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Is it too late to reverse the damage from climate change?

Key takeaways of climate assessment
Key takeaways from climate assessment that detailed extreme dangers of climate change 05:08

The cost of renewable energy around the world is at record lows, while the use of coal is sinking rapidly. Yet even the emergence of a genuine low-carbon economy likely won't stop the world from overheating, some experts indicate. 

Energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie predicts in a report that the world will continue to shift away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy, such as the use of electric vehicles. The good news is that such trends will slow the rate of global warming. Now for the bad: Global temperatures would still rise more than 2 degrees Celsius in the decades ahead -- a threshold scientists say could cause irreparable damage to the planet. 

"[P]athways towards even lower emissions (1.5 degrees) are out of reach unless we make immediate and drastic changes to our way of life," Wood Mac finds, echoing the conclusions of last month's United Nations report on climate change.

Government climate report paints a grim picture for the economy 03:36

Here's what that low-carbon future could look like in the energy analysts' eyes: Demand for oil peaks in 2031, then starts to decline. The number of combustion-engine cars on the road crests a few years later;  by 2040, only electric cars are sold in Europe and the U.S. By then, wind and solar power provide 40 percent of the world's power.

Many of these changes are already well underway:

  • California, which amounts to the world's fifth-largest economy, aims to be fully carbon-neutral by 2045 
  • The European Union is considering similar measures
  • The Tesla Model S is one of the top-selling cars in America
  • The cost of building a new wind or solar farm in some parts of the U.S. is lower than operating a coal plant

Less certain is how that low-carbon economy will take shape, and how fast. One big unknown is how much of it will be powered by natural gas. The lower-emission fossil fuel has displaced coal in many parts of the U.S., thanks to the fracking boom, and demand for it is set to keep growing until 2040, Wood Mac predicts. 

But a longer-term reliance on natural gas could elevate global temperatures higher above the 2 degree Celsius mark than if it were completely supplanted by cleaner energy sources, previous research shows. 

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