April 22 marked the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, established in 1970 to draw attention to environmental challenges. Never have those challenges been greater or more urgent than they are today. A combination of climate change, erosion of biodiversity and depletion of natural resources is propelling Earth toward a tipping point, beyond which objectives like sustainable development and poverty reduction will be more difficult than ever to achieve.
Since 1970, scientists have learned not only that human activity is the primary driver of environmental change, but also that it is pushing Earth beyond its limits. If we do not make big changes fast, the results could be devastating.
Global leaders seemed to recognize this when they agreed five years ago to limit global warming during this century to 2 Celsius above pre-industrial levels — the threshold beyond which we risk triggering more devastating consequences of climate change. But strong action to reduce emissions has not been taken. On the contrary, emissions have increased markedly.
The world is now on track to deplete its remaining “budget” for CO2 emissions, which now amounts to less than one trillion tons, in just 25 years. The result would be catastrophic changes like unmanageable sea-level rises, devastating heat waves, and persistent droughts that create unprecedented challenges in terms of food security, ecosystems, health and infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, the poorest and most vulnerable will be the hardest hit.
What the world really needs is strong and sustained action. Fortunately, 2015 may mark the beginning of just such a change for the better. This year, world leaders will meet three times to chart a new path. In July, they will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the Conference on Financing for Development. In September, they will convene to approve the Sustainable Development Goals, which will guide development efforts until 2030. And in December, they will head to Paris to negotiate a new global climate agreement.
The outcomes of these meetings will shape this generation’s legacy for both the natural environment and economic growth and development. By decarbonizing the global economy and limiting climate change, world leaders can unleash a wave of innovation, support the emergence of new industries and jobs, and generate vast economic opportunities.
It is up to all of us to encourage our leaders to do what is needed to secure such an outcome. Just as we demand that our governments address risks associated with terrorism or epidemics, we should put concerted pressure on them to act now to preserve our natural environment and curb climate change.
Here, the scientific community has a special responsibility to share their research and its potential implications. That is why I and the 16 other scientists of the Earth League — representing world-leading academic institutions like the Potsdam Institute on Climate Impact Research, the Earth Institute, Tsinghua University, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre — have released the “Earth Statement,” which sets out the eight essential elements of a successful global climate deal, to be reached in Paris in December.
• First, the agreement must reinforce countries’ commitment to limit global warming to below 2 C.
Second, the agreement needs to recognize the remaining global budget for CO2 emissions.
Third, the agreement should lay the foundation for a fundamental transformation of the economy, with deep decarbonization beginning immediately, in order to create a zero-carbon society by around 2050.
Fourth, all 196 countries in the United Nations Climate Convention must formulate an emissions pathway consistent with deep decarbonization, with richer countries taking the lead.
Fifth, countries must promote innovation in clean technologies and ensure universal access to existing technological solutions.
Sixth, governments must agree to support adaptation to climate change and to address the loss and damage associated with it.
Seventh, the agreement must include provisions to safeguard carbon sinks and vital ecosystems.
Eighth, to help developing countries fight climate change, donors need to provide additional support at a level at least comparable to current global development aid.
The good news is that these eight objectives are realistic and achievable; indeed, some progress is already being made. Last year, total CO2 emissions from the energy sector remained unchanged year on year for the first time (in the absence of an economic downturn). And recent reports show that emissions in China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, also did not increase from 2013 to 2014.
The tide is turning. Decarbonization has already begun, and the appeal of a fossil-fuel-free world is growing — not only because it would limit climate change, but also because it would be more technologically advanced, democratic, resilient, healthy and economically dynamic. This is the right time to move onto a more sustainable, zero-carbon path. With the right deal, the world could finally do that. For the sake of the planet, and the people who depend on it, let us make 2015 Earth Year.
Johan Rockstrom is a professor of global sustainability at Stockholm University. © Project Syndicate, 2015
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