Warning on warming: Doomsday clock’s ticking

Warning on warming: Doomsday clock’s ticking

Warning on warming

According to the IPCC, global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. AFP

Climate change doomsday has been officially predicted in the UN report “Global Warming of 1.5°C- an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C…”. Some 91 authors/review editors from 40 countries referenced 6,000 studies/papers to prepare this report – the sixth such cycle of assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — in response to an invitation from the UN after the adoption of the 2015 Paris Agreement (PA).

But, long gone are the days of UN climate change cooperation when the planet’s future resided in the promise of a PA which was universally acclaimed as the first fully inclusive yet completely voluntary climate accord. Three of the world’s largest aggregate greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, of which carbon monoxide is a principal GHG — China, the US and India — ratified the PA, which entered into force on November 4, 2016.

Interestingly, the PA is not a legally binding treaty holding ratifying countries fully accountable for their verifiable mitigation efforts. Instead, the PA hinges entirely on the level of “ambition” of the voluntary national pledges of climate action, called “Independent Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs).

And then, in a twist that made the future of climate cooperation look ever more uncertain, on June 1, 2017, the US administration formally announced it was withdrawing from the PA. Currently, the host country of the UN headquarters is the sole hold out, although possible electoral changes could signal a change towards the PA in another significant aggregate GHG emitter — Brazil.

There is no dearth of evidence about the importance of reducing/mitigating GHG emissions. The IPCC — the largest gathering of scientific and policy analysts ever convened on any global environmental topic -- has been persistently warning about the risks of anthropogenic climate change for 30 years.

But now, with the release of this special report, the planet, which still happens to include all UN member-states (no secession as yet), has been effectively put on notice regarding impending peril. According to the IPCC, global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.

The report, which is based on a global scientific consensus-driven approach, states that it has “high confidence” in some of findings listed below which are troublingly urgent for developing countries, where the challenges of reducing poverty and pollution, while also increasing access to sustainable energy, co-exist:

• Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.

• Populations at disproportionately higher risk of adverse consequences of global warming of 1.5°C and beyond include disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, some indigenous peoples, and local communities dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihoods.

• Any increase in global warming is projected to affect human health, with primarily negative consequences.

• Risks from some vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, are projected to increase with warming from 1.5°C to 2°C, including potential shifts in their geographic range.

• Exposure to multiple and compound climate-related risks increases between 1.5°C and 2°C of global warming, with greater proportions of people both so exposed and susceptible to poverty in Africa and Asia.

• Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.

• Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030.

Global cooperation

So now, the question is whether the world can muster up the requisite global will to commit to large-scale and immediate cooperative action? The move from escalating emissions gap towards a drastic reduction in emissions requires nothing short of global jump-start in cooperation, not just among UN member-states but also within all stakeholders and sectors, including the private sector.

As it turns out, back in 2016, Warren Buffet, the leader of Berkshire Hathaway, weighed in on climate change for the first time in his annual letter to shareholders. Buffet offered a straightforward explanation for focusing on the risks of climate change: that it appeared “highly likely” to him that “climate change poses a major problem for the planet”. He pointed out that it would be “foolish” for him or anyone else to “demand 100% proof of huge forthcoming damage to the world” and argued in favour of mitigation if “prompt action had even a small chance of thwarting the danger”.

Notwithstanding Buffet’s citing of Pascal’s Wager and Noah’s Ark in dealing with climate change, the reality is that 26 years ago, Article 3.3 of the 1992 UNFCCC clearly referenced the precautionary principle in calling for climate action: “Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimise the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures”.

After more than 20 years of a precautionary principle built into an agreed global climate change treaty, the question before all of us, faced with climatic catastrophe, is: where is the impetus to thwart continued global foot-dragging on climate action, especially now that we have been warned in no uncertain terms told that most of us are doomed, unless we act now to mitigate global warming?

(The writer is an expert on climate change based in the US)