Reading the new IPCC report: mitigating climate change

What impacts will climate change have on the future?  What do they mean for higher education?

Today we continue our group reading of the new IPCC report, focusing on the Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability document produced by Working Group III.  We’ll dive into the “Summary for Policymakers.”

IPCC 2022 cover working group III

We’ll begin with a summary of the high points, then outline some first implications for higher education, and conclude with questions.

(For more info on this reading, click here. To look back at the previous installments of this series, click here and here.)

This report is broken into four main sections, after an introduction.

Section B: Recent developments and current trends
The biggest trend this report identifies is unsurprising, that greenhouse gas emissions have been rising, including during the 21st century. There have been some positive developments, which slowed the rate of growth, but: “Emissions reductions in CO 2 from fossil fuels and industrial processes, due to improvements in energy intensity of GDP and carbon intensity of energy, have been less than emissions increases from rising global activity levels in industry, energy supply, transport, agriculture and buildings.”  Overall, it seems likely we’ll overshoot a 1.5 degree rise by mid-century or earlier.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions vary widely around the world. One key bit: “The 10% of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute a disproportionately large share of global household GHG emissions.”

Some low emission tech has gotten cheaper. Digitization (shifting analog experiences online) might help, “but can have adverse side-effects unless appropriately governed.”

Section C, System transformations to limit global warming
This starts off with a stark warning: “GHG emissions are projected to rise beyond 2025, leading to a median global warming of 3.2 [2.2 to 3.5] °C by 2100… (medium confidence).”  Stopping that would take “rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emission reductions in all sectors.”  The section details a range of changes: reducing fossil fuel burning, switching to renewables, changing construction materials, exploring hydrogen and other new fuels, sucking down and storing carbon in cities, retrofitting buildings, expanding forests, and switching diets to contain more plants.  Accomplishing this will include “socio-cultural and behavioural change,” which might be encouraged by “Choice architecture,” or “the presentation of choices to consumers, and the impact that presentation has on consumer decision-making.”

I mentioned sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. The IPCC is adamant about the importance of this: “The deployment of CDR [carbon dioxide removal] to counterbalance hard-to-abate residual emissions is unavoidable if net zero CO2 or GHG emissions are to be achieved. ”

Section D: Linkages between mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development.
Can climate change mitigation work with the United Nation’s sustainable development goals? The IPCC thinks so, if we handle the policies properly.  That includes being attuned to inequalities and not punishing the marginalized.  Doing this the right way might build positive momentum: “Attention to equity and broad and meaningful participation of all relevant actors in decision-making at all scales can build social trust, and deepen and widen support for transformative changes.”

Here is one sample of the sheer range and complexity of the decision-making this report anticipates:

IPCC 2022 mitigation tradeoff chart sample

Section E: Strengthening the response

This is the strategy section, outlining how mitigation might succeed.

The text frames this in terms of two opposed forces:

‘enabling conditions’ refers to conditions that enhance the feasibility of adaptation and mitigation options. Enabling conditions include finance, technological innovation, strengthening policy instruments, institutional capacity, multi-level governance and changes in human behaviour and lifestyles…

Barriers to feasibility would need to be reduced or removed, and enabling conditions strengthened to deploy mitigation options at scale. These barriers and enablers include geophysical, environmental-ecological, technological, and economic factors, and especially institutional and socio-cultural factors.

For example, “There is sufficient global capital and liquidity to close global investment gaps, given the size of the global financial system [enabling conditions], but there are barriers to redirect capital to climate action both within and outside the global financial sector, and in the macroeconomic headwinds facing developing regions. ”

Getting this done requires good climate governance, which seems to be massively democratic in involving all kinds of stakeholders, especially the marginalized.

What does this mean for higher education?

This document addresses academia and education directly less strongly than previous bits of the IPCC report.  The word “education” only appears twice, once as part of decent living standards (i.e., the world should mitigate climate change so as to allow people access to learning) and another time as an instance of “[e]conomy-wide packages that support mitigation and avoid negative environmental outcomes.”  There are also calls for research, unsurprisingly, but the report does not identify whom the researchers might be.

To be honest, this surprised me. Perhaps colleges and universities need to do more to demonstrate their capacity to address climate change mitigation.


  1. Does the community around you believe in the urgency to act that this document shares?
  2. Do you think global and just climate governance is possible?  What might it look like?
  3. What roles might academia play in mitigation?
  4. And what else do you think about this document?

Next week: on to the technical summary.

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3 Responses to Reading the new IPCC report: mitigating climate change

  1. Jeremy Stanton says:

    1. No; it seems we may have hit “peak crisis mindshare” — after 2+ years of crisis mode, folks seem unwilling or do not have the capacity to entertain the idea that more and significantly larger crises are just around the corner. To the extent they are aware of the unfolding climate catastrophe, there seems to be this sense that someone else will fix it.

    2. Richard Heinberg has suggested carbon “cap and ration” regimes, citing the work by the late British economist David Flemming on Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs), which might possibly work assuming trust and amicable relations between all parties in the trading regime. Although we’ve seen with the Russia/Ukraine tragedy how easily amicable trading relations unravel as planetary resource limits start to bite.

    3. Cross-disciplinary efforts to design workable mitigation strategies. Some interesting models/efforts out there:
    – Tom Murphy (UCSD), Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN) —
    – Nate Hagens (University of Minnesota), Institute for the Study of Energy & Our Future —

    4. Searching through the document for phrases such as “reduce energy consumption”, “energy reduction”, “lower energy demand”, etc produces zero results. In this section of the report at least there seems to be an underlying assumption that unlimited exponential growth in energy consumption is not only inevitable but actually possible. There does not seem to be a recognition that fossil fuel sources are finite, depleting, and require increasing amounts of energy (and debt) to turn into useful work. So as something meant to guide policymakers, it would be beneficial to develop policy with the understanding that we’ll have to deal with climate mitigation *in a context of declining available net energy and material resources*, which complicates matters greatly.

  2. Richard says:

    With regard to 2, I’d offer additional enthusiasm for your interest in the late Dr. Fleming’s TEQs system Jeremy.

    The British Government’s feasibility study into it found no meaningful obstacles to implementation (well, besides the desire to indulge in money-spinning carbon trading schemes instead, I suppose..). And it has some pretty well-informed supporters…

    And in general, yes, absolutely, the key missing element in the IPCC report is acknowledging that energy demand reduction is the only reasonable response. Once that is seen, TEQs becomes rather obvious, to my eyes.

  3. For now, I’d settle for seeing neighbors in this relatively big ag and natural gas prosperous rural community admitting that climate change is not a hoax. You’d think droughts and wildfires would have taken care of that.

    As for higher ed, I still spend a lot of time wading through higher ed media and social media enclave and don’t see significant interest and concern in those communities either that, for a different set of reasons, there should be.

    I see but do not appreciate the irony.

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