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How to Sell ‘Carbon Neutral’ Fossil Fuel That Doesn’t Exist

Energy companies are starting to pitch the idea that planet-warming natural gas can be erased by paying villagers to protect forests. Experts can’t make the math work.

Volunteers clear vegetation that would otherwise stoke wildfires in forests around their village near Mbire, Zimbabwe. Their work is funded, in part, by the sale of fossil fuel thousands of miles away.

Photographer: Cynthia Matonhodze/Bloomberg
By Stephen Stapczynski,Akshat R athi, and Godfrey Marawanyika
August 10, 2021, 9:01 PM PDT

The junior traders at TotalEnergies SE were essentially winging it last September by orchestrating the French energy giant’s first shipment of “carbon-neutral” natural gas. It’s the greenest-possible designation for fossil fuel and an important step in making the company’s core product more palatable in a warming world. Nailing down the deal involved googling and guesswork.

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Total had proposed the trade after learning a client had already purchased two carbon-neutral cargos from rivals at Royal Dutch Shell Plc, according to people with knowledge of the deal who asked not to be named discussing a private transaction. One of these insiders said that only after getting the go-ahead did the inexperienced team attempt to figure out how to neutralize the emissions contained in a hulking tanker full of liquified natural gas. Their first step was to search the internet for worthy environmental projects that might offset the pollution.

‘This whole bush can be razed to the ground if we don’t do what we’re doing,’ says Kembo Magonyo, one of the volunteers.
Photographer: Cynthia Matonhodze/Bloomberg
Thousands of miles away, a Zimbabwean volunteer named Kembo Magonyo would spend the spring months clearing stubborn jumbles of branches near the thickly forested border with Mozambique. Wildfires tend to leap between the two countries, laying waste to trees before anyone can respond. “This whole bush can be razed to the ground if we don’t do what we’re doing,” Magonyo says, hacking away with his machete. His work is organized by a group partly funded by Total’s carbon-neutral deal.
In the complicated new math of climate solutions, villagers clearing brush in southern Africa can end up redefining networks of global commerce worth billions of dollars. Environmental projects stand as shadow partners to emission-heavy energy trades happening far away.
What Total’s gas cargo puts into the atmosphere, the machete-wielding villagers will remove. That’s the theory.
Explore dynamic updates of the earth’s key data points
Open the Data Dash.

But to make it work Total’s pioneers of carbon neutrality first needed to find green projects capable of meeting two requirements: generate carbon credits backed by an international organization, without costing too much. After struggling to come up with an answer, the team set up a meeting with South Pole, a project developer based in Zurich that came recommended by rival traders. That’s how $600,000 from a $17 million LNG transaction ended up, in part, paying for forest protection in Zimbabwe.
The resulting trade looks like a win for everyone. Total kept its promise to investors to shrink its carbon footprint. Impoverished communities received financial support. And the buyer, China National Offshore Oil Corp., cited the shipment as one of the steps it’s taking to “provide green, clean energy to the nation.” But climate experts and even a crucial organizer behind the deal say it will do virtually nothing to decrease carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, falling far short of neutral.
“The claim that you can market the sale of fossil fuels as carbon neutral because of a meager few dollars you put into tropical conservation is not a defensible claim,” says Danny Cullenward, a Stanford University lecturer and policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit group that analyzes climate solutions for impact.

At best, Cullenward says, efforts to prevent deforestation by stopping wildfires can only avoid additional heat-trapping gas released when trees burn. Rural villagers can’t do anything to counteract the large-scale pollution from natural gas, other than making energy traders and consumers feel good for supporting green causes in regions where money is scarce.
Total said in a statement that it conducts due diligence on offset projects and confirmed that it split the cost of offsets in the LNG transaction with Cnooc. The French company declined to discuss details, including prices paid for carbon credits, citing a non-disclosure agreement. Cnooc didn’t respond to requests seeking comment. Total also said it doesn’t count carbon credits in its companywide emissions reports or as part of its plan to reach net zero by 2050. “While an important tool,” the company said, “offsetting cannot be considered as a substitute for direct emissions reductions by corporates, but as a complement.”

Energy Giants Sell 'Carbon Neutral' Natural Gas That Doesn't Exist
WATCH: Energy Giants Sell 'Carbon Neutral' Natural Gas That Doesn't Exist

The use of scientifically defined terms like “carbon neutral” and “net zero” in marketing language introduces additional confusion. Both terms mean balancing any emissions added to the atmosphere with an equivalent amount of removal. Most experts agree that avoiding deforestation isn’t the same as removing greenhouse gases. “This paradigm,” warns Cullenward, “is encouraging a fictitious engine that doesn’t help advance our net-zero goals.”
That view isn’t reserved for outside critics. The leader of South Pole, which helped develop the Zimbabwe project and sold its carbon credits to Total, doesn’t believe forest protection can rectify pollution from natural gas. “It’s such obvious nonsense,” says Renat Heuberger, co-founder of South Pole. “Even my 9-year-old daughter will understand that’s not the case. You’re burning fossil fuels and creating CO₂ emissions.”

By safeguarding forests from the flames, Carbon Green Africa says its volunteers are storing carbon dioxide in the form of trees.
Photographer: Cynthia Matonhodze/Bloomberg
Total’s product started warming the planet at the moment of extraction from the deep-sea Ichthys field off the Australian coast. Every part of its lifecycle generated greenhouse gas. Sending the gas to an export facility through an 890-kilometer (553-mile) pipeline risked leakage of methane, a powerful pollutant that traps 80 times more heat than CO₂ in its first two decades. Chilling the gas into a liquid for shipping wrought additional emissions. Even the tanker that brought the LNG to Shenzhen in southern China burned some of the fuel while sailing.
At the final destination, after Cnooc claimed the cargo last September, the LNG was likely burned to power the city’s countless factories or an electricity grid serving more than 12 million people. This would leave a centuries-long residue of atmospheric CO₂ that Total’s traders had to neutralize. But how much? Total and Cnooc agreed to set the shipment’s emissions at 240,000 metric tons of CO₂, the same amount of pollution generated by 30,000 U.S. households in a year.

The Ichthys LNG terminal in Darwin, Australia, one of the first steps in the long journey made by Total’s supposedly ‘carbon neutral’ natural gas.
Source: Copernicus Sentinel-2 Satellite Image; Sept. 11, 2020

The figure is, at best, a rough estimate since there are too many variables. “No one has convincingly produced an accurate calculation,” says Fauziah Marzuki, an analyst at research group BloombergNEF. “All of these deals are making assumptions.”
If Total’s team started out as rookies at carbon math, South Pole’s experts arrived as old hands. The company has been generating credits for more than 15 years—long before the corporate world took interest in their emissions-erasing power—and today operates in dozens of countries. Over virtual meetings, according to people familiar with the transaction, South Pole’s sales representatives laid out options. The cheapest offsets they had were tied to support for renewable energy projects, while the most expensive helped fund reforestation efforts to plant new trees.

Enough carbon credits to offset a shipment of LNG can cost anywhere between $1 million to $15 million, according to Eurasia Group, a New York-based think tank. Most trades fall on the lower end of the spectrum, in terms of cost and quality. Traders in Asia who have participated in similar deals say the offsets involved usually sell for less than $6 per ton of CO₂.
“We’ve been hearing low single digits,” in terms of what companies pay per ton, says Lucy Cullen, an analyst with energy consultant Wood Mackenzie Ltd. “It makes sense from a commercial standpoint.” By comparison, Bill Gates said in an interview earlier this year that he pays about $600 a ton to suck carbon out of the air using cutting-edge technologies, as a way to offset his personal carbon footprint.
Pollution Breakdown
Combustion makes up the lion's share of emissions in the LNG value chain
Source: BloombergNEF

Total decided to source the bulk of its offsets from the Hebei Guyuan Wind Farm Project, located in a Chinese steel-making province surrounding Beijing. A similar logic linked the wind farm and the forest-fire prevention in Zimbabwe. In this case the electricity generated by the wind turbines would theoretically avoid use of Hebei’s dirty coal-fired power plants. The resulting reduction in emissions, compared to an alternative scenario in which only coal electricity had been used, would form the basis for neutralizing Total’s gas deal.
Total chose to add additional credits from the project in Zimbabwe’s Kariba region, which South Pole co-developed with Carbon Green Africa. Those credits cost more than those from the Chinese wind farm but on average amounted to less than $3 a ton, according to the people familiar with the deal. Total declined to comment, citing the non-disclosure agreement.

Hebei is a steel-making Chinese province just north of Beijing where coal power plants operate alongside wind turbines.
Photographer: Yang Shiyao/Xinhua/Getty Images
Did the money from the deal help lower emissions in China? The Hebei wind farm has been generating clean energy for over a decade, and it’s unlikely it would have ceased doing so without several hundred thousand dollars from Total and Cnooc, says Gilles Dufrasne, policy officer at nonprofit Carbon Market Watch.

Verra, the organization that certified the Hebei credits used in the Total deal, has since updated its policies to exclude large-scale grid-connected renewables. If the wind farm’s operators tried to register as an offset project today, “it would not be accepted,” says Dufrasne.
When climate scientists think about offsets, a key concept they grapple with is called “additionality.” You only balance the carbon scale if you actually remove CO₂ that wouldn’t have been absorbed without your support. It’s an extremely tricky concept that’s prone to abuse. After all, how do you prove that something worse would have happened if you hadn’t intervened?
Carbon Green Africa, the organizer of the Zimbabwe effort backed by South Pole and Total, is working to defend a 785,000-hectare wildlife corridor across four provinces. Volunteers are told that keeping fires at bay is about more than protecting crops and livestock. It’s part of a global mission to arrest global temperatures. By safeguarding forests from the flames, the project is supposed to be keeping CO₂ stored in the form of trees.

But projects like this have become a point of contention. They’re based on a framework known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), a program started under the auspices of the United Nations. The initial goal was to help governments trade offsets with each other so that rich countries might financially support climate action by developing nations. After political leaders couldn’t agree on how the system should work, project developers started marketing the offsets directly to corporations.
Even if work to combat deforestation can’t counteract an LNG shipment, corporate patronage has helped improve life in Mbire, one of the districts in Zimbabwe that’s home to volunteers in the forest-protection project. More than a dozen residents spoke positively about the program during a visit by a Bloomberg Green reporter earlier this year.

Theresa Mutseura, a health administrator at the Chitsungo Mission Hospital, said the project helped set up a biogas digester to power the 65-bed facility. The only hospital in a region with 33,000 people and just two doctors had previously relied on firewood. Zvionere Chaku, 43, said volunteers with Carbon Green taught her how to farm more expensive vegetables in a small garden rather than clearing land.

Zvionere Chaku tends to a vegetable garden in Mbire, Zimbabwe.
Photographer: Cynthia Matonhodze/Bloomberg

Benefits of the program can be measured. The region lost about 0.23% of its tree cover between 2011 and 2020, according to analysis of satellite images by Global Forest Watch, compared with a rate of 0.65% before the project began. Economic growth has also been stronger in the districts covered by the project compared with similar areas, according to gross domestic product figures provided by the local government.
Last year Carbon Green paid Z$215 million ($2.5 million) to Mbire, with the bulk of the funding going to infrastructure projects such as roads and schools that help boost development. About 20% goes directly to environmental protection. “The money was a windfall,” says Tarcisius Mahuni, who runs the local district council from an office decorated in posters for the REDD+ program. The funds from carbon credits were more than triple what local officials had hoped to collect in tax revenue.

Theresa Mutseura works at the Chitsungo Mission Hospital, the only facility serving a population of 33,000. Internet connectivity is so bad that the physicians sometimes have to leave mid-procedure to look up medical information online.
Photographer: Cynthia Matonhodze/Bloomberg

Mbire’s improving infrastructure must also contend with impacts from warming temperatures, made worse by the use of fossil fuel. “We have had droughts, floods, cyclones, hunger and diseases,” says Charles Ndondo, Carbon Green’s managing director who oversees local operations. “If I was not worried about climate change, I would not be running this project.”
This puts on display an uncomfortable truth about the global climate movement: powerful multinational companies can essentially outsource the cleanup of their pollution to faraway places in need of help for a fraction of their profits. Doing so is far cheaper than direct means of removing pollution from their businesses. Carbon Green says the project in Zimbabwe avoids 6.5 million tons of carbon emissions each year while getting, at most, $1.50 per ton; sometimes the group gets paid as little as $0.20.

Heuberger, the co-founder of South Pole, stands by the sale of credits to support the work in Zimbabwe. But it troubles him that Total is using offsets to market natural gas as carbon neutral. His company tells clients they should use such offsets to “take responsibility” for their emissions, not to make claims that they have neutralized ongoing pollution. In a statement, Total said South Pole never raised objections over using the term “carbon neutral.”

In a way, it comes down to semantics. As corporate climate action grows more complex, so do the norms around net-zero goals. There’s growing consensus among top companies that the cheap and abundant credits used by Total—called avoided emissions offsets—should not be used to claim progress towards net zero. That’s why executives are increasingly turning to the phrase “carbon neutral” as a compromise. The term is gaining cache as a way for companies to take credit for supporting environmental projects, even if they haven’t actually removed CO₂ from the atmosphere.

Paltry Offering
Less than 5% of offsets actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
Source: TSVCM inventory analysis for 2020
Note: Avoided emissions credits prevent hypothetical polluting activity
Scientists warn that “net zero” and “carbon neutral” are technical terms and diluting their meanings in marketing campaigns could have a disastrous impact on the global effort to account for emissions and reduce greenhouse gas.
The nuance isn’t lost on Heuberger. The 44-year-old Swiss social entrepreneur has spent almost half his life working on environmental conservation projects in developing countries. It’s been an uphill battle to secure funding for the programs, and Heuberger is grateful for every dollar companies put into South Pole’s projects. It makes sense to him that firms want to tout their environmental contributions, especially to worthy efforts to help improve life for African villagers.But he says the idea that such contributions can make up for selling fossil fuels will do more harm than good. They risk undermining the projects themselves, especially as scrutiny of carbon offsets increases. “These claims are damaging ourselves as well,” Heuberger says.
That’s in part why well-regarded registries such as Gold Standard don’t certify offsets from most REDD+ projects, and many experts including the Science-Based Targets initiative disapprove of using offsets based on avoided emissions to make net-zero claims. It’s possible to claim that some trees are standing today that might have been lost without brush clearing. But it’s just not possible to establish that extra carbon was removed from the atmosphere.

Posters advertising local REDD+ projects line the office walls of Tarcisius Mahuni, who runs the local district council.
Photographer: Cynthia Matonhodze/Bloomberg

Total is writing its own tale on the strength of its first-ever sale of carbon-neutral LNG. It’s the transformation of an old-school energy behemoth into a clean supermajor.

The company spent the last decade investing billions to position itself as one of the world’s top LNG producers and has green-lit new export projects from Russia to Mozambique that are slated to begin operations this decade. For the last 60 years, natural gas has been viewed as a cleaner alternative to coal and crude oil. That’s given companies like Total confidence in its longevity, even in an era of unprecedented climate action.

That future is looking more and more uncertain. The price of solar and wind energy is falling much faster than anyone expected. There’s growing awareness of the climate dangers from leaky pipelines used to transport the gas, which can release large amounts of methane, the super-potent greenhouse gas that’s the main component of LNG. The latest assessment published this week by UN-backed scientists calls for reducing methane emissions in the next 10 years if the world is to meet its climate goals.

The International Energy Agency recently put forward a timeline for keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The use of natural gas would have to fall by more than half its current level, meaning no new gas fields or export terminals should be built from now on.
As a European company, Total is in an awkward position as the continent’s politicians advance the world’s most-ambitious package of climate policies. The goal is cutting emissions 55% from 1990 levels by the end of the decade. Total Chief Executive Officer Patrick Pouyanne said in July that the company would probably aim to accelerate efforts to cut all its emissions, in line with the European Union, if those aggressive climate measures are implemented. In a sign of this shift, Total recently added “Energies” to its name to highlight the increasing share of its business that has nothing to do with fossil fuels.

Even as those changes are underway, Total and its peers in Europe are working to bolster demand for their core product. Labeling LNG shipments “carbon neutral” is one way to satisfy customers who are under pressure from their investors and governments to cut emissions. At least 16 carbon-neutral shipments have changed hands since 2019, and there’s a push from buyers and sellers to do more deals. This is especially true in Asia where two of the world’s top importers—Japan and China—have set targets to zero out emissions.
Asian Demand
Most shipments since July 2019 have gone to Asia
Source: BloombergNEF

None of the energy companies involved have disclosed the math behind their carbon-neutral claims, and there’s no requirement that they do so. While Total says it won’t erase emissions from the LNG shipment it sold to Cnooc from its carbon accounts, there’s no guarantee that Cnooc will take the same approach. The Chinese state-owned company has described the gas shipment as “net-zero carbon emissions” and has indicated that it will rely on similar deals to meet President Xi Jinping’s goal of reaching net zero by 2060. The trade was a “pioneering case in China's natural gas industry to explore carbon-neutral practices,” Cnooc said in a press release announcing the LNG delivery from Total.

This sets a troubling precedent, says Arvind Ravikumar, an assistant professor at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania who studies sustainable development. A nature-conservation project without clear carbon benefits could be used to cancel out emissions for both Cnooc and China, the world’s single biggest polluter.
The credits “help them remove emissions from their annual report on paper without actually ensuring that the amount of emissions gets removed from the atmosphere,” Ravikumar says. “It seems like they have all fallen into the trap of finding the quickest and cheapest way to appear to do something.”

—With assistance from Karoline Kan and Francois De Beaupuy

A resident flees the village of Gouves, on the island of Evia, Greece, on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. Elevated risk of fires is just one of the effects of climate change being felt all over the world.
Photographer: Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg

Climate Scientists Reach ‘Unequivocal’ Consensus on Human-Made Warming in Landmark Report
The first major assessment from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in nearly a decade sees no end to rising temperatures before 2050.
By Eric Roston and Akshat Rathi
August 9, 2021, 1:00 AM PDT Updated on August 9, 2021, 3:59 AM PDT

An epochal new report from the world’s top climate scientists warns that the planet will warm by 1.5° Celsius in the next two decades without drastic moves to eliminate greenhouse gas pollution. The finding from the United Nations-backed group throws a key goal of the Paris Agreement into danger as signs of climate change become apparent across every part of the world.

The latest scientific assessment from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the first time speaks with certainty about the total responsibility of human activity for rising temperatures. The scientists forecast no end to warming trends until emissions cease.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” wrote the authors of the IPCC’s sixth global science assessment since 1990 and the first released in more than eight years. The crucial warming threshold of 2°C will be “exceeded during the 21st century,” the IPCC authors concluded, without deep emissions cuts “in the coming decades.”

Scientists Reach ‘Unequivocal’ Consensus on Climate Change
Scientists Reach ‘Unequivocal’ Consensus on Climate Change
The assessment released on Monday is the work of more than 200 scientists digesting thousands of studies, and an accompanying summary was approved by delegates from 195 countries. More than any other forecast or record, this report’s determinations establish a powerful global consensus—less than three months before the UN’s COP26 international climate talks.

Among the headline findings: The past decade was most likely hotter than any period in the last 125,000 years, when sea levels were as much as 10 meters higher. Combustion and deforestation have also raised carbon dioxide in the atmosphere higher than it’s been in two million years, according to the report, and agriculture and fossil fuels have contributed to methane and nitrous oxide concentration higher than any point in at least 800,000 years.

The full, 3,949-page assessment was released in conjunction with the 42-page “summary for policymakers.” While the latter went through a diplomatic approval process in addition to a scientific one, the former comes directly from scientists. Chapter one of the underlying report includes strong language admonishing Paris signatories, calling their pledges so far under the agreement “insufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emission enough” to keep global warming well below 2°C.
The document is “a code red for humanity,” said Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, in prepared remarks tied to the release. “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet.”

Heat Spike
Humanity has heated the climate to at least a 100,000-year high. All of the warming is caused by human influence.
Source: IPCC AR6 Working Group I report
Note: Diagonally shaded areas show 90%–100% certainty range
Even as the IPCC authors have done away with some of the cautious uncertainty that marked past assessments, the last few months have seen a series of rapid-fire climate disasters that underline the new language. Summertime in the Northern Hemisphere has been marred by severe flooding across Europe and China, as well as alarming drought and the early onset of large wildfires in the Western U.S. and Canada. One of the coldest places on the planet, Siberia, has experienced severe heat and forest fires. Just this past weekend brought disturbing footage of people fleeing sprawling wildfires in Greece.
Nearly all of this can be attributed to human influence. The IPCC found that the combined effects of human activity have already increased the global average temperature by about 1.1°C above the late 19th-century average. The contribution to global warming of natural factors, such as the sun and volcanoes, is estimated to be close to zero. In fact, humans have dumped enough greenhouse gas into the atmosphere to heat the planet by 1.5°C, according to the report, but fine-particle pollution from fossil fuels provides a cooling effect that masks some of the impact.

Read More:
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• Major New Climate Report Puts Pressure on COP26 to ‘Consign Coal to History’
• Five Key Takeaways From the Latest IPCC Report on Climate Change
• Stop Warming? First, Focus on the Rules: Opinion Digest
• Inside the Showdown Between UN Climate Science and Global Politics
• This Is Why Even Scientists Underestimate Climate Change
In its fifth assessment, published in 2013, IPCC’s volunteer scientists introduced the idea of a “carbon budget,” setting an upper bound on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added to the atmosphere before it will breach certain temperature thresholds. “Now we have much more confidence in those numbers,” said Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change and the environment at Imperial College London and one of the report’s authors.

Humanity will have about a 50% chance of staying below the 1.5°C threshold called for by the Paris Agreement if CO₂ emissions from 2020 onwards remain below 500 billion tons. At the current rate of emissions, that carbon budget would be used up in about 13 years. If the rate doesn’t come down, the planet will warm more than 1.5°C.
“Our opportunity to avoid even more catastrophic impacts has an expiration date,” said Helen Mountford, vice president of climate and economics at the World Resources Institute. “The report implies that this decade is truly our last chance to take the actions necessary to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. If we collectively fail to rapidly curb greenhouse gas emissions in the 2020s, that goal will slip out of reach.”

Hitting the Limit
No single number captures the remaining CO2 budget. Estimates assume different warming levels and odds of meeting them
Source: IPCC AR6 Working Group I report
Note: The higher and lower numbers in each budget scenario represent 17% and 83% chances of staying under each temperature limit. The world emitted 34 Gt of CO2 in 2020
The new publication lands in the middle of the ramp-up to COP26, to be held in Glasgow in November. A global deal to pursue faster emission cuts would depend on poor countries securing $100 billion a year in climate finance from rich countries, something envisioned in previous climate agreements but not yet achieved. National governments would also need to agree to rules governing the trading of emissions permits, to ensure those moving faster towards cuts are rewarded for doing so.
Unlike the IPCC’s somewhat anomalous 2018 special report, Global Warming of 1.5°C, the publication released Monday doesn’t explicitly state that net-zero emissions must be achieved by 2050 to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. That’s because this group’s mandate was to assess new scientific knowledge, not prescribe policy actions. Upcoming IPCC assessments expected next year in February and March will address climate impacts, adaptation and mitigation.
The authors of the new IPCC publication add that, after accounting for global emissions since the 2018 special release, its estimate of the world’s remaining carbon budget is “of similar magnitude” to the one in its prior publication, implying that the finding stands. This latest assessment’s most ambitious scenario shows emissions falling to net zero around 2050, which is as close as it comes to restating the top-line conclusion of the special report.
All five of the new report’s temperature scenarios show the 1.5°C marker passed by 2040, before cooling down below that mark in only one of five scenarios. Achieving that cooling will depend on large-scale removal of carbon dioxide from the air. An independent analysis conducted by the group Climate Action Tracker suggests that current global policies may track either the IPCC’s medium or high scenarios, which lead to 2.7°C and 3.6°C of warming by 2100.

New Scientific Tools Enter the Mainstream
The climate science profession has seen entire specialties emerge and mature in the years since the IPCC’s previous mega-report on science. None of these is more resonant than the ability to analyze extreme weather events in real-time to determine the role of climate change.

Twenty years ago, researchers couldn’t link a specific weather event directly to human-made climate change, meaning that the scientific likelihood of a specific storm or heat wave being tied to warmer temperatures wasn’t knowable. Today, many of these weather attribution studies can be produced within days or weeks of an event.
The deadly heat wave that gripped the western coast of North America in June had detectable evidence of human responsibility. World Weather Attribution, an international research group, needed just days after the heat broke to conclude that the extraordinary temperatures would be “virtually impossible” without climate change.
This ability of scientists to parse the probability that any one disaster is driven by warming temperatures highlights one of the IPCC’s core findings: The entire globe is warming, although not uniformly. Regions will still experience natural swings in temperature, particularly in coming years, as it takes time for heating to have a significant effect on the Earth’s processes.

A World of Change
The entire globe is undergoing changes, some unprecedented in thousands or hundreds of thousands years
Source: IPCC AR6 Working Group I report
Another research breakthrough in the field of climate sensitivity now allows scientists to make even more confident projections about future warming. Drawing from research on ancient climates, as well as advanced satellite technology that monitors clouds and emissions, IPCC authors were able to narrow their temperature projections for the rest of the century, giving humanity a clearer picture of what lies in store if we don’t act quickly to curtail emissions.

The Earth’s response to a theoretical doubling of preindustrial CO₂ levels is now thought to be between 2.5°C to 4°C—a much smaller range than 1.5°C to 4.5°C in previous IPCC reports. “The top end is being reduced, which means that some of these really bad outcomes, where we roll sixes on the climate sensitivity dice, seems a little less plausible than they did,” said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, who wasn’t an author of the summary.

This development helped the IPCC authors cope with another headache: Some Earth-system models updated for this assessment began showing surprisingly high projections for future warming. But the breakthrough allowing greater confidence in the Earth’s potential response to CO₂ gave scientists welcome evidence to balance the modeling approach with other research.

Methane escaping from melting permafrost can have a much greater warming effect than CO₂.
Photographer: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The improvements in projections came, in part, from a stronger grasp of so-called “climate feedbacks” such as the way melting ice and greenhouse gases escaping from thawing permafrost compound on each other in previously unpredictable ways. Scientists are now more confident that lowering emissions will mean less chance of activating feedbacks. That also means that the actions humanity takes in the near term to limit emissions will be a determining factor in whether we see these dramatically accelerating effects in the longer term.

The IPCC’s new findings rule out the possibility that unrestricted emissions will have only a mild effect on global temperatures, a hope few if any observers were still clinging to. But the updated science, particularly the narrowed range for climate sensitivity, provides powerful evidence of the world’s best pathway to safety: swiftly ending the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

What Comes Next?
There is an endgame, if nations choose to try and reach it. The data continue to show a straightforward relationship between CO₂ and temperature. That means that when atmospheric carbon concentrations stop rising, the temperature will, too, soon thereafter.
Scientists have broken ground by projecting what happens when our emissions cease. As the world reduces its use of fossil fuels, for instance, the cooling effect of aerosols will start to decline. Scientists are confident that one way to counter that decline would be to pursue “strong, rapid and sustained reductions” in methane emissions. Beyond CO₂, methane, and nitrous oxide, there are four other greenhouse gases that also provide opportunities to slow warming.

Greenville, California, an Indian Valley settlement of a few hundred people dating back to the mid-1800s Gold Rush, was decimated by the Dixie fire last week.
Photographer: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Even at 1.1°C, climate change is taking lives and destroying property and forcing retreat, migration and conflict. The effects of human activity are continuing to melt glaciers and sea ice. Heating oceans means raising them—at a rate more than 2.5 times faster in this century than the last, according to the IPCC. Some of that harm is now baked in for centuries to come.

“This last year has proven that climate change is no longer a distant threat,” said Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, who wasn’t involved in the summary. “We can no longer assume that citizens of more affluent and secure countries like Canada, Germany, Japan and the United States will be able to ride-out the worst excesses of a rapidly destabilizing climate, even as those in more vulnerable latitudes suffer.”

A Path to Safety
An emissions scenario that can keep global warming below 1.5°C reaches zero emissions around 2050.
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
In a press conference Monday morning, IPCC leadership emphasized that the disparate effects of climate change are being felt in every region of the world. The new report also comes with an interactive tool that enables users to apply its underlying datasets to the world map. That could, for example, help India reckon with the impact warming could have on economically crucial rainfall patterns under different emissions scenarios.

“When we put everything together, for almost all of the 44 regions in the world, coastal climate impact drivers were increasing,” said Roshanka Ranasinghe, professor of climate change impacts and coastal risk at the University of Twente and one of the authors of the assessment.

The IPCC is inherently conservative. It emphasizes information in which scientists have the most evidence and agreement. At the same time, the new scientific consensus doesn’t rule out continued investigation of its lower-confidence findings. The authors indicate that some potentially sweeping changes are not as well understood, such as unlikely but still possible heat extremes or ice-sheet collapse.

Another “low-likelihood high-impact outcome” flagged by IPCC authors is a sudden, dramatic change in ocean circulation. A study released last week in the journal Nature Climate Change documented changes in the powerful churn of Atlantic water as potential indicators of “an almost complete loss of stability.”

The IPCC itself foresees further weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation in the decades ahead, with disagreement over the possibility of collapse before 2100. Such an event would weaken monsoons in Africa and Asia, strengthen them in the Southern Hemisphere and dry out Europe.

There are always more questions to ask, and the perpetual churn of research means even the most comprehensive assessment can never be truly complete. “That’s just what science is, right?” said Tamsin Edwards, an IPCC author and a reader in climate change at King’s College London. “It’s constantly evolving and refining and adding new studies, and improving our knowledge. The intensity of the effort that goes into assessing the literature—the 14,000 papers for this report—makes it an authoritative, comprehensive, coherent synthesis in a way that a single paper can never be.”

— With assistance from Dave Merrill and Mira Rojanasakul

(Adds a new sixth paragraph to incorporate material from the IPCC’s full report. Also adds a new 30th paragraph on the group’s interactive mapping tool and quote from Roshanka Ranasinghe.)
(Adds a new sixth paragraph to incorporate material from the IPCC’s full report. Also adds a new 30th paragraph on the group’s interactive mapping tool and quote from Roshanka Ranasinghe.)



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