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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.
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Stronger permafrost thaw, COVID-19 effects and growing mental health impacts among highlights of latest climate science.
Innovation and technological change are integral to the energy system transformations described in the Global Energy Assessment (GEA) pathways. Energy technology innovations range from incremental improvements to radical breakthroughs and from technologies and infrastructure to social institutions and individual behaviors. This Executive Summary synthesizes the main policy-relevant findings of Chapter 24. Specific positive policy examples or key takehome messages are highlighted in italics.
The innovation process involves many stages – from research through to incubation, demonstration, (niche) market creation, and ultimately, widespread diffusion. Feedbacks between these stages influence progress and likely success, yet innovation outcomes are unavoidably uncertain. Innovations do not happen in isolation; interdependence and complexity are the rule under an increasingly globalized innovation system. Any emphasis on particular technologies or parts of the energy system, or technology policy that emphasizes only particular innovation stages or processes (e.g., an exclusive focus on energy supply from renewables, or an exclusive focus on Research and Development [R&D], or feed-in tariffs) is inadequate given the magnitude and multitude of challenges represented by the GEA objectives.
A first, even if incomplete, assessment of the entire global resource mobilization (investments) in both energy supply and demand-side technologies and across different innovation stages suggests current annual Research, Development & Demonstration (RD&D) investments of some US$50 billion, market formation investments (which rely on directed public policy support) of some US$150 billion, and an estimated US$1 trillion to US$5 trillion investments in mature energy supply and end-use technologies (technology diffusion).
A number of factors contribute to the lack of access to modern forms of energy. They include low income levels, unequal income distribution, inequitable distribution of modern forms of energy, a lack of financial resources to build the necessary infrastructure, weak institutional and legal frameworks, and a lack of political commitment to the scaling up of services. An absence of specific policies oriented to poverty alleviation often explains inequitable economic growth and, consequently, inequality in access to and use of energy. In recent years, several developing countries have defined targets aimed at improving access to electricity, but many developing countries still have no modern forms of energy access targets in place that address meeting basic energy services, including modern fuels for cooking and mechanical power.
As Chapter 2 argues, developing countries require adequate access to modern energy, especially among the poor, in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well as their own national development objectives. In line with GEA objectives, Chapter 17 pathways are designed to describe transformative changes toward a more sustainable future. A specific feature of the GEA energy transition pathways is that they simultaneously achieve normative goals related to all major energy challenges, including environmental impacts of energy conversion and use, as well as energy security and energy access. ‘Energy access’ refers to those challenges clearly described in Chapter 19, which will be addressed in this chapter.
Affordable and sustainable universal access to modern forms of energy depends on the evolution of income level and income distribution.
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