Atmospheric CO2 is 394.35 ppm as of May 2011, the highest in at least 2 million years. Each decade since 1970 has been warmer than the preceding one; 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year on record. The world is warming faster than the latest projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even the most recent estimates may understate reality since they do not take into account permafrost melting. Humans add about 45 gigatons of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases (GHGs) per year; half is processed by nature and half accumulates in the atmosphere. By 2050 another 2.3 billion people could be added to the planet and income per capita could more than double, dramatically increasing greenhouse gases. Climate change threatens the well-being of all humans, especially the poor, who have contributed the least to the problem. They are the most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts because they depend on agriculture and fisheries, and they lack financial and technological resources to cope. The amount of global wealth exposed to natural disasters risk has nearly tripled from $525.7 billion 40 years ago to $1.58 trillion. Large reinsurance companies estimate the annual economic loss due to climate change could reach $300 billion per year within a decade.
Climate change could be accelerated by dangerous feedbacks: melting ice/snow on tundras reflect less light and absorb more heat, releasing more methane, which in turn increases global warming and melts more tundra; warming ocean water releases methane hydrates from the seabed to the air, warming the atmosphere and melting more ice, which further warms the water to release more methane hydrates; the use of methane hydrates or otherwise disturbing deeper sea beds releases more methane to the atmosphere and accelerates global warming; Antarctic melting reflects less light, absorbs more heat, and increases melting; and the Greenland ice sheet (with 20% of the world’s ice) could eventually slide into the ocean.
The synergy between economic growth and technological innovation has been the most significant engine of change for the last 200 years, but unless we improve our economic, environmental, and social behaviors, the next 100 years could be disastrous. According to UN Environmental Program’s (UNEP) Towards a Green Economy report, investing 2% of global GDP ($1.3 trillion per year) into 10 key sectors can kick-start a transition toward a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy that would increase income per capita and reduce the ecological footprint by nearly 50% by 2050 compared with business as usual. Meanwhile, the world spends 1–2% of global GDP on subsidies that often lead to unsustainable resource use. The World Bank established a $100 million fund to support developing countries to set up their own carbon-trading scheme.
Glaciers are melting, polar ice caps are thinning, and coral reefs are dying. Some 30% of fish stocks have already collapsed, and 21% of mammal species and 70% of plants are under threat. Oceans absorb 30 million tons of CO2 each day, increasing their acidity. The number of dead zones—areas with too little oxygen to support life—has doubled every decade since the 1960s. Over the long term, increased CO2 in the atmosphere leads to proliferation of microbes that emit hydrogen sulfide—a very poisonous gas.
International negotiations on the post-Kyoto framework have shown insufficient progress since the voluntary national reduction targets of the Copenhagen Accord. UNEP estimates that these pledges would lead to a 20% overshoot in emissions in 2020 compared with the levels required to limit global warming to 2°C and stabilize at 450 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. There is also a growing fear that the target itself is inadequate—that the world needs to lower CO2 to 350 ppm or else the momentum of climate change could grow beyond humanity’s ability to reverse it. Emissions from increased production of internationally traded products have more than offset the emissions reductions achieved under the Kyoto Protocol.
Although the Montreal Protocol is expected to restore the ozone layer by 2050, depletion of that layer this spring reached an unprecedented level over the Arctic due to the continuing presence of ozone-depleting substances in the atmosphere and a very cold winter in the stratosphere.
Humanity’s material extraction increased by eight times during the twentieth century. Today our consumption of renewable natural resources is 50% larger than nature’s capacity to regenerate. Global ecosystem services are valued at $16–64 trillion, which far exceeds the sums spent to protect them.
It is time for a U.S.–China Apollo-like 10-year goal and global research and development strategy to address climate change, focusing on new technologies like electric cars, saltwater agriculture, carbon capture and reuse, solar power satellites (a Japanese national goal), pure meat without growing animals, maglev trains, urban systems ecology, and a global climate change collective intelligence to support better decisions and keep track of it all. These technologies would have to supplement other key policy measures, including carbon taxes, cap and trade schemes, reduced deforestation, industrial efficiencies, cogeneration, conservation, recycling, and a switch of government subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Scientists are studying how to create sunshades in space, build towers to suck CO2 from the air, sequester CO2 underground, and reuse carbon at power plants to produce cement and grow algae for biofuels. Other suggestions include retrofitting coal plants to burn leaner and to capture and reuse carbon emissions, raising fuel efficiency standards, and increasing vegetarianism (the livestock sector emits more GHGs than transportation does). Others have suggested new taxes, such as on carbon, international financial transactions, urban congestion, international travel, and environmental footprints. Such taxes could support international public/private funding mechanisms for high-impact technologies. Massive public educational efforts via popular film, television, music, games, and contests should stress what we can do.
Given the difficulty of reaching a unanimous agreement, some argue that alternative forums such as G-20, the Montreal Protocol, or the Major Economies Forum may be a more realistic platform to manage climate change. Without a global strategy to address climate change, the environmental movement may turn on the fossil fuel industries. The legal foundations are being laid to sue for damages caused by GHGs. Climate change adaptation and mitigation policies should be integrated into an overall sustainable development strategy. Without sustainable growth, billions more people will be condemned to poverty, and much of civilization could collapse, which is unnecessary since we know enough already to tackle climate change while increasing economic growth. Challenge 1 will be addressed seriously when green GDP increases while poverty and global greenhouse gas emissions decrease for five years in a row.
Africa: The regional focus will be on adaptation to climate change rather than mitigation, as Africa does not contribute much CO2. Southern Africa could lose more than 30% of its maize crop by 2030 due to climate change. Re-afforestation, saltwater agriculture along the coasts, and solar energy in the Sahara could be massive sources of sustainable growth.
Asia and Oceania: China is the world’s largest CO2 emitter, but it plans to cut the amount of energy and CO2 per unit of economic growth by 16–17% from 2011 to 2016. Japan pledged to cut GHG emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by 2020, but its emissions are still well above the 1990 levels, and the government has failed to establish a domestic carbon trading market. More-stringent producer responsibility policies in South Korea triggered a 14% increase in recycling rates and an economic benefit of $1.6 billion. China and India lose as much as 12% and 10% respectively of their GDP due to environmental damage. As part of a $1 billion deal with Norway, Indonesia introduced a two-year moratorium on new permits to clear primary forest.
Europe: Europe’s emission trading scheme in 2010 accounted for 75% of the world’s carbon emissions trading. GHG emissions covered under European Union Emissions Trading System increased 3% due to the economic recovery, but the EU is on track to meet the Kyoto target of 8% reduction. However, if carbon contents of imported goods are counted, EU’s reduction drops to 1%. Russia’s GHG emissions fell 3.3% in 2009, reversing a 10-year steady increase, and Russia aims to reduce GHG emissions by 22–25% by 2020 compared with 1990 (which is still an increase in absolute terms, since Russia’s emissions plunged sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union). Nitrogen pollution from farms, vehicles, industry, and waste treatment costs the EU up to 320 billion euros per year. Germany tops the first Green Economy Index as a country with strongest green leadership.
Latin America: South America has 40% of the planet’s biodiversity and 25% of its forests. Brazil announced in December 2010 that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon had fallen to its lowest rate for 22 years, but the latest data show a 27% jump in deforestation from August 2010 to April 2011, mostly in soybean areas. National pressures for hydro and biofuel energy and international pressures for food may be too strong to preserve ecosystems in Brazil. Concentration of land tenure, breakup of farms into smaller parcels, and conversion of rural areas into new urban settlements are generating irreversible ecological damage in most countries. Recycling in Brazil generates $2 billion a year, while avoiding 10 million tons of GHG emissions. Bolivia introduced a new law that grants nature equal rights to humans and has proposed an international treaty with similar concepts.
North America: Without a successful green tech transition, U.S. GHG emissions may increase by 6% between 2005 and 2035. Air pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals cost U.S. children $76.6 billion in health expenses. Two-thirds of Latinos in the U.S. live in areas that do not comply with federal standards for air quality, and Hispanics are three times more likely than whites to die from asthma. Permafrost temperature in northern Alaska increased about 4–7°C during the last century, almost half of it during the last 20 years. On average, every American wastes 253 pounds of food every year. U.S. Congress refused to end oil subsidies.
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