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Climate report: Despite dire warnings, UW-Madison prof optimistic

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After three years of work on a report warning that time is running out to head off a climate disaster, Greg Nemet is optimistic about the planet’s chances.

Nemet, a professor at UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, was one of the lead authors of a report on ways to slow climate change released Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“I came away from it optimistic,” Nemet said Tuesday after returning from Vienna, where he and other authors spent the weekend negotiating with government officials over policy recommendations.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released a report outlining what should be done to limit global warming to 1.5C. We need to ditch fossil fuels, coal and gas plants need to close and the focus needs to be put on renewable energy like solar and wind. Governments will need to put infrastructure in place to make it easier for people to switch to electric vehicles to reduce carbon emissions. Methane makes up around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to experts reducing methane emissions will “shave off some of the temperature rise”. To prevent Earth from going over the 1.5C threshold, scientists say we need to start using machines to suck CO2 from the atmosphere. Having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behavior can result in a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Priyadarshi Shukla, UN IPCCC Co-Chair.

Despite national pledges to limit emissions, greenhouse gases resulting from human activity have continued to climb, according to the report compiled by the world’s top climate scientists.

In fact, nearly half of all greenhouse gases released since 1850 were produced in the past three decades, and while the rate of increase slowed in the last decade, emissions released between 2010 and 2019 were still the highest ever.

In order to stave off the worst impacts, researchers concluded that carbon emissions must begin falling within the next three years and be cut nearly in half by the end of this decade.

It’s been nearly seven years since 196 nations signed a treaty to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius this century, ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Yet temperatures have already increased by over 1.1 degrees since pre-industrial times, leading to more frequent and intense floods, heat, hurricanes and wildfires, endangering lives and costing billions of dollars.

According to the panel, the current rate of emissions will put the target beyond reach.

“If we continue acting as we are now, we’re not even going to limit warming to 2 degrees, never mind 1.5 degrees,” the report’s co-chair, James Skea of Imperial College London, told The Associated Press.

But the authors also noted there’s still time to get back on track.

The report calls for a rapid shift from fossil fuels to clean energy like wind and solar and electric-powered vehicles; promotion of plant-based diets; energy conservation; and financial aid for developing countries.

Greg Nemet

Greg Nemet, a professor at UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, was one of the lead authors of a report on ways to slow climate change released Monday.

Nemet, whose research focuses on the mechanisms that made solar panels cheap, said the report shows that technology and policies needed are now within reach.

“It’s actually a feasible change to make,” he said.

He’s also encouraged that 18 nations — including the United States — managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the last decade, even if that wasn’t enough to offset increases from other parts of the world.

Nemet spent the past three years collaborating with more than 350 scientists who responded to more than 20,000 comments and critiques to produce the 3,675-page report.

The authors then worked nearly nonstop through the weekend negotiating with world leaders over every word of a 37-page summary for policymakers that was supposed to be delivered Friday but was not released until Monday.

“Now that it’s approved, it’s got buy-in,” he said. “Countries can take the report and say ... we can do this much reduction. It has a lot more credibility than if scientists had just said that.”

And despite the political wrangling, Nemet said nations pushing for continued reliance on fossil fuels had little effect on the report.

“I came away just impressed about how this idea of speaking truth to power did really win the day in the end,” he said. “That’s the part the science is really clear on. To say there’s a big role for fossil fuels in the future — it doesn’t fit with the math.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Climate: "Science Guy" to visit UW. A5

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