This time three years ago, the world was preparing for the climate negotiations in Paris. The yet-to-be-signed accord asked every government in the world to commit to curbing its greenhouse gases. They all did- even the United States of America, which had so far stayed out of global climate agreements. But even then, the commitments of nearly 190 countries put together could not promise to contain the earth’s warming to below 1.5 degrees C. (By 2015, scientists concurred that the earth is warmer by 1 degree compared to pre-industrial levels). The Paris Accord, finally, proclaimed that countries will aim to keep temperature rise to well below 2 degrees C and to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C.
Three years on,the world hears some very bad news. We absolutely need to keep temperature rise below the 1.5-degree mark. If not, we are looking at a sure disaster which many of us will experience firsthand in the coming decade or two. Climate change is no longer an abstract possibility, or a science fiction event projected for a distant future. It is no longer about sorry-looking polar bears stranded on melting ice caps. It is about you and me, the drought-stricken farmer in Polonnaruwa and the plantation worker living in a landslide prone mountain. It is about flash floods and increasing droughts. It is about small islands sinking and coral reefs dying. All this is much nearer than earlier assumed or anticipated.
Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the most damning report in its 30-year history. The Special Report on Global Warming on 1.5 C sought to assess the difference between global warming of 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees on the earth’s critical physical and natural systems.
There are three key take aways of this report- none of them sunny and positive. The first is that 2 degrees warmer is a lot, lot worse than 1.5 degrees, despite what might look like a measly half degree difference. We will all still be living in a lukewarm earth, much less comfortable than today, but at 1.5 degree rise many of the earth’s critical ecosystems (oceans, ice sheets, tropical forests) can struggle to survive. However, the tipping point for many of these comes at 2 degrees. For example, 70-90 percent of the coral reefs will die off at 1.5, but at 2 degrees none will exist. Extreme weather events (drought, cyclonic storms, heavy rainfall etc) will increase hugely. Many insects, plants and animals will disappear. Changes in the polar regions would be stark. Fresh water will become increasingly scarce and precious. At 1.5 degree warming, there will be ice-free summers every century or so, but in a 2-degree world this phenomenon will happen every decade. Hot days in the tropics will be hotter by 3-4 degrees- bad news for countries like Pakistan that hit the 50 degree Celsius this summer.
Tragically, the Paris Accord does not put the world on track towards either temperature target. CO2 emissions actually peaked in 2017, the world’s fast-growing economies spewing out more pollution than ever to the saturated atmosphere. The report explicitly finds that current Paris Agreement pledges are not enough to limit warming to 1.5 C, or even 2 C and governments need to take a complete about-turn in their key economic systems to enable the earth to remain livable.
The third takeaway is that it MAY still BE possible to reverse ourselves out the prospect of creating an unlivable world. However, this transformation will come at a cost- to the tune of USD 1 trillion every year for 25 years or more, until the world has learnt to live very differently and we are free of fossil-fuelled economies.The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5 C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities.
What does this really mean? The world has to give up its love affair with fossil fuels. Land has to be put in to forestry or to grow energy crops. Renewable energy has to speedily take over baseloads -even in the most developed economies. Transport systems have to move from private ownership to public (more buses, trains, subways instead of private cars), buildings should be maximally energy efficient and cities have to transform their energy consumption or become energy generation centres.
To keep the world livable, by 2030, in just 12 years, emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by 50% compared to 2010 levels reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air with carbon capture technologies which are still new and hugely expensive.
The report is unambiguous about the level of political will and bureaucratic commitment that would be needed to turn around a world order- built on exploitative, misguided economic theory which does not consider the natural limits of the earth’s systems- into one that is founded on sustainability. “Limiting warming to 1.5 C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” said Jim Skea of IPCC.That means sacrifices. Such changes have to be politically-led and funded, and the responsibility falls very heavily on the giant economies of the world with the means and technology to lead this transition. Coal is most contentious of fossil fuels. Despite the pledges in Paris, governments in developing countries are planning 1600 new coal power plants in the next decade, many supported by Chinese technology. The United States is contemplating new subsidies for coal extraction.
However, the UN Report, places responsibility not just on all governments but also on all citizens. All of us have been weaned on fossil fuels. Sustainable living needs to go beyond refusing the odd-plastic bag. It will mean sacrificing our own lifestyles and comforts we are used to. It would mean changing our expectations of what a ‘good life’ would be. Would we rather have a cooler, livable earth and a change for other species to survive? Or is the private car, imported food and air-conditioning more important to us?
It is tempting, especially for smaller economies like ours to simply say- well, what can we do? It is up to the big boys to change. The fact is however, smaller countries like Sri Lanka will be worst affected by runaway climate change. Sri Lanka is already ranked among the most vulnerable countries in the world to impacts of climate change. While one can debate the accuracy of such rankings, the impacts of the 1-degree change is already unbearable for many. Just two weeks ago, almost a million people were queuing for drought relief. Today the same regions are experiencing near-flood situation.
Sri Lanka’s economy actually suffers from fossil fuel dependence. However, until very recently the government subsidized the use of fuels in transport, in industry and power generation. Our future power generation is dependent on imported coal and oil. Our transport systems have taken a backward step in terms of sustainability with many more private vehicles and a decline in both quality and quantity of public transport.
The steps that need to be taken are already identified. Investing in water management including protecting watersheds, afforestation, coastal protection, improving public transport and more renewable energy are all critical priorities that need urgent attention and investment by both the government and private sector.
As individuals, we need to start the change from within. Within ourselves, our homes and schools and local areas. This wake-up call is bad news. The earth doesn’t need humans- we need a livable world.
(Tharuka Dissanaike works as Policy Specialist at the United Nations Development Programme in Colombo, Sri Lanka)