To avoid a climate disaster we need to eliminate heat-trapping greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With less than a decade* to significantly draw down emissions the window of opportunity to act is rapidly closing. While this is a serious crisis it is not getting the urgent attention it demands. However, with consorted efforts from governments, businesses, and civil society we still have time to avert a civilization-altering calamity.
As reflected in the GHG data we are facing an imminent crisis. Ever-rising concentrations of the three main GHGs are largely responsible for climate change. We have seen increases in carbon dioxide (CO₂), the principle GHG, but we have also seen increases in methane (CH₄), and nitrous oxide (N₂O).
In the last hundred years the levels of atmospheric CO₂, have grown from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 414 ppm, a level not seen on earth in more than a million years. The global average temperature is already about one degree Celsius (C) warmer than preindustrial norms, which is only half a degree C below the upper-temperature threshold limit of 1.5C agreed to at COP21. Despite the international adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement, our emissions keep increasing and as a consequence, we are rapidly exhausting our carbon budgets.
Rising GHG emissions are driving ever-increasing global average temperatures which are changing the climate and contributing to deadly extreme weather like storms, and wildfires. These impacts appear to be increasing in both frequency and severity but they could quickly get far worse. We could see sudden intensification that leads to cataclysms. Each year we are increasing the risk of triggering tipping points that could alter the planet’s carbon cycle and quickly push us past the point of no return. Melting ice on the ocean floor could release massive quantities of methane. In addition to global coastal flooding, melting polar ice could collapse global ocean circulation systems which would drastically alter seasonal cycles, temperatures, and weather. These and other tipping points could unleash an unstoppable cascade of cataclysmic events.
Our failure to reign-in emissions coincides with increasingly dire scientific predictions. A recent report by the World Meteorological Organisation warns that we may surpass the upper-temperature threshold limit by 2024. The report also indicates that countries have exceeded the CO₂ emissions targets in the Paris Climate Agreement by 15 billion tonnes.
People must make better choices. We can limit driving and minimize air travel. We can make environmentally-friendly dietary choices and make buying decisions that factor the carbon footprints of the products we consume. However, the bulk of the heavy lifting falls on governments and industry.
Energy is at the heart of the solution to the climate crisis. The fossil fuel industry is the primary driver of GHG emissions so if we are to meet the objectives laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement we must stop burning fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas).
The corporate world also has an important role to play. We will never get to where we need to go without the business community. They must move beyond sustainability as a marketing and public relations ploy and embed sustainability into their DNA. Those who ignore this call will be punished by new regulatory regimes while those that lead stand to benefit from a tremendous opportunity.
The economics of climate action are beyond reproach particularly if we factor in the co-benefits and the real costs. Our current economic trajectory is perilous and but this is not reflected in prevailing economic assessments which do not incorporate environmental externalities. COVID-19 has exposed some of the weaknesses of capitalism and prompted questions about an economic paradigm that impedes climate action. Short-term thinking is one of the problems, but at the top of that list is the fixation with growth. The problem is deeper than decoupling growth from carbon emissions. The obsession with growth may be better understood as an illusion and a form of denial that augurs peril.
To stave off the worst impacts of climate change we will need to decarbonize our economies. This requires massive investments in renewable energy, building efficiency, and decarbonization through electrification in both transportation and industry. Even if we succeed in decarbonizing our economies we will still need to remove carbon from the atmosphere. This means we will have to massively scale-up negative emissions technologies.
As stated in a 2018 IPCC report the involvement of government is essential if we are to enact the kind of broad-spectrum changes we need to see. Only governments are capable of providing both incentives (financial and tax support) and disincentives (regulatory regimes) capable of materializing the large-scale transition we need to see in the limited time we have. Governments will need to employ every lever of power at their disposal to expedite the transition to a low carbon economy.
Both U.S. President Joe Biden and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have laid out their versions of recovery plans that focus on decarbonization to achieve carbon neutrality. The EU and China have also adopted similar programs as have many other countries around the world.
There really is little choice, we can either benefit from participating in this unparalleled economic opportunity or we can suffer from mass disruptions that will devastate our economies. While the economic incentives associated with climate action are compelling, the logic of doing everything we can to avoid the end of civilization is unassailable.
We may have reached a critical mass of support for climate action and addressing social injustices like racism and inequality. History may show that the dual horrors of Trump’s legacy and the COVID-19 pandemic helped to foment a paradigm shift.
There is reason to hope that recent events may prove to be the catalyst we needed to alter our perilous trajectory. If we apply the lessons we have learned from COVID-19 there is believe that climate action could bring people together. It is now or never, we can either come to our senses and pull the planet back from the brink or we can augur ruin on a planetary scale
* According to the IPCC we will need to reduce emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030.