Policy Watch: The IPCC has given us a roadmap to a safe future for humanity. But will we follow it?

U.S. Energy Secretary Granholm and White House National Climate Adviser Zaidi view electric vehicles at the Washington Auto Show in Washington
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm views an electric Cadillac LYRIQ 450E on a visit to the Washington Auto Show in Washington, U.S. January 25, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

March 30 - Do countries need a Ministry for the Future, a body charged with defending all creatures, both today’s and those yet to come, as in Kim Stanley’s Robinson’s novel of the same name?

It’s been 33 years since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced its first assessment of the threat of climate change. Its latest Synthesis Report paints a bleak picture of how little we’ve done. 2030, the year by which emissions must halve if we’re to limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees, is now within sight, not so far in the future as to be unimaginable. However, we’ve already reached 1.1C degrees of warming, with emissions still rising and no sign of a cut in subsidies for fossil fuel consumption.

There’s still a chance to bend that emissions curve if only today’s governments will grasp it, say the IPCC authors. There are “tried and tested policies and practices that can work in diverse contexts to reduce the emissions and advance climate resilience, but they need to be scaled up and applied more widely,” IPCC chair Hoesung Lee told journalists at a briefing to launch the report.

Even in the UK, which in 2008 adopted pioneering legislation for climate action, progress has stalled. It took the High Court to force the government to revise its net zero strategy, to meet its obligations under the Climate Change Act.

But the policies, announced at the end of March, have failed to impress. Climate think tank E3G described them as “underwhelming”. Just days before the government unveiled the new strategy, its climate advisors lambasted the government’s failure to act on adaptation.

Launching the Climate Change Committee's latest assessment, Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, who leads on adaptation at the Climate Change Committee, was blunt: “The last decade has been a lost decade in terms of preparing for and adapting to the risks, the risks we already have, and those that we know are coming.”

A view of the damage in the aftermath of cyclone Kevin, in Port Vila, Vanuatu March 4, 2023, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Yacht Delivery Solutions/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.

Will court cases be enough to effect global change? Around the world, there has been successful legal action taken by NGOs against government and companies for failing to act. The UN recently passed a resolution asking the International Court of Justice to advise on the duties of states to combat climate change, and the legal consequences of disregard, including for “present and future generations affected by the adverse effects of climate change”. The island state of Vanuatu, reeling from two recent strong tropical cyclones, has been pressing for the resolution for four years.

Anders Wijkman, who chairs the board of Climate-KIC, a public private partnership for low-carbon innovation in Europe, is sceptical. “When you look back at history, there is not one example of a peaceful transformation in a society without war or deep crisis. So, I'm afraid we really have to understand that transformation doesn't happen unless we are really pushed against the wall,” he said.

“And Putin pushed us against the wall, so a lot of things are happening that wouldn't (have) without him. But I'm not sure it's fast enough,” he adds.

Europe’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was to launch REPowerEU, designed to end its dependence on Russian oil and gas and transform the bloc’s energy system. However, it has also sent Europe in search of oil and gas from Africa. Now it is ramping up clean-energy investments to counter the threat from the U.S. the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which is already luring companies to U.S. shores. The IRA itself is expected to reduce emissions by 40% (compared to 2005 levels) as well as cut the “social costs” of climate change through, for example, better health outcomes.

Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the non-profit Club of Rome, who leads on its Earth4All initiative, says there are positive signals, but “we just are not pushing the market fast enough to transition out of the biggest polluters. And that is the key.”

She says a change in narrative is needed. “I don't think that governments really understand how to shift the economy away from being dependent on fossil energy, how to enter into really difficult conversations with the oil in the gas sector – but also with other manufacturing sectors – and put in place the capital flows that are really going to enable that shift.”

A climate activist from Extinction Rebellion holds a smoke flare while others carry placards outside the Africa Energy Week Conference as they staged a protest against the oil and gas industry in Cape Town, South Africa October 18, 2022. REUTERS/Esa Alexander TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

There is no shortage of ideas, ranging from reducing demand in the global north to reshaping economics and finance. Most recently, the Energy Transitions Commission has provided a blueprint to get the money flowing across the globe.

“It's not as if the solutions aren’t there. It’s a question of bravery, and leadership from governments,” Dixson-Declève adds.

Next week, informal discussions take place at the U.N. on a Declaration for Future Generations. These form part of the preparations for a Summit of the Future, in 2024, aimed at re-enforcing global governance structures and advancing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

“The logic underpinning these proposals is simple,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a policy paper on the summit. “What we do for future generations is also what we need to do for ourselves, which is to take challenges and opportunities that lie in the future far more seriously than we currently do.”

He argues there’s no trade-off between meeting present and future needs. “There is no solution to the problems of the present that does not take a longer-term perspective.”

As the IPCC notes in the Synthesis report, there are challenges and choices to be made. At the end of the press briefing, the IPCC's Lee said: “Let's hope we make the right choices, because the ones we make now, and in the next few years, will reverberate around the world for hundreds, even thousands, of years.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses to delegates during a general assembly to vote on whether to ask top global court to issue opinion on climate responsibility at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, U.S., March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Angeli Mehta is a science writer with a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. Previously, she produced programmes for BBC Current Affairs and has a research PHD. @AngeliMehta