We will face some critical choices in 2020 including momentous decisions that will have profound impacts on humanity, ecosystems, and countless species. The first issue is our failure to reign in GHG emissions and the second is the absence of any significant progress at COP25.
The combinations of a warming world and ecosystem destruction put us on a collision course with catastrophe. We are destroying life on Earth at an alarming rate. This includes species from the top to the bottom of the web of life, everything from keystone species to insects and plankton. Whether we realize it or not we are woven into this web.
We are not on track to limit warming to the safe upper threshold (1.5 Celsius above preindustrial norms). We are now more than two-thirds of the way there (1.1 Celsius above preindustrial norms). Ongoing emissions ensure that the world will continue to warm. Although we are moving in the wrong direction, three critical summits in 2020 could significantly improve our prospects.
In June the governments of Portugal and Kenya will host the high-level Ocean Conference in Lisbon. This conference is intended to increase ocean-based action to implement the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, which seeks to conserve and sustainably use oceans and marine resources. It is hoped that we will see a declaration from governments to take action on ocean protection through a set of voluntary commitments.
In October, delegates from more than 190 countries will attend the Biodiversity Summit in Kunming, China to finalize and sign a new international agreement to protect biodiversity. This new agreement will replace the Aichi Goals. Some of the 20 Aichi Goals have been successful others have not. For example, more than 80 percent of signatory nations have met the conditions of goal 11, which asks each nation to safeguard 10 percent of its marine areas and 17 percent of its land areas. However, we have not succeeded in achieving Aichi goal 20, which calls for an increase in the financial resources to protect biodiversity.
At the end of the year, the world will convene for the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland which is scheduled to take place November 9-20, 2020. A change in leadership in the world’s most powerful democracy may herald new hope for a significant increase in emissions reduction ambitions.
In addition to recalcitrant governments, our economic system poses a significant challenge. We may need to challenge some of our basic economic assumptions. While we need to see economic reforms, for many, especially those in the U.S. capitalism is sacrosanct. While one can argue that this is a maladaptive point of view, entrenched conservative political interests, and the old energy industry make this a difficult nut to crack.
Some have argued that we need a slower, more cautious approach that gradually phases in environmental and climate action. This may avoid the backlash that threatens to kill climate action and embolden the political right. An incremental approach may be more politically viable and could draw support from allies among conservative ranks and the business community. However, this approach slows decarbonization and we do not have the time. According to the IPCC, we have at best ten years to radically slash emissions. Others including Harvard scientist James Anderson, best known for his work on chlorofluorocarbons, think we have less than half that time.
The longer we wait the more likely we are to encounter feedback loops that accelerate warming. This includes melting permafrost that releases massive amounts of GHGs and an ice-free arctic that will absorb more heat (ice reflects sunlight back into space). The most urgent tipping point may be political. The single most important event in 2020 may be the U.S. presidential election on November 3rd, 2020. Simply put, we cannot afford another four years with Donald Trump at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation. The transition to a more reasonable leadership in the U.S. would make all the difference.
One way or another, the year to come will define humanity and determine the fate of life on the planet.