Proof of human-made climate change was first discovered in the 1960s by geochemist Charles Keeling, who measured carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere and detected an annual rise. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s, journalists conclude, that the science behind the phenomenon was widely accepted as indisputable and existential. In honour of this recognition, in 1988, Time magazine named their Man of the Year as ‘Planet of the Year: Endangered Earth’.
Over 30 years later, that cover story is just as timely. Mother Earth, the human race’s habitat, is still endangered, only there is much less time to save it.
“Our negligence has catapulted climate change from an existential challenge to the dire crisis it is now,” write Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, the chief orchestrators of the historic Paris Agreement, in their recent book ‘The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis’. They note that, while this period of human history has been “indelibly and painfully marked”, it is not yet fully written and “humans hold the pen, more firmly than ever”. What kind of future is the human race writing for itself?
In 2015, following a disastrous international summit in Copenhagen in 2009, 197 nations came together and forged the now historic Paris Agreement. The legally binding treaty hinges on some “very, very carefully chosen words”, says Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London and co-chair of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Those words are: “To limit Earth’s temperature rise to well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
The agreement, says Skea, bent the trend away from ‘business as usual’. “Paris changed the way governments were interacting with each other, from top-down processes, whereby a global target was sliced up between countries, to bottom-up, and built on an international achievement of what individual countries would offer,” he explains.
Despite the ambition, Dieter Helm, a British economist and academic, in his new book ‘Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change’, says the agreement has made no real difference, other than to allow leaders to tell their voters they are “taking action” when their pledges are little more than “fig leaves” for business as usual.
In reality, government pledges don’t add up to the global agreement and the US has pulled out of the treaty altogether.
In 2018, a landmark IPCC report outlined a model pathway to achieving 1.5°C. It said CO2 emissions should “decline by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050”.
At the time, the report was widely interpreted as “12 years to save the world”, says Skea, but he wishes to clarify: “If you were going to put emissions on a pathway to limiting warming to 1.5°C, you would probably, in the middle of the range, need to cut emissions by about 45 per cent by 2030.”
After climate activist group Extinction Rebellion brought parts of London to a standstill in April 2019, the UK became the first major economy to pass laws to bring all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2050. That’s a less ambitious target than 2025, which the group had demanded, a timeframe Skea says is “completely implausible” due to the social consequences.
Along with the UK, the EU, France, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, and Hungary have all adopted a net-zero emissions target into law. Finland is the most ambitious and pledges to be carbon-neutral by 2035. In a significant move, China, the world’s biggest polluter, recently committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2060. Suriname and Bhutan have already achieved this, according to The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, which tracks the net-zero ‘race’.
What does ‘net zero’ mean? “In essence, it means getting emissions of all greenhouse gases as low as possible by the target date, with remaining emissions balanced by removals from the atmosphere,” explains Jim Watson, professor of energy policy at University College London and adviser to the UK Committee on Climate Change. Removal of carbon from the atmosphere can be anything from planting trees to more engineered and controversial solutions such as direct air capture.
Interpretation of net zero varies, however. It may include, or not, international aviation and shipping, as well as offsetting domestic emissions only, or paying for emission reductions in other countries. The UK’s plan includes the former, with domestic offsetting.
However, Helm says net zero fails to include carbon consumption, only production; it doesn’t include the goods countries import and consume.
If the 2050 net-zero target is not met, countries would be emitting more than their fair share of CO2. If this happens, the scientific projections are clear. Humans are already experiencing the destructive impact of climate change. As this article is being written, record-breaking wildfires rage across parts of the US, and the newly released 2020 WWF Living Planet Report says wildlife populations are in ‘free-fall’ and have now plummeted by 68 per cent since 1970, with no signs of slowing.
In their book, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac imagine what 2050 will look like if the world is headed for 3°C warmer by 2100, which it currently is.
“The air is hot, heavy… and clogged with particulate pollution… masks are routinely worn to protect from pollution… The coral reefs have vanished…the ice sheets in the Arctic have melted… There’s a surge in extreme hurricanes and tropical storms because of more moisture in the air and higher sea levels… More people are displaced daily…” they write. “With each new tipping point passed, they [people] feel hope slipping away.”
In 2018, scientists warned that 2°C will have significantly more impacts than 1.5°C and going beyond 2°C could potentially trigger natural processes and tipping points, such as the loss of the Amazon Rainforest or the West Antarctic ice sheet, which could create a domino effect and drive uncontrollable warming to as high as 4°C.
Both accuse governments of failing to grasp the severity of the climate change situation. It’s hard to argue with their assessment. An extensive report compiled by Stockholm Resilience Centre, Internet of Planet and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and others, published in January 2020, called the Exponential Roadmap, says based on what countries are actually doing, there is a 97 per cent probability of exceeding the 2°C warming. Based on what countries have promised to do, this falls to 90 per cent. Only 16 countries have national laws consistent with their emission reduction pledges.
In recent years, the world has actually gone backwards. After three years of stable global emissions, in 2017 they grew by 1.6 per cent and were estimated by the Global Carbon Project to have grown a further 2.7 per cent in 2018. During the financial crisis, emissions did decline in some countries, such as Portugal and Ireland. This year emissions are expected to fall further due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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