What the world must do to avoid the worst of climate change
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published the “synthesis report”. Eight years in preparation, this report encompasses the entire range of human knowledge of the climate system, compiled by hundreds of scientists from thousands of academic papers, and published in four parts, in August 2021, February and April 2022, and March 2023.
The report drew together the most important findings – but also highlighted some key measures that governments and countries must take immediately if we are to avoid climate catastrophe:
Reducing short-lived climate pollutants, especially methane, could potentially reduce global heating by over half a degree. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is primarily produced from various sources, including oil and gas operations, coal mines, raising livestock and natural sources like decaying vegetation. It is estimated to be about 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential. However, methane only persists in the atmosphere for around 20 years before breaking down into carbon dioxide.
There are several ways to cut methane levels, including:
- Reducing fossil fuel production: Methane is emitted during oil and gas extraction and transportation. Therefore, reducing the use of fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable energy sources can help reduce methane emissions.
- Reducing emissions from agriculture: Improved feeding practices, such as adding supplements to reduce methane production, can help to reduce these emissions.
- Improving waste management: Methane is produced during the decomposition of organic waste in landfills and wastewater treatment plants. Capturing and using this methane for energy production can reduce emissions.
Cutting down rainforests destroys some of the world’s biggest carbon sinks and risks taking the world to a “tipping point” at which vast forests such as the Amazon and the Congo become sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere instead of absorbing it.
In addition to their role as carbon sinks, the world’s remaining forests are critical hotspots for biodiversity. Preserving them is crucial not only for maintaining the planet’s lungs but also for preventing the catastrophic loss of global species and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples who call these areas home.
Restore other degraded land
It is not just forests being degraded, other natural ecosystems are equally important but are facing degradation. Restoring these ecosystems would benefit both nature and the climate. Wetlands and peatlands, for example, store vast amounts of carbon but are at risk of being drained for agriculture. In the oceans, mangrove swamps and seagrass meadows that store carbon and help mitigate the impact of rising sea levels and storms have been destroyed.
The oceans themselves act as significant carbon sinks, but their ability to absorb and store carbon is increasingly at risk due to rising temperatures. Stopping overfishing and allowing natural marine ecosystems to regenerate, could restore some of the oceans’ natural carbon cycle.
Change agriculture, and change the way we eat
Meeting the food demands of the future population with current food systems is impossible, but transitioning to a sustainable diet rich in plants and low in meat and dairy would be a significant step forward.
Beyond meat-eating, fertilisers release nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas in its own right. Fortunately, modern agricultural methods, using precision farming techniques can offer a way of keeping yields high while reducing the impact on the climate and nature.
Moreover, reducing food waste is crucial since globally, one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. In low-income countries, the lack of refrigeration is a significant factor in food wastage before it can be consumed, and investing in this area would be beneficial.
Solar and wind power
Renewable energy in the form of wind and solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuels across most of the world and according to the IPCC, adopting solar power, wind power and reducing the conversion of land to agriculture are the three most effective methods for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.
The US and EU are starting to rapidly expand on renewable energy sources in the wake of the energy crisis. China is a key player to observe, as it added almost the same amount of renewable energy to the power grid last year as the rest of the world combined. Additionally, China holds a significant monopoly on crucial minerals used in clean technology, which has recently sparked interest from the US and the EU.
Stop burning coal
Global greenhouse gas emissions could be significantly reduced by switching from coal to gas-fired power, surpassing the impact of making all buildings energy efficient. However, several governments, such as China, India, and Australia, are heavily invested in coal interests and view it as a crucial component of their national energy security. In fact, China has recently approved the largest expansion of coal-fired power plants since 2015.
Nonetheless, it is possible to make the transition away from coal. In developing nations, partnerships focused on energy transition have emerged in countries like South Africa, Vietnam, and Indonesia. These initiatives are helping workers shift from coal-related jobs to highly skilled positions in renewable energy generation.
Put climate at the heart of all decision-making
In the past, environment ministries were often considered peripheral to governments, with finance and business ministries taking priority.
However, this approach is no longer feasible. Recently, the IPCC emphasized the need for climate action to be at the forefront of all government policies and business decisions. The integration of climate action is critical to achieving the necessary changes.