The climate crisis is a topic which many of us like to think we understand when, in actuality, we know frighteningly little. This is often the case but not due to a lack of interest or awareness, but instead a symptom of the sheer complexity surrounding the state of our environment. Therefore, instead of thinking about the environment in terms of all its limitless factors, it might be easier to simply outline where we are now, and where we need to be. From this perspective, it makes information surrounding the climate far more digestible than it might previously have been. Hence, this article will serve as a brief guide to the climate crisis as it exists now and what needs to be done for our global population to continue sustaining life into the future.
What do we know?
Well, at the 2016 Paris Agreement (the largest environment conference in modern history with the first legally binding international document) 192 countries agreed that global temperatures cannot rise by an average of 1.5 degrees, pre-industrial levels. This global limit is known as the Environmental Tipping Point and is – more simply – the temperature above which irreversible and significant damage to the environment will be done. Above this temperature increase, global life as we know it will change drastically: the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets will collapse, 97% of tropical reefs – home to a quarter of all marine life – will die, and the AMOC (a system of ocean currents that carry warm water from the tropics northwards into the North Atlantic) will cease to exist. These marked events denote the beginning of an irreversible downward spiral which will, within the next 75 years, force 40% of the global population into being vulnerable of displacement. The Environmental Tipping Point is, therefore, where our efforts need to be focussed.
So, where are we now?
The average global temperature is currently 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels, leaving room for only 0.4 more degrees of global warming. At our current rate of warming, we would hit 1.5 degrees by 2033 – a 10 year timer. This is due to a plethora of factors, all in some way related to the emission of greenhouse gases. The UN names seven human activities that are currently pushing us towards the 1.5-degree threshold: generating power, manufacturing goods, cutting down forests, using transportation, producing food, powering buildings, and consuming too much. Together, these human actions amount to creating roughly 50 billion CO2 equivalent tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, heating our atmosphere. Despite the legal framework set up by the Paris Agreement, fossil fuel production is set to increase by 2% every year, resulting in a further increase of 0.18 degrees per decade. Therefore, as it stands, our climate is being pushed ever closer to the threshold at which it can no longer sustain itself in the long term.
Where do we need to be?
The end goal is evidently the 1.5-degree limit set in 2016; however, the challenge is how that goal can be reached, considering the constraints of the current fossil fuel-based market. To prevent breaching that threshold, fossil fuel production needs to decrease by 6% every year between 2020 and 2030 and that 50bn CO2 equivalent tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions needs to fall to zero by 2050, and then go negative. By no means is this impossible. The transport industry, for example, is pioneering the shift to renewable energy. The majority of of NATO members have agreed to phase out non-electric car production by 2030 and make major cities ‘no emission’ zones by 2035. Moreover, popular car manufacturers – such as Tesla – are forcing the market to undergo a renewable shift to stay competitive. Although currently only 29% of world energy is renewable, that figure is increasing by almost 2% per year. Individually, we can also make a big difference. Although it may seem impossible to make a tangible difference to the climate, but it is in fact very realistic. By carbon offsetting through online corporations such as Carbon Fund, it costs less than $20 a month to be carbon neutral as an individual. A collective societal or even local effort along these lines would be instrumental in tipping the scales back towards a safe future.
Therefore, the evidence points to one simple fact: where we are now is not where we need to be. We are currently in line to breach the barriers set by our own scientists and tumble over the Environmental Tipping Point. Within the last four decades, human pollution has wiped out 60% of our planet’s wildlife and caused 7 million premature deaths every year. Exceeding the Tipping Point is likely to result in that statistic rising to 90% alongside causing an additional 250,000 premature deaths each year. It is clear that we have to change course to protect our environment and that there’s something for everyone to do.