The 2021 IPCC report — and how you can help us get to net zero

Sanchali Pal

In August 2021, the IPCC issued another dire climate warning in its Sixth Assessment Report, a “code red for humanity.” The report reinforces a lot of the same information from the 2018 Special Report on 1.5°C Warming, but with more certainty in the science.

The good news? We still have a chance of curbing the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis — if we can rapidly mobilize toward a north star of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. From reading the summary for policymakers and several analyses of the full report, here are my biggest takeaways — and what it means for each of us.

Three takeaways from the report

1. It’s “unequivocal” that humans have caused the climate crisis, and it’s accelerating faster than ever.

The authors of the report use blunt, clear language: there is no question that humans are heating the earth by burning fossil fuels. The report estimates we’ve already heated the earth by around 1.1°C since 1850–1900, and that heating is causing increasingly frequent, intense climate disasters.

There’s been scientific consensus on climate change since the Third IPCC Report in 2001, but we now have stronger evidence and understand it better. We know that CO2 levels are higher and rising faster than at any time in at least the last two million years. And we have exhaustive data that demonstrates recent increases in events like drought, cyclones, heatwaves, fire weather, floods, etc. are unprecedented and result from human-caused climate change.

2. We have a narrow window to prevent the worst-case scenario.

Without swift action, we could exceed the 1.5℃ warming limit as soon as the early 2030s. But if we dramatically cut emissions this decade, we can retain a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Taking a step back: global warming stays below 2℃ only in a scenario in which we achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero means we don’t add any more emissions to the atmosphere because we reduce our emissions as close to zero as we can and remove whatever we do emit. This is a key point. Net zero by 2050 is our conceptual north star: the most ambitious positive scenario the report suggests is achievable.

How we achieve net zero matters — we need to consider the balance between reduction and removal, how our infrastructure and systems affect poor and vulnerable populations, and more — but this report doesn’t dive into those details. There will be follow-on IPCC reports in February and March 2022 that dig into how we can mitigate the effects of and adapt to climate change.

3. There a few clear solutions we need to get a move on, ASAP.

First, we need to shift off fossil fuels immediately. There’s no sustainable future in which fossil fuels can continue to be widely used. This is a big part of the work ahead: today, 85% of CO2 emissions are from burning fossil fuels.

Also, focusing on cutting methane emissions is particularly important, both for climate (it has >80x the warming power of CO2 over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere) and for human health (addressing air pollution). Methane primarily comes from oil and gas production, livestock farming, and landfills.

The report also cites the potential of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) to help achieve net zero — and ultimately, net negative — emissions. CDR encompasses a variety of methods that remove carbon from the atmosphere, including reforestation, regenerative soil management practices, direct air capture, bioenergy and bio-oil sequestration, ocean enhancement, and many more. If you’re curious to learn more, Carbon Plan’s primer is a good place to start.

The bottom line: every bit of carbon savings matters.

Every incremental amount of warming exponentially increases risks. Even 1.5°C is going to mean far worse climate impacts than we see today. We don’t even want to think about what the world looks like beyond 2°C.

The TL;DR of this report is that we need to take swift, far-reaching action, at every level of society. As a single person, you may feel like you cannot do anything. Is there anything you can do that will matter?

What can you do about it?

The climate crisis is not any of our faults, and any one of us alone cannot solve it. But the truth is, we don’t have time to wait for CEOs and policymakers to wake up and decide to take sweeping action. CEOs and policymakers are rarely on the bleeding edge of change. They only make difficult choices when people like us force them to.

When we reframe the climate crisis as a collective challenge, it’s clear why every incremental bit of action matters. We all control small amounts of emissions directly, and influence larger amounts of emissions indirectly. Each of us, on average in the US, emits enough carbon each day to fill a shipping container, from our travel, home energy use, shopping, and food.

Think about where you have direct or indirect influence over emissions to make a gameplan for action. Here’s my own climate to do list and framework for thinking about it. Make a copy of it for yourself, and make it your own. I’ll keep adding resources and suggestions — and one day soon, hopefully, Joro will be able to help you make progress on all of these things.

Decarbonize your spending

Start where you have the most control: the emissions that result directly from your personal consumption. In aggregate, household consumption contributes over 60% of global emissions.

Decarbonizing your spending can be difficult — it requires time, effort, and emotional energy. That’s why I started Joro: to make that part as easy, and impactful as possible.

With the Joro app, automatically track the carbon emissions from your daily spending by connecting your credit or debit cards. With the Net Zero Membership, remove the emissions you can’t avoid on an ongoing basis by supporting a curated basket of CDR removal projects like reforestation, regenerative farming, and bio-oil sequestration.

Shift off fossil fuels

One thing this report makes loud and clear is the importance of rapidly reversing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Take a look at how your savings and investments might be financing fossil fuels. Close your accounts with banks who are the largest funders of fossil fuels; shift your retirement savings to fossil fuel free funds.

Then, the power we use to light and heat our homes and the gas we use to fuel our travel are the two most direct places we contribute to demand for fossil fuels through our actions.

Check out my climate to do list for ideas of how to get started, ASAP.

Create a just and sustainable future

How we get to net zero matters. The poorest and most vulnerable populations in every community in the world are suffering disproportionately from a crisis they did the least to cause. Achieving a more sustainable future will require us to all live in more moderate, regenerative ways that allow all life to thrive.

It’s critical that we use our voices and our choices to demand that companies and policy-makers to build equity and inclusion into climate solutions. In my climate to do list, I outline a handful of ways that we can help create that more just, more sustainable future.

After all, that’s the point of taking all this climate action in the first place. To create a world we all want to live in together.

Develop your climate action practice.

A climate action practice is the daily exercise of bringing awareness and intention to reduce the carbon emissions within your control.

Grow your practice with exclusive tips and advice.

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