On Monday 20 March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN agency responsible for climate science – released the Synthesis Report of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). The release followed an in-person plenary session, which was held from 13 to 19 March in Interlaken, Switzerland.
There is nothing new under the sun, some might say. In fact, things are changing very rapidly and not for the better. With this new publication, the scientific community is repeating and confirming that climate change is happening everywhere around us. There is an unequivocal consensus among climate scientists on the cause of such change: human activity.
The IPCC points out that ongoing climate change poses a threat to the well-being of humankind, societies, and the natural world. The climate has been warming at an unprecedented rate for at least 2,000 years, and the last decade has been the warmest of the last 125,000 years. This is entirely due to human activity.
It is observable worldwide that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events have increased, causing extensive damage and, in some cases, irreversible losses. IPCC scientists confirm what the public has perceived following the catastrophic events of recent years. The problem is here, and it is happening now.
The effects of climate change are not limited to impacts on territories. They also affect, for example, food production and availability, exposing millions of people – especially the most fragile and vulnerable – to severe food insecurity. In addition, droughts and floods are among the leading causes of humanitarian crises that force people to leave their homes, exacerbating violent conflicts and increasing migration.
Our analyses often point out the interconnectedness between climate and economics. Indeed, climate change is causing massive economic damage, especially to agriculture, fisheries, forestry, tourism, and the productivity of outdoor workers. These impacts are becoming increasingly severe and difficult to manage, as extreme events have cascading effects.
The IPCC 6th Assessment Synthesis Report’s smoking gun: fossil fuels
As for the damage caused by the use of fossil fuels, one can really say: nothing new under the sun. Fossil fuel search, extraction, transportation, and combustion have led to a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions – the cause of climate change – compared with pre-industrial times. Between 2010 and 2019, emissions reached the highest peak ever recorded.
Some IPCC data on energy: in 2019, coal contributed to 33% of all human CO2 emissions, followed by oil (29%) and gas (18%).
Although these are very clear numbers, policymakers are failing to follow them up with equally clear measures. For example, fossil fuels continue to receive significant public and private funding despite the evidence of the impacts of their exploitation. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise in all sectors – particularly in manufacturing and transportation. Sometimes, emission rises are driven by those sectors whose decarbonisation targets are consequently difficult to meet.
More funds for the cause than for the solutions
Between 2019 and 2020, global investments in fossil fuels were higher than those in climate change adaptation and mitigation. In the energy sector, investments in fossil fuel added up to an average of $120 billion per year. An average of $650 billion was invested in oil supply and $100 billion in coal supply. In contrast, global finances spent for adaptation added up to $46 billion.
The delay in the process of decarbonisation of the global economy is also attributable to strong interests of the fossil fuel industry, which, through political lobbying and influence on the media system, has been working for years to promote biased and incomplete messages resulting in incorrect information to citizens and policy makers.
IPCC: “There is limited amount of time left.”
The report highlights that we have a short and rapidly closing time window to ensure a liveable future for the next generations.
As already emerged from previous IPCC publications, national commitments made by governments prior to COP26 are not in line with the goal of keeping the average global temperature increase within 1.5°C – the threshold limit indicated by the scientific community to avoid worsening impacts and the irreversibility of the situation. Current commitments are projected to lead even to a global warming of 2.8 °C by 2100, with potentially devastating consequences.
If emissions are not reduced more rapidly than current policy projections, the resulting global warming will lead to a series of enormous risks and impacts to the Earth’s ecosystem and its “inhabitants”. For example, food production and food security are at great risk. As temperatures rise above 1.5°C, the danger of simultaneous loss of maize crops in several major production areas will increase, thus threatening global supply chains.
Water availability, which already reached a crisis point even in Italy, will also come under increasing pressure due to climate change.
The consequences of climate change will progressively interact with each other and with other risks, with more and more dangerous results. For instance, increased drought and reduced water availability will cause a decrease in agricultural production. This will lead to higher food prices and reduced profits for farmers, resulting in more malnutrition, outbreaks of disease and associated costs to the health care system, and even a growth in mortality related to these factors.
The global economic damage from climate change is already visible today. If the actions that are taken are not timely and ambitious, the costs will be higher. In fact, the cost of inaction is much higher than that required to implement the actions necessary for decarbonisation. The poorest countries will suffer the most. But even the most advanced economies are already seeing the dramatic impacts of the climate crisis, and the costs may be even greater than previously estimated. Climate impacts will thus reduce national economic growth and hit public finances, diminishing – as we are already witnessing – the quality of life.
Strong action is needed now: let’s start with energy.
According to the IPPC report, to meet the 1.5°C target, coordinated action is needed. This should allow to integrate adaptation and mitigation into policy decisions and to dramatically reduce reliance on fossil fuels for energy production.
Renewables and energy efficiency are the unquestionable pillars of the decarbonisation of energy, starting with the electricity sector, which must achieve net-zero emissions between 2045 and 2055 globally. This will also create benefits in terms of health and air quality, two climate change-related issues which are often overlooked when discussing the energy transition.
Global use of coal, oil, and gas will have to be reduced by respectively 100, 60, and 70 percent by 2050. This also implies a reduction in fossil fuel-related infrastructure, notably in the construction of new ones. Climate change adaptation policies are important, in particular to lessen impacts. Yet adaptation alone is obviously not enough without mitigation policies, because the more slowly emissions are reduced, the greater the loss and damage will be.
Most adaptation measures to date have been piecemeal, small-scale, incremental, and taken in response to current impacts and medium-term risks. Although the situation has recently improved, the scarcity of international financial resources for adaptation is preventing the most vulnerable countries from adapting to climate change.
IPCC: “There is some good news”
Important reductions in the unit cost of solar power (85%), wind power (55%) and lithium-ion batteries (85%) were observed over the 2010-2019 period. Consequently, important increases have also come with respect to their deployment. Photovoltaics and onshore and offshore wind power plants can now compete with fossil fuels on the levelled off cost of energy in many places. Moreover, many countries’ power systems already predominantly rely on renewable energy. Energy storage by battery is also more and more technically feasible and cost-effective.
Electric vehicles are increasingly competitive with internal combustion engines and are the fastest growing segment of the automotive sector, having reached double-digit market share in many countries in 2020. Electrification of public transport has also been shown to be a feasible, scalable, and affordable option for decarbonising mass transportation.
Data show that there is a way forward that not only allows emissions to be reduced, but also enables the revitalization of many productive sectors, creating important new value chains as well as economic and employment growth.
What can be done in Italy?
Italy, as well as other EU member states, has a great opportunity to change course and direct climate action toward a rapid fossil fuel phase out and a consequent reduction in climate-changing emissions. That opportunity is to be found in the revision of the National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP).
A report on the NECP review is available here.
The NECP is the tool with which policies and measures to achieve the 2030 energy and climate goals can be identified. It is the actualization of the pledges under the Paris Agreement.
However, the NECP goes far beyond the 2030 targets. Indeed, the process of decarbonisation implies the transformation of all sectors of the economy and society, to shift from a world in which development and prosperity were strictly determined by the use of fossil fuels, to one in which this link is phased out in the timeframe and quantities defined by science.
In the revision of the NECP, choices will have to be made. To make them, it is crucial to understand their impact, as well as the resources and requirements needed to address the transition. These choices are inevitable due to Italy’s location, which is to say, at the centre of the Mediterranean region’s climate hotspot. In practice, decarbonisation policies and measures will also affect the lives and consumption of citizens. How will homes be made more efficient, thus lowering household bills? What will the mobility look like in the future? Will it enable us to have cleaner air? What path will our manufacturing industry have to follow to avoid losing competitiveness and to reorient itself toward ‘carbon free’ productions, investing in its transformation? What will be the measures to mitigate the damage on agriculture and tourism?
This is a momentous challenge, which requires the participation of everyone in order to ensure breadth, vision, and transparency, and it is the only way for our country to be able to give those quick and concrete answers that climate scientists have been demanding for years.
Photo by Matt Palmer