Scientists declare a climate emergency

Two new reports, released just hours apart, paint a damning picture of our inability – in some cases unwillingness – to deal with the reality of climate change.

More than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries are signatories to a paper in the journal BioScience which declares a global climate emergency and argues that “untold human suffering” is unavoidable without deep and lasting shifts in human activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and other factors related to climate change.

This warning, they say, is based on scientific analysis of more than 40 years of publicly available data covering such measures as energy use, surface temperature, population growth, land clearing, deforestation, polar ice mass, fertility rates, gross domestic product and carbon emissions.

The second report, prepared by a panel of climate scientists and published by the Universal Ecological Fund (FEU), claims almost three-quarters of the 184 climate pledges made under the Paris Agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions are inadequate to slow climate change, and that some of the world’s largest emitters will continue to increase emissions.

“Simply, the pledges are far too little, too late,” says co-author Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

The BioScience paper is the work of scientists from Oregon State University (OSU) and Tufts University in the US, University of Sydney, Australia, and University of Cape Town, South Africa. 

They argue that while some indicators related to human activities are broadly positive – such as declining birth rates and increased uptake of renewable fuels – most are not. Rather, they point to “profoundly troubling signs from human activities,” such as growing livestock populations, global tree cover loss, and higher carbon dioxide emissions.

“Despite 40 years of major global negotiations, we have continued to conduct business as usual and have failed to address this crisis,” says ecologist William J Ripple, who led the group with OSU colleague Christopher Wolf. “Climate change has arrived and is accelerating faster than many scientists expected.”

The paper identifies six areas in which immediate steps should be taken to slow down the effects of a warming planet.

Energy: Implement massive conservation practices; replace fossil fuels with low-carbon renewables; leave remaining stocks of fossil fuels in the ground; eliminate subsidies to fossil fuel companies; and impose carbon fees that are high enough to restrain the use of fossil fuels. 

Short-lived pollutants: Swiftly cut emissions of methane, soot, hydrofluorocarbons and other short-lived climate pollutants; doing so has the potential to reduce the short-term warming trend by more than 50% over the next few decades. 

Nature: Restore and protect ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, peatlands, wetlands and mangroves, and allow a larger share of these ecosystems to reach their ecological potential for sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas. 

Food: Eat more plants and consume fewer animal products. The dietary shift would significantly reduce emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases and free up agricultural lands for growing human food rather than livestock feed. Reducing food waste is also critical – the scientists say at least one-third of all food produced ends up as garbage. 

Economy: Convert the economy to one that is carbon free to address human dependence on the biosphere and shift goals away from the growth of gross domestic product and the pursuit of affluence. Curb exploitation of ecosystems to maintain long-term biosphere sustainability. 

Population: Stabilise a global human population that is increasing by more than 200,000 people a day, using approaches that ensure social and economic justice.

The authors note that they do see some hope in “a recent surge of concern”.

“Governmental bodies are making climate emergency declarations,” they write. “Schoolchildren are striking. Ecocide lawsuits are proceeding in the courts. Grassroots citizen movements are demanding change, and many countries, states and provinces, cities, and businesses are responding.” 

The FEU report highlights some of the political realities, however.

“Based on our meticulous analysis of the climate pledges, it is naive to expect current government efforts to substantially slow climate change,” says co-author James McCarthy, from Harvard University in the US.  

The report says only 35 countries – 28 of them in the European Union – will reduce emissions by at least 40% by 2030.

China and India, the top emitters, will reduce emissions intensity but their emissions will increase, and the US, the next on the list, has reversed key national policies to combat climate change, the authors say.

Almost 70% of the pledges rely on funding from wealthy nations for their implementation, they add.

Related reading: Climate change report shows current reality

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