Writing a report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is not easy during a pandemic. With scientists scattered across the globe, it meant a lot of strategizing across time zones with early-morning and late-night Zoom calls.
But for Stephanie Roe, a lead author of the latest IPCC report and the climate and energy lead at World Wildlife Fund, the “grueling” processes were more than offset by the pleasure of learning from other scientists.
“Being able to go through thousands and thousands of pages of scientific papers, to be able to assess the science, and get the time to read it was a real pleasure as a scientist,” she told co-host Ty Benefiel on the final episode of Climate Citizen, a new, four-part podcast series developed in collaboration between Global Citizen and The Climate Pod that covers topics like climate justice, biodiversity, and mitigating the crisis.
Roe’s conversation on the podcast came a week after the IPCC report on climate mitigation efforts was released, and she helped break down the main takeaways for the audience.
First off: The scientific warnings about the climate crisis keep getting starker.
“Our greenhouse gas emissions have increased to their highest level in human history, so we’re going in the wrong direction, and the window to limit warming to 1.5 degrees is closing rapidly,” Roe said.
Based on current trajectories, the world is on track to warm more than 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century. But current trajectories are not set in stone, and the new IPCC report makes a compelling case for the viability of transformative climate action.
“There are solutions available now that can more than halve emissions by 2030 to keep us within limiting that 1.5 degree warming target,” Roe said. “And those include a lot of the same measures that we know, including shifting to renewables, electrification, energy efficiency, improving planning of our cities and transport systems, the conservation and restoration of ecosystems, and also lifestyle changes and behavioral changes.”
Roe said that climate solutions are cheaper than they have ever been, with 50% of the options recommended in the report costing less than $20 per ton of carbon.
The cost of wind, solar, and batteries for energy storage have fallen by over 85% over the past decade, making them a cheaper option than fossil fuels in many cases.
“We clearly have the tools to tackle the climate crisis, but they need to be deployed immediately at a much larger scale, on an unprecedented scale, to be able to limit to 1.5 degrees and reduce the severity of climate impacts,” Roe said.
Roe focused on the part of the report that deals with nature-based solutions and land management.
Around a fifth to a quarter of all emissions come from managed lands, as countries convert natural carbon sinks — areas that absorb and store carbon — into industrial agriculture, urban areas, and various forms of built infrastructure.
Currently, the natural world absorbs around a third of all greenhouse gasses. When these land and marine spaces are degraded or converted, they not only lose their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, they also release it into the atmosphere.
Deforestation, in particular, is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions, Roe said.
But efforts have been made to slow forest loss in parts of the world, and conversation efforts are growing. In Indonesia, for example, a moratorium on peatland conversion stabilized the country’s forest cover.
“It shows that when you implement policies that are effective, they can have a big effect on reducing emissions from deforestation,” she said. “But of course they are prone to reversal given the situations and conditions within those countries.”
Very few countries are investing enough in conservation and restoration efforts, the IPCC report shows. Whereas climate actions across the board need three to five times as much investment to get us on the right emissions reductions pathway, the land sector needs 10 to 30 times as much investment.
One key area for investment, Roe said, would be to redirect harmful agricultural subsidies — which account for around 80% of the $700 billion spent in this way, annually — to regenerative agriculture and other forms of ecological repair.
Agriculture is the single largest driver of deforestation worldwide.
“Being able to redirect or repurpose those subsidies to better, productive action and practices would be a really big opportunity,” Roe said.
One country that saw a major reversal in environmental fortune has been Brazil, which had been reducing deforestation for years prior to the election of President Jair Bolsonaro who stripped forest protections and weakened the land rights of Indigenous communities. Now, the Amazon rainforest is facing rapid decline and could pass a catastrophic tipping point in the years ahead.
But efforts are being taken by activists, communities, and local governments throughout the country to protect the environment.
Later in the episode, co-host Brock Benefiel is joined by Max Almeida, a program project manager at the Center for Environmental Peacebuilding, who speaks about the impacts of deforestation and desertification, and ongoing issues with biodiversity loss and land degradation in Brazil.