Governments and businesses habitually set out emergency response plans to protect their economies, jobs, cities and other crucial assets from potential disaster. Yet when it comes to climate change ― the biggest, most urgent threat the world faces ― there is no emergency plan.
On the issue of our lifetime, countries can agree very little. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019 published last Tuesday found that increasing divisions between the world’s major powers is the most urgent global risk we face because it stymies vital collective action on climate change.
Instead of action, we see delays, rejections and avoidance, as December’s United Nations climate summit in Katowice, Poland, so acutely reminded us. The event, which brought together world leaders, scientists, campaigners and the private sector, settled most of the rules needed to ensure countries follow the climate pledges they have made to date. What it failed to do is push countries to step up their targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions ― currently the only viable way to prevent climate breakdown. The Middle East, the U.S. and Russia refused to even welcome landmark scientific predictions on climate change, signaling their intention to continue blocking progress.
Amid all this wrangling, climate change marches on. It now appears virtually impossible to limit the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) ― the threshold beyond which scientists say risks irreversible climate change. The world is now headed for 3-5 C (5.4-9 F) of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, which would lead to devastating consequences for billions of people.
A huge barrier to solving this problem is the failure of conventional economics to acknowledge the severity of climate change. Take William Nordhaus, one of 2018’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winners. While Nordhaus agrees that climate change is a serious problem, he weighs up the costs of mitigation against the predicted damages that will be inflicted by a warming planet and concludes that our objective should be to limit temperature rises to 3.5 C (6.3 F) because to be more ambitious would be too expensive.
But a decision based on this kind of cost calculation is highly questionable. How do you put a cost on the destruction of coral reefs? Or on millions of people being pushed out of their homes, or killed by rising sea levels? And how do you account for the consequences of possible “tipping points” ― such as the melting of the permafrost?
Our economy is based on a concept of continual growth. And for advocates of this principle, any questioning of it is simply a leftist plot to stop growth at all costs.
That was the criticism leveled at The Limits to Growth, a report commissioned back in 1972 by the Club of Rome, in which we both are actively engaged. The essence of this report was that the quest for unlimited growth in population, material goods and resources on a finite planet would eventually lead to economic, social and environmental collapse. It’s already starting to happen. Since 1970, the world has lost an average of 60 percent of its populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.
Our message is not to stop development but to shrink the human footprint. For that to happen, growth policies and indicators of economic success must be re-evaluated. We need an overhaul of our economy and society. It’s startling that business and policy leaders seem firmly convinced that a future technological fix will eliminate climate threats, while overlooking the simple pragmatism of planning for the worst in the short term.
The first step is to assess the risks and identify potential emergencies. Here, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already done the work for us. In its report last year on the impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5 C and 2 C (2.7 F and 3.6 F, respectively), the scientists made clear that global emissions must be halved by 2030 and slashed to zero by 2050 in order to avoid the worst effects. That is an unprecedented task ― reducing emissions by at least 7 percent a year, when annual reductions in most countries so far have been many times lower.
We then need a thorough climate emergency plan to address the biggest challenges to limiting global warming to 1.5 C (2.7 F). To start with, new investments in coal, oil and gas exploration and development must end by 2020, with the existing fossil fuel industry phased out by midcentury. Meanwhile, annual investment in renewable energy and efficiency must be at least tripled. Specific priority should be given to low-income countries to support a transition to renewables and avoid a situation where these countries are left with outdated fossil fuel infrastructure that is ever more expensive to run.
It’s vital to recognize that this must be a socially equitable transformation. A carbon tax, for example, would help shake out the true cost of fossil fuel use and could be used to generate tax revenues for research, development and innovation of low-carbon solutions. Or it could be put into the pockets of the general population.
Beyond the transformation of energy systems that still rely heavily on fossil fuels, we need to stop excessive waste by promoting reuse, recycling and reconditioning of products and materials, and scale up ways to use land to absorb rather than emit carbon dioxide. Annual investment in large-scale reforestation in developing countries should be tripled and farmers around the world should be given incentives to build up carbon in their soils.
An emergency plan will need to lay out quick priority actions and broad-based collaborations between industrial sectors, local and national government departments, and investors. We also need an international task force to explore how to promote disruptive technologies for sectors where emissions are most difficult to eliminate, such as agriculture, aviation, shipping, aluminum, steel and cement.
All of this must come with broader social and economic changes. Progress should be indicated using new measures of welfare and well-being, rather than production growth, while education and health services should promote reproductive health and rights for girls and women. Workers and communities affected by the shift to clean energy and lower emissions ― such as coal mining regions ― should be retrained and supported so they are not left behind by the transition.
The worst disasters can still be avoided but only if leaders move swiftly on new emergency action plans. Only a few brave leaders have begun down this path. In December, London Mayor Sadiq Khan unveiled a plan to protect people from ”floods, fires and the political upheaval” caused by climate change. He agreed to bring forward his carbon neutrality goal from 2050 to 2030 by focusing on a comprehensive investment program that will help retrofit hundreds of thousands of homes and offices to make them more energy efficient, decarbonize the national grid, install low-carbon heating systems, and electrify private and public transport.
Planning for a climate emergency in this way is not a doomsday scenario. It’s simply a pragmatic response to a known risk and humanity’s insurance plan for survival and a positive future.
Sandrine Dixson-Declève is president of the Club of Rome and Anders Wijkman is honorary president.
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