As the COP26 climate change conference gets under way in Glasgow on Sunday, world leaders will likely have their last chance to curtail the deadliest consequences of human-induced planetary warming.
Time is of the essence for unified global action as studies suggest as little as nine years remain before the most catastrophic effects of climate change take hold and are impossible to stop.
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“The effects of human-caused global warming are happening now, are irreversible on the timescale of people alive today, and will worsen in the decades to come,” the US space agency NASA said in a brief.
Here are five things to know about the climate emergency as COP26 begins:
‘Catastrophic’ warming worse than ever
Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide trap heat near Earth’s surface and when they become too concentrated, global warming results.
The landmark Paris climate accord in 2015 resulted in nations around the world agreeing to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with the period before the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1760 in Europe and the United States.
The globe has already warmed 1C (1.8F) above preindustrial levels, and climate disasters are a result. The United Nations estimates to keep warming under 1.5C (2.7F), countries need to reach “net-zero” gas emissions by 2050. But efforts to decarbonise have badly faltered since the Paris agreement.
Global emissions would be 16 percent higher in 2030 than they were in 2010 under current national commitments – nowhere close to a 45 percent reduction by 2030 that scientists say is needed to halt climate catastrophe.
A 16 percent rise would lead to warming of 2.7C (4.9F) by the end of the century – a figure meaning life on Earth would be disastrous for millions, if not billions, of people.
Many countries – including the US, the world’s second-largest gas polluter behind China – have pledged to meet the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 or 2060. But a report issued in September by the UN noted climate commitments were so weak that even if pledges are fulfilled temperatures will still rise about 2.7C this century.
This would unleash far more devastating effects than those already hammering countries around the world, from raging floods to out-of-control wildfires and super-storms.
“The world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7-degrees of heating,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted.
Grim future without rapid action
COP26 comes after another year of extreme weather disasters, including unprecedented heatwaves around the globe, deadly flooding in the US, Europe, and China, raging wildfires in Greece and Turkey, and deadly storms.
But the future could be far worse if world leaders fail to act to achieve zero emissions. The World Bank warned recently more than 216 million people could be forced from their homes and rendered climate refugees by 2050.
Water scarcity will become a serious problem, decreasing crop productivity, while rising sea levels will lead to uninhabitable environments.
According to one study, envisioning the potential worst scenarios, the world’s most populous cities — including Chennai, Mumbai, Jakarta, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Lagos, Bangkok and Manila — could be abandoned by 2050.
Scorching temperatures will also wreak havoc on people’s lives.
About 35 percent of the global land area and 55 percent of the world’s population would be subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, “beyond the threshold of human survivability”, the paper noted.
Climate adaptation now inevitable
While mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero has long been the goal of scientists, the reality is now inescapable that human beings will have to learn to live with the effects of a changing Earth. Planetary warming is here to stay for the foreseeable future and people will have to learn to deal with it.
Efforts to protect societies against the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events are now under way around the globe. These include minimising the effects of sea level rise, ocean acidification, shifting precipitation patterns, and increasing temperatures.
“Adaptation can range from building flood defences, setting up early warning systems for cyclones, and switching to drought-resistant crops, to redesigning communication systems, business operations and government policies,” said the UN’s climate change agency.
But critics say much more needs to be done. Current finance from donor countries and multilateral development banks dedicated to climate adaptation is about $16.7bn a year, a fraction of the current costs of an estimated $70bn annually.
Adaptation costs are projected to rise to as much as $300bn by 2030. Funding for adaptation must be rapidly scaled up to at least 50 percent of total public climate finance expenditure.
“Far greater efforts are needed to build resilience in vulnerable countries and for the most vulnerable people. They do the least to cause climate change – but bear the worst impacts,” the UN noted.
‘Time rapidly running out’
Leading climate scientists have warned for decades that human activities were filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases. However, it has only been in the last few years that plans for action have been developed.
Less than 10 years remain to avoid potentially catastrophic impacts of a warming planet, according to the latest report from the world’s top scientists.
The next 10-20 years will be critical to the survivability of the human species on the planet.
About 70 countries so far have indicated they plan to achieve carbon neutrality goals by 2050.
However, the world’s biggest economies – responsible for 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions – must lead the way in taking urgent action to avoid climate catastrophe.
“Saving this and future generations is a common responsibility. We are on the verge of the precipice. Wake up. Step back. Change course. Unite,” UN chief Guterres told world leaders in September.
Reasons for hope
While the grim reality of the climate emergency continues to become ever clearer, there is optimism its worst effects can still be avoided.
“The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was a code red for humanity. But it also made clear that it is not too late to meet the Paris Agreement 1.5-degree target. We have the tools to achieve this target. But we are rapidly running out of time,” said Guterres.
Immediate and drastic improvements in climate action plans are desperately needed from most countries.
However, the tools are there with increasingly affordable technology to help reach net-zero emissions by the middle of the century.
Renewable energy – such as solar or wind farms – is now not only cleaner but sometimes cheaper than fossil fuels. Plans for the mass production of electric vehicles is under way. New forms of food production are also coming online – a positive development to end major emissions from livestock.
Efforts to increase “nature-based solutions” to suck up greenhouse gases have been launched, including mass tree-planting and underwater seaweed forests. Carbon capture technology is improving with some facilities already operating and others soon to open.
But it remains up to politicians around the world to make the transformation to the green economy.
“No more ignoring science. No more ignoring the demands of people everywhere,” said Guterres. “It is time for leaders to stand and deliver, or people in all countries will pay a tragic price.”