Back in the days when climate change was far off in the future, small countries like Wales could be used as a measure of the damage humans were doing to the planet. In the 1980s we were regularly treated to headlines along the lines of “An area of forest the size of Wales disappears every year,” or “An area of polar ice the size of Wales disappears every year.” Other small countries like Belgium or Greece would occasionally be substituted. But the general point was vaguely reassuring. The damage was (relatively) small and there was still plenty of time for humanity to change course.
Fast forward a couple of decades’ worth of exponential GDP growth and the damage has been done. Countries like Belgium and Wales are far too small to be used to measure the elements of the environmental disaster that is almost upon us. Today, we have to measure environmental damage on a sub-continental level. For example, Alex Kirby at Climate Change News warns us that:
“Nearly four million square kilometres of frozen soil – an area larger than India – could be lost for every additional degree of global warming the planet experiences.”
This is one of the most worrying feedback mechanisms for climate scientists. As Kirby reminds us:
“Permafrost is frozen soil that has been at a temperature of below 0°C for at least two years, trapping large amounts of carbon that is stored in organic matter held in the soil. When permafrost thaws, the organic matter starts to decompose, releasing greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, and raising global temperatures… it is estimated that there is more carbon contained in the permafrost than is currently in the atmosphere.”
Thus, as methane and carbon are released from the permafrost, so even more heat is generated and even more permafrost is melted in a vicious feedback loop that could send global temperatures into the stratosphere.
Unlike governments and businesses, who still seem to believe that there is plenty of time left to do something about climate change; scientists believe we have just three years left. That, at least, is the message of the new 2020 The Climate Turning Point report:
“We must now act with great urgency to fulfill our shared commitment. If we are to be successful, greenhouse gas emissions must begin their steady decline by 2020. Bending the curve of emissions any later will all but eliminate our chance to stay within 1.5°C and move the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals beyond our reach. Given the stakes, failure is simply not an option.”
“The Mission 2020 campaign, with its #2020DontBeLate hashtag, was launched at Google’s headquarters in London by Figueres, Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the 2006 Stern Review, Helena Morrissey, head of personal investing at Legal & General Investment Management, Professor Joanna Haigh, co-director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College, with Astro Teller, CEO of X (formerly Google X) and former IPCC co-chair Professor Stocker of the University of Bern joining by video.”
The campaign sets out six goals that have to be met by 2020 if we are to have any chance of meeting the Paris Agreement target of keeping warming below 2oC above preindustrial levels:
- Energy: Renewables will need to outcompete fossil fuels worldwide
- Transport: Zero emission transport options will be chosen in major cities and transport routes
- Infrastructure: Cities and states will be implementing plans to fully decarbonise infrastructure by 2050
- Land Use: Large-scale deforestation to be replaced by land restoration and agriculture shifts to earth-friendly practices
- Industry: Heavy industry commits to being Paris-compliant
- Finance: Investment in climate action is beyond $1trillion per year, and all financial institutions have a disclosed transition strategy.
According to Christiana Figueres:
“We have more or less 800GT of CO2 left that we can emit before going into major disturbances … and we’ve already emitted twice that. At the current rate of about 40GT, the planet would use up its entire remaining carbon budget in 20 years.”
The problem is that western governments have fixated on the idea that some as yet undiscovered technology will be invented by 2030 so that we can carry on with business as usual and then suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere at a later date. As Professor John Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research explains:
“Each and every scientific assessment demonstrates that limiting global warming to well below 2°C … can only be achieved if we start decarbonising the world economy now. Geoengineering ourselves out of climate disaster later is nothing more than a dangerous illusion.”
Wait until 2030 to take action, and even India will become an inadequate measure of the kind of environmental damage we are likely to be experiencing. Another round of business as usual and an accelerated release of the methane locked up in the Arctic, and we could well be measuring global-scale climate impacts.