The Synthesis Report published on 20 March 2023 is the final push for climate change mitigation and adaptation from scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the current 6-7 year assessment cycle. It concludes their Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), published in several parts over the course of the last 18 months.
The first report in this series, published in August 2021, laid out the latest evidence for manmade climate change. The second, published in March 2022, described how climate change is likely to affect us. The third instalment, published in April 2022, assesses what we are – and should be – doing about it.
The publication of the final instalment – the Synthesis Report – arrives with little left to be said on the matter. From a scientific perspective, the evidence for and technology to tackle climate change already exist and continue to grow. The synthesis report serves as a reminder of that. It offers a window into what is possible and a warning of what is at stake.
“I think what’s very important in this report is that we really highlight the risks of overshoot,” said Matthias Garschagen, a co-author, in a press statement. “[That means] if temporary temperatures overshoot 1.5°C – currently a tempting assumption in a lot of policymaking – [we risk] losing ecosystems on the way; we would be losing glaciers, coral reefs and so forth. And some of that loss would be irreversible. A very important message here is [though] overshoot might be tempting from a mitigation point of view; it’s not tempting from a risk point of view – it has severe risks. We should really try to avoid that.”
“This IPCC report should be a reminder of what a gift it is that we have the technologies we need to start rapidly cutting emissions from the power sector,” said Dave Jones, head of data insights at cliate think tank Ember, in an email to Energy Monitor. “Solar and wind are super cheap, super effective interventions. Let’s make full use of them to build a safer climate and get a cheaper, more reliable power system in the bargain.”
“Scaling up clean energy has a pivotal role to play in reducing emissions,” said Barbara Flesche, Europe executive vice president at Statkraft, a leading hydropower company, in a comment on the IPCC’s Synthesis Report. In line with its recommendations, she suggested increasing renewables production and strengthening associated supply chains as a means of further driving down the cost of renewables.
“As Europe’s largest generator of renewable energy, we are determined to play our part and look forward to working closely with governments to increase clean energy generation and prevent runaway climate change,” added Flesche.
IPCC Synthesis Report spotlights energy transition shortfalls
“We are walking when we should be sprinting,” were the words of IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee at the Synthesis Report’s press conference launch. He spoke against a backdrop of a PowerPoint presentation that read: “The warning: pace and scale of climate action are insufficient to tackle climate change.”
A notable figure from the new report points out that even in the optimistic scenario where global warming is limited to 1.5°C (2.7°F) with no or limited overshoot, net greenhouse gas emissions will not reach net-zero by mid-century. While in this scenario it is projected that CO2 emissions can reach net-zero, scientists at the press conference stressed that this outcome is an average which would require escalated progress and ambition from many nations.
“In the five years since the IPCC’s sixth cycle began with the special report on global warming of 1.5°C (SR1.5), our window to 1.5°C has rapidly narrowed,” Amir Sokolowski, global director for climate change at CDP, a global non-profit helping companies and cities disclose their environmental impact, said in a press release. “The IPCC’s Mitigation of Climate Change Report last April found that, since SR1.5, the likelihood of staying below 1.5°C under even the most ambitious mitigation pathways has dropped by almost 10% – from 46% in SR1.5 to 38% in AR6.”
“We are seeing significant gaps between plans or ambition and implementation,” he summed up. This is a direct result of governments and corporates in high-emitting economies “failing to implement the needed transformation in a coherent manner”. This lack of commitment to ambition and action for 1.5°C disproportionally affects the most vulnerable across the planet, he noted.
IPCC on disclosure and a just transition
Perhaps the only significant outcome of COP27 held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, last November was an agreement to establish a funding mechanism for loss and damage. The IPCC's Synthesis Report further underscores that climate change is throwing its hardest punches at the most vulnerable – and least culpable – nations.
Dorothy Guerrero, head of policy and campaigns at Global Justice Now, said in a statement: "This stark warning from the world’s leading scientists reaffirms that the climate crisis is a matter of global injustice […] It's clear that serious cash is needed to fund the financial and technical support necessary to address the climate emergency, and the world can’t wait for the present cost of living crisis to pass before this gets into gear". Guerrero argued that fossil fuel companies must be held accountable for their role in causing the crisis.
Data from CDP highlights significant gaps between companies' climate plans and their implementation. Less than 1% of companies reporting through CDP have developed a credible climate transition plan, and just 35% have identified spending or revenue that is aligned with a 1.5°C transition. Only 41% of companies have reported any Scope 3 emissions data, despite supply chain emissions being central to the transition to net zero.
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CDP's data also shows that in the high-impact sectors of oil and gas, electric utilities, automakers and transport, only 8% of companies' targets and decarbonisation pathways are aligned.
“Corporates who did not already heed the warnings of last year’s reports must wake up to the reality that climate change is the single greatest risk to the global economy, and it will impact them directly in the coming years,” said Sokolowski. “Future climate-related risks will depend on the rate, peak and duration of warming and these correlate directly with rate of emission reduction. Such reduction is also essential in any company’s attempt to boost their resilience.”
The IPCC Synthesis Report mirrors the ones that came before without relinquishing hope. Its message is solemn but sanguine: action and ambition so far are not good enough, but the technology exists to get us there. What is left is for the world to embrace a sense of urgency.