The report from IPCC’s working group 3 paints a sobering picture of the state of responses to climate change – which, as the report notes with some dismay – are falling far short in scale and speed of what is needed.

But buried in the 3000+ pages of the report are three words that have the potential to transform our response to the climate crisis — if only we were to do more than pay lip service to them.

The report reminds us in stark and quantitative terms that the roots of today’s climate crisis are firmly anchored in inequitable patterns of development and consumption. Developed countries are the source of 58 per cent of all greenhouse gases emitted by humans since 1850, the report says, while the least developed countries account for just 0.4 per cent of total planet-warming pollution.

Even today, 41 per cent of the global population lives in countries with per capita emissions less than half the global average of 6 t-CO2eq/cap. If currently there are only eight years of carbon budget left (to meet the 1.5 C target); that is because historically the developed parts of the world has borrowed far more than its fair share.

Scientific evidence and UNFCCC recognised — the principle of common but differentiated responsibility or CBDR — are echoing the same fairness principle to serve the basis for climate action and for the developed world to acknowledge and act without losing time to return the carbon debt in favour of the growing world.

Inequity: Between and within nations

Inequity is not only between countries; it is within countries, it extends to our individual responsibility and lifestyle choices — though these choices are often shaped and constrained by the characteristics of the system and existing policies, infrastructure and technologies — and critically therefore to our lifestyle choices.

Globally, the 10 per cent of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute 34-45 per cent of global consumption-based household GHG emissions and the bottom 50 per cent contribute just 13-15 per cent. In a paradigm shift from the past, the IPCC WG 3 report focuses attention on the issue of lifestyles and the role of values, preferences and consumer choices and structural lock-ins that shape demand in driving emissions.

The debate regarding “luxury” vs “survival” emissions is not academic — it has real-world implications for achieving a more sustainable — and just and equitable future. After all, as the report notes in paragraph 3.3 of the Summary for Policy-makers (SPM), “eradicating extreme poverty, energy poverty, and providing decent living standards to all in these regions, in the near term, can be achieved without significant global emissions growth”.

The WG 3 report reminds us that climate change is the epitome of a collective action problem that demands cooperation — within and among countries, and between the public and private sectors. Cooperation that is not charity or a handout; but genuine cooperation to return the historical carbon debt based on equitable burden-sharing.

Broken promises

Unfortunately, as the report had to admit, the story here is a story of broken promises and shifting goal-posts. Progress on the alignment of financial flows towards the goals of the Paris Agreement remains slow and the actual mobilisation of public and private finance falls far below the Paris Agreement target of $100 billion annually by 2020. The report notes that “accelerated international financial cooperation is a critical enabler of low-GHG and just transitions, and can address inequities in access to finance and the costs of, and vulnerability to, the impacts of climate change”.

The transformation to a decarbonised world is fundamental for humanity to thrive but will create new winners and losers. Transparency and a focus on equity, infrastructure and technology access driven sustainable lifestyles and true cooperation can build trust to ensure that this decarbonised world is also a fairer and more just world, and not one where the creative destruction which is inevitable to happen in this massive transformation will only serve to perpetuate (or worsen) existing structural inequalities between and within countries and within social groups.

Finally, the report draws attention to why climate change is such a “wicked” problem — despite recognition of its importance and the availability of technically feasible and cost-effective options (Mitigation options costing $100 tCO2-eq-1 or less could reduce global GHG emissions by at least half the 2019 level by 2030 [SPM para C.12]), progress is halting and slow. The lack of political will is identified as the culprit; and the SPM offers a solution — “mitigation efforts embedded within the wider development context can increase the pace, depth and breadth of emissions reductions”.

The implication is that perhaps paradoxically, to save the climate, we need to shift from conventional climate policy — moving from an exclusive focus on mitigation to a broader enabling condition creation for low carbon lifestyle and development approach that emphasises the larger deep rooted socio-cultural aspects, innovation and economic policy goals of high immediacy and political salience; while at the same time reaping simultaneous climate benefits of both adaptation and mitigation and not one over the other.

Patwardhan is from the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, and Roy, is IPCC AR6 WGIII Coordinating Lead Author.