The latest UN report on climate change gives us a decade at most to stave off catastrophic global warming that will kill millions, and doing so will require massive changes to current human standards of living, or we will reach a positive feedback loop that will eventually fry most life on this rock.
Earth is likely to cross a critical threshold for global warming within the next decade, and nations will need to make an immediate and drastic shift away from fossil fuels to prevent the planet from overheating dangerously beyond that level, according to a major new report released on Monday.
The report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the United Nations, offers the most comprehensive understanding to date of ways in which the planet is changing. It says that global average temperatures are estimated to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels sometime around “the first half of the 2030s,” as humans continue to burn coal, oil and natural gas.
That number holds a special significance in global climate politics: Under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, virtually every nation agreed to “pursue efforts” to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that point, scientists say, the impacts of catastrophic heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures and species extinction become significantly harder for humanity to handle.
But Earth has already warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since the industrial age, and, with global fossil-fuel emissions setting records last year, that goal is quickly slipping out of reach.
There is still one last chance to shift course, the new report says. But it would require industrialized nations to join together immediately to slash greenhouse gases roughly in half by 2030 and then stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere altogether by the early 2050s. If those two steps were taken, the world would have about a 50 percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Delays of even a few years would most likely make that goal unattainable, guaranteeing a hotter, more perilous future.
“The pace and scale of what has been done so far and current plans are insufficient to tackle climate change,” said Hoesung Lee, the chair of the climate panel. “We are walking when we should be sprinting.”
The report comes as the world’s two biggest polluters, China and the United States, continue to approve new fossil fuel projects. Last year, China issued permits for 168 coal-fired power plants of various sizes, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Finland. Last week, the Biden administration approved an enormous oil drilling project known as Willow that will take place on pristine federal land in Alaska.