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We summarize some of the past year's most important findings within climate change-related research. New research has improved our understanding of Earth's sensitivity to carbon dioxide, finds that permafrost thaw could release more carbon emissions than expected and that the uptake of carbon in tropical ecosystems is weakening. Adverse impacts on human society include increasing water shortages and impacts on mental health. Options for solutions emerge from rethinking economic models, rights-based litigation, strengthened governance systems and a new social contract. The disruption caused by COVID-19 could be seized as an opportunity for positive change, directing economic stimulus towards sustainable investments.
A synthesis is made of ten fields within climate science where there have been significant advances since mid-2019, through an expert elicitation process with broad disciplinary scope. Findings include: (1) a better understanding of equilibrium climate sensitivity; (2) abrupt thaw as an accelerator of carbon release from permafrost; (3) changes to global and regional land carbon sinks; (4) impacts of climate change on water crises, including equity perspectives; (5) adverse effects on mental health from climate change; (6) immediate effects on climate of the COVID-19 pandemic and requirements for recovery packages to deliver on the Paris Agreement; (7) suggested long-term changes to governance and a social contract to address climate change, learning from the current pandemic, (8) updated positive cost–benefit ratio and new perspectives on the potential for green growth in the short- and long-term perspective; (9) urban electrification as a strategy to move towards low-carbon energy systems and (10) rights-based litigation as an increasingly important method to address climate change, with recent clarifications on the legal standing and representation of future generations.
Social media summary
Stronger permafrost thaw, COVID-19 effects and growing mental health impacts among highlights of latest climate science.
Chapter 17 explores possible transformational pathways of the future global energy system with the overarching aim of assessing the technological feasibility as well as the economic implications of meeting a range of sustainability objectives simultaneously. As such, it aims at the integration across objectives, and thus goes beyond earlier assessments of the future energy system that have mostly focused on either specific topics or single objectives. Specifically, the chapter assesses technical measures, policies, and related costs and benefits for meeting the objectives that were identified in Chapters 2 to 6, including:
providing almost universal access to affordable clean cooking and electricity for the poor;
limiting air pollution and health damages from energy use;
improving energy security throughout the world; and
limiting climate change.
The assessment of future energy pathways in this chapter shows that it is technically possible to achieve improved energy access, air quality, and energy security simultaneously while avoiding dangerous climate change. In fact, a number of alternative combinations of resources, technologies, and policies are found capable of attaining these objectives. From a large ensemble of possible transformations, three distinct groups of pathways (GEA-Supply, GEA-Mix, and GEA-Efficiency) have been identified and analyzed. Within each group, one pathway has been selected as “illustrative” in order to represent alternative evolutions of the energy system toward sustainable development. The pathway groups, together with the illustrative cases, depict salient branching points for policy implementation and highlight different degrees of freedom and different routes to the sustainability objectives.
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