The world has just a few years to scale back global carbon emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change, a panel of leading experts and scientists warned this week. That goal may seem farfetched, but they say it is attainable.
The journal Nature published a statement Wednesday from a group of six climate experts urging the world to urgently reduce emissions in order to keep the planet from warming beyond safe limits that scientists established as part of the landmark Paris climate agreement. Dozens of prominent co-signers have also added their names to the statement.
The group, led by Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has set a goal of 2020 to begin lowering emissions after a multiyear plateau. The experts said that despite growing antagonism from some parts of the world (like the U.S. under the Trump administration), the transition is still possible.
“When it comes to climate, timing is everything,” the authors write.
As several outlets note, the group points to basic math to rationalize the urgency of a target just three years away: The planet can probably only emit about 600 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere before temperatures rise beyond 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Above that temperature, scientists say a slew of horrific effects would be seen around the planet, including heat waves, more intense weather events, rising seas and mass extinctions.
The authors estimate we only have about 15 years, maximum, before that allocation is exhausted, and it’d be near impossible to emit carbon for the next decade and a half and then immediately stop. Scientists warn the world is perilously close to missing targets if reductions aren’t locked in soon, and some say the Paris commitments aren’t even close to being strong enough.
“If the current rate of annual emissions stays at this level, we would have to drop them almost immediately to zero once we exhaust the budget,” the statement reads. “Such a ‘jump to distress’ is in no one’s interest. A more gradual descent would allow the global economy time to adapt smoothly. The good news is that it is still possible to meet the Paris temperature goals if emissions begin to fall by 2020.”
Many of those negative climate impacts have already begun to take place ― even with the limited warming over the past century, the experts write:
After roughly 1°C of global warming driven by human activity, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are already losing mass at an increasing rate. Summer sea ice is disappearing in the Arctic and coral reefs are dying from heat stress — entire ecosystems are starting to collapse. The social impacts of climate change from intensified heatwaves, droughts and sea-level rise are inexorable and affect the poorest and weakest first.
However, despite those fears, the group presents six goals they identify as “idealistic at best, unrealistic at worst” to achieve what they’re calling Mission 2020. The group has urged rapid investment in renewable energy to generate 30 percent of the world’s power by 2020, and said no new coal plants should be approved beyond that date. The experts called for 15 percent of all cars sold to be electric vehicles and for vast reforestation efforts to create a “carbon sink.” Other efforts would involve retooling investment in cities and business to favor environmental projects.
While those goals may seem unattainable, the authors note that optimism must be encouraged and efforts by the likes of President Donald Trump to withdraw America from the Paris Agreement will not stop a clean energy transition. Trump’s anti-climate agenda is likely to come to a fore during next week’s Group of 20 meeting, as a coalition led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks to refocus attention on the issue, the nonprofit environmental news site Grist notes.
“Recent political events have thrown the future of our world into sharp focus. But as before Paris, we must remember that impossible is not a fact, it’s an attitude. It is crucial that success stories are shared. Demonstrating where countries and businesses have over-achieved on their targets will raise the bar for others. More-ambitious targets become easier to set,” the experts write in Journal.
“There will always be those who hide their heads in the sand and ignore the global risks of climate change. But there are many more of us committed to overcoming this inertia. Let us stay optimistic and act boldly together.”