Urgent Policy Initiatives to Tackle the Climate Emergency
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History is written later, but the future is written now. The central message of contemporary climate sciences consists in the realisation that the entire planet is deeply interconnected. There are no ecosystems that are safe from the effects of climate change. All life on this planet is profoundly interrelated. What happens in one area of the globe has far-reaching, but yet insufficiently understood, consequences for even far-distant regions.
We have the following suggestions for new policy initiatives to be urgently considered and enacted:
- A transition to 100% renewable electricity in all government offices in Finland by the end of 2020.
- Aviation taxes increased, including fossil fuel based aviation fuel. Aviation and marine shipping emissions should be included in both city of Helsinki and national greenhouse gas accounting.
- Significant political and financial support to public transportation especially in urban and peri-urban areas. Road tolls to relevant highways.
- A plan for transition to a circular economy (city and national) prepared and fully costed by the end of 2020. Thereafter enacted into binding legal forms.
- A new national land use plan to transform agricultural policy to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Significant increase in funding for climate-change -related research to enhance profound understanding of complex biophysical and sociopolitical processes involved in global climate change.
We live in the time of Climate Emergency. But what does “emergency” really mean, both in terms of climate science, our collective consciousness of the reality and our responses?
A recent IPPC report (IPPC 2018) states the magnitude of the challenges facing humanity as follows:
“Now more than ever, unprecedented and urgent action is required of all nations.”
The scope of the transformations needed to avoid the worst-case scenarios of climate catastrophe are daunting, but not impossible. Indeed, there is literally everything to play for. According to the IPPC, pathways limiting global warming to 1.5 ℃ with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land use, urban building, transport, infrastructure, and industrial systems. These systemic transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, and imply deep emission reductions in all sectors.
In other words, the crisis of climate change demands a profound historical transformation of our ways of life. We have been collectively exceeding the regenerative capacity of the earth’s natural resources and ecological systems. Earth Overshoot Day, the day in the annual cycle when humanity’s demands for resources has exceeded the capacity for regeneration of those resources, has advanced by two months over the past twenty years. This year Earth Overshoot Day took place on 29 July, 2019. Humanity is now damaging the whole system upon which our lives, and that of all other species depends.
Let us briefly note some key indicators from climate science that point to the severity of the situation:
Cumulative Green House Gas (GHG) emissions lead to cumulative global warming. NASA data on global warming indicates that 17 of the 18 hottest years ever recorded in the past 136 years were during 2001 - 2018. Although the rate of increase of global emissions has slowed somewhat, overall annual GtCO2 emissions (gigatons of carbon dioxide) have increased from 25 GT in 2000 to well over 35 GTCO2 during 2012 - 2018. Global carbon dioxide emissions reached an all time high in 2017 - 2018. CO2 cumulative concentrations in earth’s atmosphere, measured at the Mauna Loa facility in Hawaii, have now raised to over 407 ppm. This level of concentration of CO2 has not been seen for three million years. The figure of 450 ppm has been used in climate science to represent a critical threshold, after which the probability of keeping global temperature rise to below 1.5 ℃ drops dramatically. Some recent studies argue that we are at risk of reaching the 1.5 ℃ threshold as early as 2030. We do not fully understand the possible effects of breaching 1.6 or 1.7 or even 2.0 ℃. Even 1.5 degrees warming implies setting in motion numerous cumulative effects on the global climate system, and all the natural environments and ecosystems that constitute the global web of life.
The Arctic is now heating much faster than the average for the planet. This is accelerating the rate of melting of Arctic ice cover. The reduction of the sea ice cover has multiple effects on the global climate system. The loss of ice reduces the albedo effect whereby heat from the sun is reflected back into space, thus keeping the planet cooler. As the polar sea ice and the glaciers melt at an accelerated rate, huge amounts of fresh water are released into the northern seas. One effect of the increase in fresh water in Arctic and northern Atlantic seas is lower level of salinity, which affects the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). This system brings warm waters from the Caribbean and southern seas North to Europe. Measurements of the flow of AMOC have indicated that it has been slowing in recent years. It is yet unknown where the tipping point is for where an excess influx of sweet fresh water would severely damage the ability of the water in the North Atlantic “drop zone” to fall back and return. If the AMOC were to be severely disrupted the consequences for the climate of Northern Europe could be severe. Recent measurements indicate that the Antarctic sea ice is also melting at an accelerated pace and scope. Globally, some 90 percent of the world’s glaciers are melting. This situation is particularly alarming in the Tibetan plateau and Himalayan region, the glaciers of which are an essential part of the watershed for the great river systems of Asia: from North China to Pakistan. These rivers are a water supply for 40 percent of the world’s human population. Future periods of acute water shortage are possible across this heavily populated region. Future food supplies could be severely affected by drought, inducing famine and mass population displacement.
In the past few months we have witnessed an unprecedented wave of global fires. The fires across the circumpolar Arctic have dramatically increased, especially in northern Russia. Last year the largest source of deforestation on earth was not the cutting of trees but rather the burning of trees. The fires of the Amazonian are now at an unprecedented intensity, following the radical change in national government policies in Brazil under the Bolsonaro regime. The smoke from these fires spread over 2000 miles. The indigenous peoples of the Amazonia are fighting for their lands and their lives. They are also fighting for our lives. They have called for international solidarity and action. If the fires in the Amazonia continue to destroy the forests there is a risk that the whole forest ecosystem will be effected; triggering a retreat of the forests into dry savannah. The water cycle of vast areas would be dramatically altered even in far-away regions such as North America. The fires in the tropical forests of Central Africa are more numerous than in previous years and a cause of increasing global concern. Likewise the annual fires in Indonesia are increasing.
Scientists have been alerting us to the onset of the Sixth Mass Extinction in earth’s history. This time the extinction will not be the result of some cosmic event such as an asteroid strike; or some other “natural” causes, but rather is the consequence of the impact of human activity upon the natural environment. Some one million species are now estimated to be at risk of extinction during the coming decades. The loss of biodiversity of species on this scale would have unknown consequences for the rest of life.
There is also the issue of “tipping points”. These are thresholds of various types and diverse regions around the planet, which if breached imply a state change. Tipping points and thresholds involve complex feedback processes that are still insufficiently understood. According to a seminal study by Steffen et al, (2018) trajectories in earth system dynamics, it is the interactions between the various tipping point zones may pose the greatest source of future climate change. According to Steffen et al., there is a risk that if systemic change does not occur in good time, the earth’s climate system will undergo a state change into a new mode named “Hothouse Earth”. This is a state of runaway and irreversible global warming. Its consequences could include inducing societal collapse or even making the earth uninhabitable for humanity. In other words: extinction.
The idea that by simply reducing CO2 emissions we may avert the worst risks in the global climate system is unfortunately a misunderstanding (Hawken 2016). We must begin to profoundly accept that the whole planet is a unified system. We must begin to think in a holistic framework, which indicates that a scale of change is needed in all sectors of human activity. The IPPC has called for reduction in annual emissions of 55 percent by 2030. It is vital that global GHG emissions should radically decrease. Beyond that, the world needs to advance into the active pursuit of “negative emissions” ( Hansen et al. 2017). This means removing cumulative concentration of GHGs from the global atmosphere. This “drawdown” process entails a huge array of changes to the way humans behave and interact with the environment. The reforestation, greening, and rewilding of large areas in different parts of the world is one vital aspect of this process.
All this is the meaning of “emergency”. What we need now is to act as if it is an EMERGENCY. Everything we do now matters. Every action at every level matters. When a few people make a change perhaps it is not significant. When millions upon millions act, that is social change. Everything we do not do now also matters. Inaction and passivity are the road to ruin.
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