Human activities have been changing the environment for centuries. Since Homo Sapiens spread from Africa to the rest of the world, entire animal and plant species have been slowly disappearing. When the first human settlers arrived in Australia around 50,000 years ago, they encountered some ferocious beasts: giant reptiles the size of dinosaurs, marsupials and venomous lizards. Close to the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago, the megafauna became extinct and the landscape was completely changed. It is still debated whether humans were the sole perpetrator of this massive extinction of megafauna, but their presence certainly had an ecological impact. What we now know is that climate change also impacted the extinction of the great mammals in Australia; it is widely believed that the onset of warmer climates brought the massive extinction.
We must learn from the past in order to prepare for the near future. There is no consensus among scientists as to what caused climate change 12,000 years ago, but there is consensus that human activities have led to the current climate change crisis. According to data from Cuddie Springs, there is a tipping point beyond which many modern mammals could go extinct.Because of the fact that we are already losing ice, it is estimated that around two-thirds of the world’s bears will be lost in only fifty years. We are running out of time and there needs to be an immediate, united global response from the international community. But let’s look at where exactly we are right now, what we have done and how much time we have before it is too late.
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report warning that we must not reach 1,5 degrees above the world’s pre-industrial levels. Even a 0,5 degrees difference can make a stark difference. The IPCC gave the world a 2030 deadline to avoid a global catastrophe. The greenhouse gas emissions of the 2010s need to be halved by 2030 to avoid reaching 1,5 degrees. The UN has called for states to have set targets by 2020. It is clear that we are at a critical point. As of March 2019, the World Meteorological Organisation released a report noting with urgency that the physical and socioeconomic impacts of climate change are already accelerating. The record greenhouse gas concentrations keep driving temperatures up to a dangerous level. The WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2018 stressed that there has been a record rise in the global sea levels as well as record land and ocean temperatures for the past four years. To give you some numbers, from 1994 until 2017, the carbon dioxide levels rose from 357,0 parts per million to 405,5 parts per million!
It is important to understand that climate change is not something that will happen in ten or twenty years, it is something which is happening here right now. In early 2019, extreme weather has been on the rise. The tropical cyclone Idai, which caused devastating floods and loss of life in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, has generated some of the deadliest weather disasters in the Southern hemisphere. There have also been anomalies throughout the globe with warm winter temperatures in Europe. Given where we are right now, we cannot completely reverse climate change, but what we can do is contain it to avoid a catastrophe.
The most significant step towards containing climate change has been the Paris Climate Agreement. The agreement’s aim is to keep the temperatures rising within 1,5 degrees as advised by the IPCC. It entered into force in November 2016, but it contains no mechanism that forces states to set specific deadlines and targets. Furthermore, when President Trump was elected in 2016, he pledged to withdraw the United States from the agreement, which, given the US is one of the biggest polluters in the world, is not helpful for meeting the agreement’s targets. The Paris climate talks have been a great step towards containing climate change; however, there has not been enough coordination and enforcement.
What has been achieved so far? Have any countries met the targets of the Paris agreement? Many large emitters are not even on track to meet their self-imposed targets according to Climate Action Tracker. It is almost certain that the United States, one of the largest emitters together with China and India, will not keep its pledge to slash emissions 26 to 28 percent below the 2005 levels by 2025. China has had less ambitious and more achievable targets which it is on track of achieving to curb its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. However, even if every country managed to fulfil its individual targets, the planet would still be on course to increase its average temperature by 2 degrees. What would that mean for the planet and the environment? The consequences of this increase will be catastrophic, including continuous heatwaves such as the ones we are experiencing this summer in the UK, storms, droughts and the mass extinction of plants and animal species (one of the most threatened species being coral reefs) alongside worse after-effects. To prevent this from happening, we need to cut greenhouse emissions by 45% by 2030 and by 2050 they need to be reduced to 0. But again, we need a massive immediate global response.
What needs to be reiterated is that climate change is not an issue affecting just one city, country or continent. It is a global issue, and it needs a global response alongside the coordination of the international community. Our future is at stake and we are the ones who must resolve it. The clock is ticking and each one of us bears a responsibility to take action.
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