Disturbing news came out of a meeting in Oxford, England, last week. Over 200 researchers, policy makers, businesspeople, and members of civil society met to reexamine Earth’s deadline for human sustainability. They found it likely to be sooner than we previously thought.
To review recent history a bit: at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change last December, representatives of 195 nations agreed to try to limit world temperature rise to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels by the end of the 21st century.
Recently, many experts have concluded that even with most nationally determined contributions to carbon reduction counted, Earth is currently on a path toward at least 2.7 degrees of warming despite the 2 degree pledge. They are growing to favor a 1.5 degree goal instead. This trend inspired UNFCCC delegates to include 1.5 degrees in the final Paris Agreement wording as a desirable lower limit for carbon emissions.
However, previous scientific research and political approaches had concentrated on the 2°C scenario. The newly considered goal required rethinking and further research on the nature, benefits, and feasibility of a 1.5 degree temperature elevation. “We need to get ready to deal with surprise,” said Jim Hall, director of the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. When industrialized countries reach out to help those most vulnerable to climate change (less developed nations, the poor, the old, the sick, and the complacent) to withstand its challenges, efforts will be needed to help them not only adapt to the changes, but also absorb considerable shocks.
The UNFCCC requested the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to prepare a Special Report for 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. As the eighth annual Climate Week got under way last week in New York City and countries began to formally ratify the agreement, over 200 researchers, policy makers, businesspeople, and members of civil society gathered in Oxford to begin filling the knowledge gap.
They explored the impacts of 1.5 degree warming above pre-industrial levels vs. 2 degrees and assessed the feasibility of meeting the challenges foreseen in Paris. Those attending reviewed the options for achieving the proposed 1.5°C warming target and the possible consequences of different actions.
Analysts also predicted that some of the growing pressures may be hard to reduce. Land—simultaneously needed to grow food, to protect biodiversity, to store carbon in forests, and to grow more climate-friendly crops—becomes harder and harder to retain and serve multiple uses as prices soar and populations grow larger.
The conclusion from Oxford proved startling and deeply uncomfortable. Thomson Reuters Foundation summarized the bottom line:
“The planet could pass a key target on world temperature rise in about a decade, prompting accelerating loss of glaciers, steep declines in water availability, worsening land conflicts, and deepening poverty.”
No use denying it—the previous estimates of the time we have left to sustain livability for humans on this planet appear to have been overly optimistic. Climate change impacts like intractable heat waves, shoreline and internal flooding, and superstorms are already taking unexpected tolls. Global temperatures are rising even more quickly than scientists have predicted.
World experts increasingly see only 10 years left to adjust the carbon regime before it makes huge ecological changes inevitable. As Richard Betts, head of climate impacts research at the UK’s national weather service, put it, the planet is already two-thirds of the way to the 1.5 degree goal, and we could begin to pass it in about a decade.
“If the world is serious about achieving the goals agreed in Paris, governments have to stop the expansion of the fossil fuel industry,” says Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International. A recent analysis by his firm and 14 organizations from around the world shows that using the world’s developed oil, gas, and coal reserves will push Earth well past the threshold for dangerous climate change in the near future.
With world emissions unlikely to slow quickly enough to hit even the previous 2°C target, the Oxford scientists have concluded that some massive policy changes and even geoengineering may become necessary to decarbonize enough to stabilize the planet. The latter measures, like attempting to block some of the sunlight that reaches the planet and changing the chemical composition of the ocean, have previously been downplayed by other experts.
Said Pete Smith, a plant and soil scientist at the University of Aberdeen, “Negative emission technologies are likely to be needed, whether we like them or not…. [However,] there are lots of behavioral changes required, not just by the government… but by us.”
Turning to cleaner energies and speeding the demise of fossil fuels are currently approved strategies. We can go much farther, though, by adopting mitigation in agriculture, food systems, forestry, and land use. Some relatively simple changes in lifestyle include reducing food waste and adopting more sustainable diets (less beef and imported produce). Changes on this order would greatly lower the risks of setting untested geoengineering schemes against changes whose scale, timing, and cumulative effects remain elusive.
Stephane Hallegatte, a senior economist working on climate change issues at the World Bank, pointed out the value of a public works program in Ethiopia that pays poor people cash or food for work on public infrastructure projects. The work improves water systems and builds drought resilience. When drought threatens, officials can scale up the program easily to create a social safety net.
Other effective efforts to boost resilience among the poor include Rwanda’s push to provide health insurance (which 80% of people now have—and providing access to savings accounts, now thought more reliable than the tradition of putting cash into disaster-prone livestock.