I would love to be looking forward to the 2020s as the decade when the Arctic as we have known it will be saved; climate change decisively halted; emissions will peak; fossil fuels become true fossils; sustainable living will be the ‘in’ -thing. The Arctic will not become ice-free in summer after all. And Fridays will go back to being a normal school day, with young folk confident the adults are no longer ruining the planet.
Alas, I have found little to motivate that kind of optimism. UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report, published in November, tells us we are heading for a 3.2° C temperature rise based on the current, unconditional pledges countries have made for reducing emissions. And as the Arctic has been warming at more than twice the rate of the global average since the mid-1990s – what can I say?
2020 is supposed to be the year when nations step up their Paris climate pledges significantly. But UNEP says global greenhouse gas emissions would have to fall by 7.6 percent each year between now and 2030 if the world is to have any chance of keeping to the Paris Agreement goal of keeping temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5 C. And there are no signs of that.
“Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions”, said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director, when the report was launched.
“Countries simply cannot wait until the end of 2020 when new climate commitments are due, to step up action. They – and every city, region, business and individual – need to act now”, said Andersen.
If not, the 2020s could turn out to be the decade when the 1.5 degree goal finally slips out of reach.
Australian fires confirm predictions
“As a climate scientist I am wondering if the Earth system has now breached a tipping point”, wrote Australia-based scientist and IPCC author Joelle Gergis on January 3rd in the Guardian. With south-east Australia on fire, he writes: “We are seeing the very worst of our scientific predictions come to pass.” And it may be too late to halt the onslaught:
“There may now be so much heat trapped in the system that we may have already triggered a domino effect that could unleash a cascade of abrupt changes that will continue to play out in the years and decades to come“, says Gergis, who says his work is now causing him sleepless nights.
The sentiment is echoed across the scientific community.
“A decade ago we identified a suite of potential tipping points in the Earth system, now we see evidence that over half of them have been activated“, said Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, lead author of a report published in November 2019 and co-author of a landmark paper on tipping points published back in 2008.
I wrote more on that in previous posts.
A vicious (Arctic) circle
As far as the high north is concerned, the recently published Arctic Report Card 2019 by NOAA documents the persistent warming of the surface air temperature, the decline of sea ice, changes to the ecosystems on land and in the ocean, thawing permafrost and dramatic melting of the Greenland ice sheet.
“Coming full circle, the decreasing extent of sea ice and snow cover along with the melting Greenland ice sheet leads to an acceleration in the rate of warming of surface air temperatures in the Arctic”, the scientists write. The loss of the reflective white surfaces of snow and ice leads to more melting and more warming. As well as the impacts on those who live there, the rise in global sea level, the release of carbon from the permafrost and the effects on global weather patterns make sure the changes taking place in the Arctic are relevant to the rest of the world as well, the authors conclude.
In their end of year review of the top Arctic stories of 2019, Krestia DeGeorgy and Melody Schreiber in Arctic Today say the biggest story, as in most recent years “is the new knowledge and experience we continue to amass about the pace and consequences of climate change in the region”.
Looking across the media – and across the planet – the climate news from 2019 provides plenty of shocks and reasons for concern. A record high concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, record temperatures, unprecedented fires, permafrost thawing 70 years earlier than predicted, the extremest of extreme weather…
Coming back to climate scientist Joelle Gergis:
“Rapid climate change has the potential to reconfigure life on the planet as we know it. We know this because the geologic record contains evidence that these events have occurred in the past. The key difference is that we’ve never had 7.5 billion people on the planet, so the human species really is in uncharted territory“.
Gergis is one of the author’s working on the next IPCC Sixth Assessment Report on the global climate, due out next year. So I find it more than disconcerting when he writes: “I can assure you that the planetary situation is extremely dire“.
Can we turn things around?
So what would have to happen to turn the new decade we’ve just entered into one of hope for the Arctic and the planet?
Our economic model would have to change drastically to bring about the emission reductions outlined in the UNEP report. Endless growth and resource consumption are not compatible with a healthy earth and inhabitable climate for future generations. Fossil fuels have to stay in the ground. Renewable energy and clean transport have to become the norm. Reforestation instead of deforestation, less consumption of everything, all round, sustainable agriculture and an end to the throwaway mentality.
Politicians would have to think long-term and globally instead of just locally and up to the next election. “Buying solar cells from China instead of Australian coal will not stop a single fire in Australia” was a sentiment expressed recently by an Australian politician on the radio. Could be it’s time to understand some basic connections?
We would need to see some big changes in the USA, in a key election year, in Brazil, in China and India, to halt global warming in a hurry.
Glimmers of hope
Will the annual UN climate meeting in November in my old home town of Glasgow be able to pick up the pieces of 2019’s disastrous non-event in Madrid? These UN conferences can only achieve anything if real life and the real economy are moving along at the same time, regardless of stumbling blocks at the international political level.
Even in President Trump’s USA, states, regions, cities and companies are moving ahead with the green energy transition in spite of the policies at federal level. The EU is giving climate action top priority. Tree planting campaigns are spreading at all levels around the globe. New lab-grown microbial foods could help solve the problem of food security and emissions from farming. Transitions are underway in the fields of agriculture, energy and transport.
The FridaysForFuture movement is still alive and kicking, and planning to step up action in 2020.
But can all this happen fast enough to avoid being overtaken by the pace of climate warming?
UNEP chief Inger Andersen told me when I met her a couple of months ago you can’t be an environmentalist these days without being an optimist. So I’ll give her the last word and hope the optimists will prevail:
“We have never seen the degree of awareness around environmental matters similar to what we’re seeing now. I think that awareness is something that politicians of any shade or colour better pay attention to, because these young people may be sixteen today. But in a couple of years they will be voting. So I think this is part of a turning point (…) the solutions are there. We are already seeing many mayors and local communities making very pro-active and distinct decisions on going with green energy on reducing plastic, ensuring recycling, considering other ways to get their protein. Things of this nature – that can allow for a slowing of the climate crisis and protecting biological diversity as we know it.”