‘Humanity on thin ice’ says UN, but there is still time to act on climate change

Here's what you need to know about the IPCC's latest report.
The sun shining on glaciers.
Carbon pollution and fossil fuel use must be reduced by nearly two-thirds by 2035 in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Deposit Photos

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their Sixth Synthesis Report on climate change (AR6), following a week-long meeting in Switzerland. The up to 50 page-long report finds that there is still a chance for humanity to avoid the worst of climate change’s future harms, but it might be our last chance.

“This report can be summarized as a message of hope,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee in a press conference. “This report clearly emphasizes that we do have technology and know how and tools to solve climate problems.” These are the major takeaways from the new report.

We must reduce fossil fuel emissions by 2035

According to the report, carbon pollution and fossil fuel use must be reduced by nearly two-thirds by 2035 in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change. More than 100 years of burning fossil fuels, in addition to unequal and unsustainable energy and land use ,has led to global warming of 2°F above pre-industrial levels. This increase has caused more frequent and intense extreme weather events, and makes the world more dangerous for life in every region of the planet.

[Related: Here’s how global warming will change your town’s weather by 2080.]

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an end to all new fossil fuel exploration by 2040. Additionally, he called for carbon-free electricity generation in the developed world as early as 2035.

“Humanity is on thin ice — and that ice is melting fast,” Guterres said. “Our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once.”

The report also says that investment and adaptation measures to climate change must be ramped up to reach the goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement of limiting the amount of warming to 2.7°F.  The world has already warmed 2°F, making it a few tenths of a degree away from some of the most dire effects of climate change. Earlier IPCC reports detailed the harms at this level of warming, which includes worsened storms, famine, and sea level rise. 

Adaptation and mitigation has huge net benefits

AR6 also outlines that the solutions lie in climate resistant development, which provide wider benefits to society as a whole. Better access to clean energy and technology can improve health outcomes, particularly for women and children. Low-carbon forms of transportation (walking, cycling, public transit, etc.) can improve air quality. The economic benefits from improving people’s health by reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be roughly the same or possibly greater than the costs it will take to reduce emissions. 

[Related: Pandemic shipping took a heavy toll on the climate.]

The panelists at the press conference stressed how actions this decade are crucial to ensure a safe future and that this report points to the co-benefits from acting now will have more than the IPCC’s report from 2014 (AR5).  

Political and financial will is key

The report also highlights the imperative role of financing adaptation and mitigation measures. The authors found that while government’s are key to enforcing policy, the financial sector must play their role too. 

“At the core, the financial system needs to be able to respond to the challenges ahead,” said Amjad Abdulla, IPCC Vice Chair. “There’s plenty of financing that’s available for multiple reasons and multiple activities, but our underlying assessment suggests, in that context, the investments that need to take place in both climate adaptation and mitigation needs to rise by three to six times at least.”

The report and press conference focused on the disparity between rich and developing nations, as wealthier nations cause more carbon dioxide emissions, while poorer countries get hit harder by extreme weather. The report calls for an increase in financial help for developing countries to adapt to a warmer world and switch to environmentally sustainable forms of energy. Following the UN’s Climate Conference in November 2022, financial pledges were made for a damage and compensation fund for developing countries

[Related: 3 of the the biggest climate decisions from COP27.]

The report is based on data from a few years ago, and does not take into account fossil fuel projects that are already in development and comes one week after President Biden approved the massive Willow oil project in Alaska. This new site could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day and is seen by some political columnists and Democrats as a betrayal by President Biden. 

“The Synthesis Report makes clear that we need swift and bold action to have any chance of averting the worst of the climate crisis. Under President Biden’s leadership, the U.S. has made historic progress in building an equitable clean energy economy, including the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act,” said Jill Tauber, EarthJustice Vice President of Litigation for Climate & Energy, in a press release. “However, the administration is undermining its own gains by greenlighting carbon bombs, like the Willow project, which would lock us into decades of more greenhouse gas emissions.”

In tandem with the reports findings, the World Resources Institute also points to fact that it is not too late to work to ensure a better future for the planet. 

“Despite their dire warnings, the IPCC offers reasons to be hopeful,” said World Resources Institute President and CEO Ani Dasgupta, in a press release. “The report shows a narrow path to secure a livable future if we rapidly correct course. This involves deep emission reductions from every sector of the economy, as well as much greater investments to build resilience to climate impacts and support for people facing unavoidable climate losses and damage.