Hidden under the exciting news of Tuesday’s political events, is the withdrawal of America from the United Nations 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
The agreement aims to limit global warming to “well below 2o C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5o C.”
Success in hitting these targets would mean a lot. With warming stopped at 1.5o C, the four entirely atoll nations would have more time to prepare for the unavoidable 1 meter of sea level rise that we’ve already set in motion. Waikiki, Kakaako, Ewa Beach, Haaula and other coastal communities and commercial districts will still need to figure out how to “live with water,” but the probability of multi-meter sea level rise would be much less.
With warming stopped at 1.5o C, wildfires, drought, hurricanes, heat waves, and extreme rain and flooding would continue to build. But many states, and the federal government, might avoid the all-out bankruptcy they are headed for because of exploding extreme weather events.
Over the past 40 years the U.S. saw an average $6 billion disasters each year (adjusted for inflation). In the past five years, the annual average was 13 disasters. The first nine months of 2020 ties the annual record of 16 events set in 2011 and 2017.
Under the Paris Agreement, 189 sovereign nations pledged to restrict their greenhouse gas emissions, and to increase those restrictions in 2020. As of today, only 12 have stepped forward, collectively representing about 2% of the global emissions problem. A poor showing, and indicative of weaknesses in the agreement.
The annual “Gap” Report from the UN Environmental Program reveals that prior to the pandemic, global emissions rose an average 1.5% per year. If announced reductions are met, temperatures nonetheless can be expected to rise a horrific 3.2° C this century.
This level of warming would severely disrupt human civilization. Specifically, 3.5 billion people would be exposed to annual temperatures only found today in 0.8% of the global land surface, mostly concentrated in the Sahara, but in 2070 projected to cover 19% of the global land. The migration of one-third of humanity to find new and tolerable living conditions would place irreparable stress on social, political, and economic systems. Global security would likely collapse.
Because of the pandemic, carbon emissions from energy use are expected to drop about 8% in 2020. Modeling by BloombergNEF projects that economic recovery will raise emissions toward 2027, then decline an average 0.7% per year to 2050. 2019 may turn out to have been the peak year for greenhouse gas release to the atmosphere. In total, COVID-19 subtracts some 2.5 years worth of aggregate emissions over the next 30 years, and, as it turns out, this puts global temperature on track for 3.3o C by 2100.
Solutions to a nightmarish future are already in hand and being deployed at record rates. These include removing fossil-fuel subsidies and incentivizing renewable energy, divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels, strengthening climate education and engagement, pricing the true cost of carbon, regenerative agriculture that allows soil to store carbon, protecting and restoring natural environments on land and in the ocean, carbon sequestration, refusing to eat animals that are the product of deforestation, increasing the efficiency of all machines that draw power … the list is as long as human ingenuity.
Unfortunately, data show that in 2019, as in every previous year, the growth in fossil fuel use outpaced the growth in renewables. Although renewable energy grows rapidly, it primarily adds to, rather than displaces, coal, oil, and natural gas. The truth is that the need for new energy to support rising global GDP has meant that renewable sources are helping to meet demand, and are not actually replacing dirty fossil fuels.
While the Paris Agreement is clearly flawed, it took two decades of effort to bring all nations to consensus. The agreement is, in fact, filled with promise, and our signature will always be on the original agreement, for when we are ready to finally get serious about solving this problem.
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