they state that without real changes in consumption, housing, and transportation habits, as well as the way food is grown and manufactured, it will be impossible to cope with the climate crisis.

“The report shows that we have not managed to bend the emissions graph, but only to flatten it somewhat,” says Ottmar Edenhofer, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “As emissions rise – the risks grow. The measures taken thus far are too weak, and so we need new policy measures.”

The UN climate scientists panel (IPCC) represents the most updated and proven knowledge on climate matters, and hundreds of scientists from around the world took part in preparing the report. This report was created by “workgroup number three” of the IPCC, which focused on steps to slow and stop the crisis. Reports by workgroups one and two were published over recent months, in which the UN scientists presented the scientific basis for their work, and determined that the crisis is worse than thought thus far.

In the current report, the panel members determine that over the past two decades the trend of increase in greenhouse gas emissions has continued, and that the world has drifted further from the goal set in the Paris Climate Accords – limiting the rise in global temperature to no more than one and a half degrees compared to pre-industrial averages.

Alongside this worrisome trend, the scientists make note of changes that can help slow the crisis. Thus, for example, the costs of producing solar and wind power have dropped dramatically over the past two decades, as have the prices of the batteries which are essential to store such energy. The authors of the report note that there are currently 18 countries around the world which for a decade have been trending downward in greenhouse gas emissions, as part of their transition to a carbonless economy.

Compared to the situation today, the scientists determine that while the growth rate of greenhouse gas emissions has declined during the past decade, the average annual emission of greenhouse gases between 2010-2019 was still the highest compared to any other decade on record. The main cause of emissions is, as it was, the direct burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal by humanity for power production.

The scientists refer to the sources of emissions, noting that power production is the source for 34 percent of all emissions. A further 24 percent come from industry, and 22 percent from farming, forestry, and other land uses.

Transportation accounts for 15 percent of emissions and buildings account for six percent. The calculation changes if the buildings are viewed as end consumers of power produced for electricity and heating – and then they become a significant source of emissions.

In addition, the inequality between populations in various regions of the world, in regard to responsibility for emissions, is dramatic. This, the highest-earning 10 percent of households account for as much as 45 percent of all emissions. Due to difficulties in collection and processing of data there is a margin of error to this figure, but the trend is clear.

“We are at a crossroads,” says Hoesung Lee, who heads the IPCC panel that authored the report. “The decisions we make today can create a safe future for life on earth. We have the means and the knowledge to limit the rate of global warming.”

Significant gaps

Scientists note that to meet the 1.5 degree goal, greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 and then begin to decline, so that the global emission rate would decline by 43 percent by the end of the decade. Methane emissions would have to drop by at least one third, as it is a gas with high damage potential.

Even if the scenario of a sharp drop in greenhouse gas emissions comes to pass – a highly unlikely occurrence – the world may still miss the 1.5 degree goal, but this could be corrected if the decline in emissions continues through the middle of the century. If the world reaches zero emissions by this point in time, global temperature will stabilize at 1.5 degrees higher than the pre-industrial average.

Reaching zero emissions by 2070 will lead to a rise of two degrees. The difference is expected to be dramatic. The report notes that the technology of carbon capture and underground storage still faces severe technological and economic difficulties. Many in the gas and oil industries support such solutions as they seemingly enable the continued burning of fossil fuels.

The report states that a basic condition for reducing emissions at the required rate is raising the funds needed for investment in various technologies.

The IPCC also addresses aspects of changing consumer habits and urban planning, necessitating far-reaching changes in lifestyle. Among other things, they address the need to change eating habits and switch to a diet based less on meat and more on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes.

Reusing refuse, and switching to multi-use products with long use terms can also contribute directly and indirectly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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