Editorial: Last warnings?

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For the last 25 years environmental organisations around the world have been trying to warn the world about the threat of climate change and demand urgent and steep reductions in greenhouse gases. Now, leading representatives of the business world, including the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Bank (WB), are issuing dire warnings as well.  

The IEA says that any fossil fuel infrastructure built in the next five years will cause irreversible climate change. The world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to keep global warming at safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be “lost forever” the agency adds. “Anything built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades, and this ‘lock-in’ effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change.”  If this is not rapidly changed within the next five years, the results are likely to be disastrous, according to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, and this would set the world on a path to 5°C of warming, which would be catastrophic.

The World Bank has warned in several reports issued in recent months that we are on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise. Moreover, adverse effects of a warming climate are “tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions” and likely to undermine development efforts and global development goals, say the WB studies. “A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2°C,” says World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.” The WB reports reveal how rising global temperatures are increasingly threatening the health and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable populations. They describe the risks to agriculture and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa, rise in sea level, bleaching of coral reefs and devastation of coastal areas in Southeast Asia, as well as fluctuating rain patterns and food production impacts in South Asia.

Several global ecosystems are threatened by climate change above 1.5°C, including Arctic ice ecosytems and the high-mountain ice ecosytems. A study in the science magazine Nature concludes that limiting global warming to 2°C is unlikely to save most coral reefs. Actually it shows that preserving  coral reefs worldwide would require the limiting of warming to 1.3°C relative to pre-industrial levels. A study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) (see article) reveals that each degree of global warming leads to sea level rise of two metres, threatening many low-lying coastal ecosystems.

How many more warnings do we need before governments act and agree on a legally binding global action plan for steep greenhouse gas reductions? The study by Climate Analytics (see front page) shows that it is still possible to follow a development path that allows us to achieve a target of below 1.5°C.

Reinhold Pape

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