LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) – Climate change is an urgent concern for heads of state gathering at the General Assembly of the United Nations this week. As young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg have made clear, this challenge will outlast the political lives of everyone gathered in New York. It is easy to become gloomy, but economists can bring some comfort. Three positive trends can help the world tackle man-made warming.16-year-old Swedish Climate activist Greta Thunberg departs after speaking at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 23, 2019.
The first is rising prosperity. In many dimensions, the overall global economic situation is better than it has ever been. Take life expectancy. This is a basic index of prosperity because longer lives are a sign of the availability of many of modern life’s essential goods and services.
The news is good. Globally, infants born in 2015 can on average expect to live for 71.7 years. That’s 6.6 years longer than those born two decades earlier, according to Our World in Data, which aggregates the latest available numbers. The gains have been largest in poorer countries. Life expectancy has risen by 8.3 years in India and 15.7 years in Ethiopia, compared with four years in Japan and a 2.8-year gain in the United States.
The spread of more comfortable lifestyles in the poorer parts of the world not only leads to longer lives. It also typically adds to the climate challenge, since increased prosperity tends to require the emission of more climate-warming greenhouse gases.
However, more educated, healthier and richer people living in societies with more economic resources are also much better equipped to cope with the difficulties caused by warming. The average number of annual deaths worldwide caused by natural disasters has been lower this decade than in the 1970s, according to Our World in Data, even though the global population is almost twice the size.
The resilience matters, because the world has not yet found any technically and politically plausible way to do much more than gradually slow the rate of warming. The wait for breakthroughs will be a lot less painful if people have the resources needed to change agricultural practices or move to more suitable places.
The second comforting economic trend is technological. The world has not lost its inventive momentum, despite dire predictions from economists such as Robert Gordon of Northwestern University. The most recent successes involve telecommunications. Our World in Data reports that since 2000, the number of internet users in the world has risen from 413 million to 3.4 billion. Penetration of mobile phones has increased from 12% of the world’s population to 104% over those years.
These revolutions required developments in the relatively new field of electronic engineering. The challenges of climate change require a revision of older technologies, particularly energy production and storage. The scientists, industrialists and planners seem to be coming up with the goods. Solar and wind power are becoming viable economic alternatives for coal-fired and gas-fired plants, while batteries are becoming efficient enough for electric-powered cars to become a big business.
Even with these breakthroughs, the global use of greenhouse-gas emitting hydrocarbons is very unlikely to decline quickly, because the world still relies so much on these energy sources. They accounted for 93% of energy production in 2016, and their use had increased a 1.4% annual rate in the preceding decade, according to Our World in Data.
Engineers, industrialists and governments can work together to reverse this trend. They can also explore carbon capture and other more exotic ways to manipulate the atmosphere. Despite the pervasive pessimism, the historical record suggests that the chances of success are high.
The third economic support is that the population boom is coming to an end. The number of people in the world is 4.7 times higher than in 1900, but women now have an average of 2.5 children. That is not far above the 2.1 at which the population would eventually stabilise.
Actual stability requires the high birth rates which are still prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa to follow the global pattern of falling as prosperity rises. Ethiopia is a good example of how fast things can change. The average woman there had seven children 20 years ago. Now she can expect 4.3.
The downward demographic shift raises various problems, such as funding retirements. For climate change, however, it is an unmitigated positive. Slower population growth leads to fewer energy users and less energy-intensive expenditure on new housing and its related infrastructure.
These economic trends will help the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, there is one necessary and powerful economic force which is not pointing clearly in the right direction.
Governments have to play the central role in organising the response to climate change. Only the political authorities have the scale and clout needed to mobilise existing economic resources and create new ones around the world.
The clout is there, but the will often seems to be weak. The contrast between the earnest and ambitious enthusiasm of the young climate action protesters and the cynical platitudes of many of the political leaders gathered in New York is striking. Economists can line up with the new generation.
We’re constantly encouraged to think of the next big climate summit, conference or protest as the most important one, the one that is about to make the all-important breakthrough. The UN’s Climate Action Summit on September 23 in New York is no different. The UN’s Secretary General António Guterres is calling on world leaders to come with concrete and realistic plans to bring their national net carbon emissions down to zero by 2050.
But amid the hype, it’s worth putting this UN summit in context against the history of 30 years of such international meetings. Is it a vain hope for 197 countries to agree on any meaningful climate action at all, especially when it involves so much money and power?
On the 1988 American presidential campaign trail, George Bush Senior promised to convene a global conference on the environment at the White House to “talk about global warming”. But when it finally happened it wasn’t truly global.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was born the same year, endorsed by the UN general assembly, and produced its first report in 1990. By then, there had been fine declarations of motherhood-and-apple-pie in various European cities, such as the Hague and Bergen. However, negotiations towards an international treaty to do something about climate change itself did not begin until February 1991. The world’s media largely ignored them, as the 1991 Gulf War was underway.
UNFCCC birth pangs
Very little progress was made – a sign of things to come – and with a hard deadline of May 1992 approaching, a month before the world’s nations were to gather in Rio de Janeiro for an “Earth Summit”, powerful countries were at loggerheads.
The birth pangs of this search for an international UN treaty on climate change still shape what is and isn’t possible today.
The sticking point was – and still is – what the US government, and the business lobbies behind it, would find acceptable. The French government was keen that any treaty include actual commitments to reduce CO2 emissions, with targets and timetables for the rich nations. The Bush government warned that if these were included in the text they would not attend the Rio summit, leaving any treaty languishing. The French blinked, the UK acted as a middleman, and a deal was done.
The French, and others, had hoped that once the UNFCCC was signed and ratified, they could quickly address the question of rich country commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. But this didn’t happen.
When the Kyoto Protocol, which extended the UNFCCC, was agreed in 1997, despite the fact that carbon trading and other economic instruments within it were designed to keep the Americans happy, no serious commitment to reductions was made. The Americans then pulled out of the implementation process of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, when George W Bush became president.
The process staggered on and there was another helping of motherhood-and-apple-pie at Copenhagen in 2009. Finally, in 2015 a non-binding Paris Agreement was cobbled together, based on a previously discarded “pledge and review” mechanism, which has created an endless round of promises that haven’t been met.
The scientist who had warned that climate change was upon us in 1988 – James Hansen – called the Paris Agreement a fraud, and since 2015, many nations are failing to meet their Paris commitments. Even if they did, global average temperature rise this century would be far in excess of the two degrees above pre-industrial levels that the deal is supposed to ensure.
Some would argue that trying to get 197 countries to agree on anything is a fool’s errand. For 20 years, critics such as the international relations expert David Victor have questioned whether the UN is the appropriate venue for climate negotiations. Victor argues that such a forum is inevitably going to lead to gridlock. He’s not alone in this – as early as 1983 some policy analysts in the US were saying that such a global problem could not be solved because of the complexity of its politics.
The counter argument is that if a deal is agreed outside of the UN process, between the world’s major emitters – the EU, US and China – then it will be perceived as illegitimate, and will likely involve an even greater reliance on speculative technologies than the current Paris Agreement.
Ultimately, it becomes a matter of trust: do those already suffering the impacts of climate change trust those who have caused it to sort it out.
In my experience of talking to people who work in and around the UNFCCC’s bodies, many speak knowledgeably without hesitation, deviation or repetition about the alphabet soup of climate change acronyms, but are completely oblivious of much of this awkward history. Yet what happened – straightforward veto power by the US of anything that would look like real action – remains with us today, and it doesn’t help to pretend otherwise.
Whether the world can a transition to sustainability – the stated aims of both the UNFCCC and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – remains to be seen. But the stakes could not be higher. If political, economic, technological and cultural solutions aren’t now found, the outlook for humanity – and the other species we share this planet with – is exceptionally bleak.
This article is part of The Covering Climate Now series This is a concerted effort among news organisations to put the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage. This article is published under a Creative Commons license and can be reproduced for free – just hit the “Republish this article” button on the page to copy the full HTML coding. The Conversation also runs Imagine, a newsletter in which academics explore how the world can rise to the challenge of climate change. Sign up here.
Today is World Car Free Day, which is celebrated on September 22, encourages motorists to give up their cars for a day. Organized events are held in some cities and countries. The events, which vary by location, give motorists and commuters an idea of their locality with fewer cars. Wikipedia. But why such initiative if there were not some tacit agreement by the world communities that the Life-threatening impact of Climate Change was mainly due and/or consequent to the following as elaborated in this United Nations post.
Global emissions are reaching record levels and show no sign of peaking. The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, heatwaves and risks to food security.
The impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere and are having very real consequences on people’s lives. Climate change is disrupting national economies, costing us dearly today and even more tomorrow. But there is a growing recognition that affordable, scalable solutions are available now that will enable us all to leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies.
The latest analysis shows that if we act now, we can reduce carbon emissions within 12 years and hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C and even, as asked by the latest science, to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Thankfully, we have the Paris Agreement – a visionary, viable, forward-looking policy framework that sets out exactly what needs to be done to stop climate disruption and reverse its impact. But the agreement itself is meaningless without ambitious action.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is calling on all leaders to come to New York on 23 September with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.
I want to hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century
To be effective and credible, these plans cannot address mitigation alone: they must show the way toward a full transformation of economies in line with sustainable development goals. They should not create winners and losers or add to economic inequality; they must be fair and create new opportunities and protections for those negatively impacted, in the context of a just transition. And they should also include women as key decision-makers: only gender-diverse decision-making has the capacity to tackle the different needs that will emerge in this coming period of critical transformation.
The Summit will bring together governments, the private sector, civil society, local authorities and other international organizations to develop ambitious solutions in six areas: a global transition to renewable energy; sustainable and resilient infrastructures and cities; sustainable agriculture and management of forests and oceans; resilience and adaptation to climate impacts; and alignment of public and private finance with a net-zero economy.
Business is on our side. Accelerated climate solutions can strengthen our economies and create jobs, while bringing cleaner air, preserving natural habitats and biodiversity, and protecting our environment.
New technologies and engineering solutions are already delivering energy at a lower cost than the fossil-fuel driven economy. Solar and onshore wind are now the cheapest sources of new bulk power in virtually all major economies. But we must set radical change in motion.
This means ending subsidies for fossil fuels and high-emitting agriculture and shifting towards renewable energy, electric vehicles and climate-smart practices. It means carbon pricing that reflects the true cost of emissions, from climate risk to the health hazards of air pollution. And it means accelerating the closure of coal plants and halting the construction of new ones and replacing jobs with healthier alternatives so that the transformation is just, inclusive and profitable.
In order to ensure that the transformative actions in the real economy are as impactful as possible, the Secretary-General has prioritized the following action portfolios, which are recognized as having high potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions and increased global action on adaptation and resilience.
Finance: mobilizing public and private sources of finance to drive decarbonization of all priority sectors and advance resilience;
Energy Transition: accelerating the shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, as well as making significant gains in energy efficiency;
Industry Transition: transforming industries such as Oil and Gas, Steel, Cement, Chemicals and Information Technology;
Nature-Based Solutions: Reducing emissions, increasing sink capacity and enhancing resilience within and across forestry, agriculture, oceans and food systems, including through biodiversity conservation, leveraging supply chains and technology;
Cities and Local Action: Advancing mitigation and resilience at urban and local levels, with a focus on new commitments on low-emission buildings, mass transport and urban infrastructure; and resilience for the urban poor;
Resilience and Adaptation: advancing global efforts to address and manage the impacts and risks of climate change, particularly in those communities and nations most vulnerable.
In addition, there are three additional key areas:
Mitigation Strategy: to generate momentum for ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and long-term strategies to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Youth Engagement and Public Mobilization: To mobilize people worldwide to take action on climate change and ensure that young people are integrated and represented across all aspects of the Summit, including the six transformational areas.
Social and Political Drivers: to advance commitments in areas that affect people’s well-being, such as reducing air pollution, generating decent jobs, and strengthening climate adaptation strategies and protect workers and vulnerable groups.
Global warming or climate change is threatening the fate of oases in the Sahara Desert as affected by the noticeable advancing sands along the edges of all habitable spaces in the MENA region. With almost 90 per cent of its lands being arid and/or semi-arid, the region’s countries must be following the 14th edition of the COP on the fight against desertification. This being held in New Delhi, India, from 2 September through to 13 September, the UN urges soil organic carbon conservation to fight desertification whereby UNCCD’s member countries must proactively prevent land degradation reports Ranjit Devraj in this article below.
According to the UNCCD, 70 per cent of the world’s forests are now threatened by conversion to cropland and urbanisation — processes that greatly deplete SOC, a measurable component of soil organic matter and key to soil productivity. Particularly at risk are tropical forests, which declined at the rate of 5.5 million hectares annually between 2010 and 2015.
“This report will help member countries of the Convention identify sustainable land management technologies that are context-specific and also help estimate and monitor SOC for achieving land degradation neutrality and other sustainable development goals (SDGs),” Barron Joseph Orr, lead scientist for the UNCCD, tells SciDev.Net.
“The UNCCD report on SOC is especially important for South Asia because [of] its many and varied agro-climatic zones, each requiring specific interventions to prevent loss of SOC and retain moisture in the soil to nourish vegetation roots”
Himanshu Thakkar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People
“Because of its multifunctional roles and its sensitivity to land management, SOC is one of the three main global indicators of land degradation neutrality, the other two being land cover and land productivity,” says Ermias Aynekulu, an author of the report. “SOC, made up largely of decomposing animal and plant matter, is key to drought resistance, soil stability and organic crop production.”
The report proposes to encourage parties to the UNCCD to employ sustainable land management technologies to maintain or increase SOC, align SOC monitoring with national land degradation neutrality monitoring and share the guidance offered with farmers and other land managers.
According to the report, the management of SOC to support land degradation neutrality achievement will be most effective if it promotes the following: gender equality and inclusive development, empowerment of women to invest in natural resources, and capacity building of local institutions.
Emphasis is laid on an accurate assessment of SOC since national capacities to measure and monitor are highly variable. It proposes that efforts be made to enhance the capacity of countries for spatio-temporal measurement and modelling of SOC to address data gaps and limitations in tools and models currently being used.
A spatio-temporal study carried out by EnvirometriX Ltd, Wageningen, the Netherlands, indicates that the greatest loss of SOC over the 2000–2015 period took place in the northern hemisphere followed by Brazil, Central Africa and Indonesia, where large swathes of natural forests have been converted to croplands.
A science policy brief accompanying the report offers ‘decision trees’ to guide efforts to predict change in SOC under different land management practices. It also seeks to support decision-makers to pursue the right interventions in the “right locations at the right time and at the right scale” with the overall goal of land degradation neutrality achievement.
According to Marioldy Sanchez Santivañez, an observer to the UNCCD science-policy interface and forest evaluator for AIDER, a Peruvian NGO, developing and reinforcing capacities for soil sampling and implementing measurement and monitoring, as outlined in the report, “has the potential to contribute greatly to restoring soil carbon in many of the world’s land-degraded areas”.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a Delhi-based NGO, says that retaining SOC is vital for South Asia, a peninsula which is estimated to lose 80 per cent of the rainfall it receives to the sea, leaching away valuable organic carbon and contributing greatly to desertification. “This is an area that [needs] urgent attention since more than 30 per cent of the landmass is now degraded.”
The Indian sub-continent is particularly vulnerable. A study published in May by Science Direct said at least a third of the area around 18 river basins of the Indian sub-continent have become vulnerable to ‘vegetation droughts’, indicating drastic loss of soil moisture.
“The UNCCD report on SOC is especially important for South Asia because [of] its many and varied agro-climatic zones, each requiring specific interventions to prevent loss of SOC and retain moisture in the soil to nourish vegetation roots,” Thakkar tells SciDev.Net. “All that remains is for the governments to pick up the detailed guidelines and decision trees in the report and follow them.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.
In its new special report on climate change and land, the IPCC calls for more effective and sustainable land management, and more sustainable food consumption. But who is the onus on to go vegetarian, or look after land better? You, me, the “global elite”? The world’s poorest people, or perhaps the many millions of newly-wealthy Chinese or Indians? Or maybe our governments?
The answer depends on how you interpret the report, which can be read in two ways. On one hand, it is a moral call for individual consumers and food suppliers to become more sustainable. On the other, it is a call for governments to promote sustainable food consumption and production choices.
This is not an either/or situation – the report should be read in both ways but with recommendations for different population groups. To wit, whether someone is individually responsible for taking on board the IPCC’s recommendations depends on the extent to which they are subject to one or more of three forms of inequality.
1. Not everyone can afford to eat veggie or local
First and foremost, massive global wealth inequality affects the extent to which individuals and communities are able (or, rather, should be expected) to implement the recommendations of the IPCC report. It’s a lot easier to go vegetarian when you have the money to eat what you like. In the Global South, many have not benefited from industrialisation, while remaining in even more need of implementing measures to counter climate risks. Even in the more affluent countries of the Global North, many people live in abject poverty and have to make tough choices as how to spend their limited resources.
This highlights the need to make sustainable food accessible and not just available. The authors of the IPCC report acknowledge as much, emphasising how rising costs may lead to undernourishment as people turn to cheaper replacements, such as fast food. This is why sustainable food must be promoted alongside poverty alleviation. In the Global South, green growth must be priority as long as it includes local stakeholders, who are often experts on sustainable land management.
2. Some people emit more than others
Carbon footprint is highly correlated with inequality. As a 2015-report by Oxfam showed, the top 10% of income-earners, mainly living in affluent countries, are responsible for almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom half are only responsible for 10%. Even within affluent countries, there is a big divide between rich and poor. In other words global warming is not driven equally by everyone, but rather is highly correlated with income.
Of course, this does not mean that we should encourage unsustainable living in less developed countries. Rather, we should recognise that the consumption and production patterns of the world’s worst-off are not necessarily unsustainable. Although the world’s high and upper-middle income countries are home to about half the population, they are responsible for 86% of emissions. In comparison, Africa is home to 16% of the world’s population, yet only emits 4% of the global total. Meanwhile the very poorest countries – 9% of the global population, or 700 million people – emit just 0.5%. (Tellingly, the average per capita emissions of North Americans is more than 17 times that of the average African.)
Consequently, it would be possible to add several billion people in low-income countries, where population growth is already the highest, without massively changing global emissions, while adding just one billion individuals in high-income countries would increase global emissions by one-third. As the income of less-affluent populations grows, however, it does become necessary to encourage more sustainable practices.
3. People are not equally vulnerable
But less-affluent people in the Global North aren’t entirely off the hook. While inequality of income and carbon footprint does mean they are absolved of some responsibility to act more sustainably, this group still benefits from better infrastructure and more equitable institutions which should shelter them from the worst impacts of climate change. Conversely, inhabitants of low and middle-income countries, especially those in fragile environments like rainforests, mountains or coastal regions, are particularly vulnerable.
So while taking action to mitigate climate change is necessary, we cannot lose sight of the fact that many communities require financial and institutional support to adapt to existing changes to their local environment as well as to build resilience to near-certain climate risks in the future. While most people in the Western world are still only beginning to see and feel the effects of climate change, they must continue to commit resources to those most vulnerable and worse-off communities, who are often invisible to them.
In sum, whether someone can be held individually responsible for taking on board the IPCC’s recommendations crucially depends on whether they are able to do so without risking their life, livelihood, or well-being. Because inequalities in income, emissions, and vulnerability to climate change are still widespread, the report must first and foremost be read as a call for governments to make sustainable consumption and production options accessible. Addressing climate change and food security must go hand in hand with addressing global and local socioeconomic inequalities.
The word “climate” makes most of us look up to the sky – however, the IPCC’s new special report on climate change and land should make us all look under our feet. This is how Anna Krzywoszynska, Research Fellow and Associate Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food, University of Sheffield introduced her article published on The Conversation of last week before adding that ‘Land, the report shows, is intimately linked to the climate. Changes in land use result in changes to the climate and vice versa. In other words, what we do to our soils, we do to our climate – and ourselves.’ So, keeping Global Warming to well below 2°C is the hurdle that all humans need to get over in order to achieve the Paris Agreement requirements.
Land is already under growing human pressure and climate change is adding to these pressures. At the same time, keeping global warming to well below 2C can be achieved only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors including land and food, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in its latest report.
“Governments challenged the IPCC to take the first ever comprehensive look at the whole land-climate system. We did this through many contributions from experts and governments worldwide. This is the first time in IPCC report history that a majority of authors – 53 per cent – are from developing countries,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC.
This report shows that better land management can contribute to tackling climate change, but is not the only solution. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors is essential if global warming is to be kept to well below 2C, if not 1.5C.
In 2015, governments backed the Paris Agreement goal of strengthening the global response to climate change by holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C.
Land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase. This means there are limits to the contribution of land to addressing climate change, for instance through the cultivation of energy crops and afforestation. It also takes time for trees and soils to store carbon effectively.
Bioenergy needs to be carefully managed to avoid risks to food security, biodiversity and land degradation. Desirable outcomes will depend on locally appropriate policies and governance systems.
Climate Change and Land finds that the world is best placed to tackle climate change when there is an overall focus on sustainability. “Land plays an important role in the climate system,” said Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III.
“Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23 per cent of human greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry,” he said.
The report shows how managing land resources sustainably can help address climate change, said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II.
“Land already in use could feed the world in a changing climate and provide biomass for renewable energy, but early, far-reaching action across several areas is required. Also for the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity,” he added.
Desertification and land degradation
When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon. This exacerbates climate change, while climate change, in turn, exacerbates land degradation in many different ways.
“The choices we make about sustainable land management can help reduce and in some cases reverse these adverse impacts,” said Kiyoto Tanabe, co-chair of the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.
“In a future with more intensive rainfall the risk of soil erosion on croplands increases, and sustainable land management is a way to protect communities from the detrimental impacts of this soil erosion and landslides. However there are limits to what can be done, so in other cases degradation might be irreversible,” he said.
Roughly 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification. Drylands and areas that experience desertification are also more vulnerable to climate change and extreme events including drought, heatwaves, and dust storms, with an increasing global population providing further pressure.
The report sets out options to tackle land degradation and prevent or adapt to further climate change. It also examines potential impacts from different levels of global warming. “New knowledge shows an increase in risks from dryland water scarcity, fire damage, permafrost degradation and food system instability, even for global warming of around 1.5C,” said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I.
“Very high risks related to permafrost degradation and food system instability are identified at 2°C of global warming,” she said.