What are the chances of humanity avoiding a full-scale disaster, given that history suggests civilisational collapse has been mostly the norm rather than the exception? The answer, according to the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, is that the odds of annihilation are lower than previously imagined. Scientists are clear that not enough is being done to head off a climate disaster. The IPCC suggests about 40% of the human race is living in the danger zone, and that many ecosystems are being irretrievably degraded. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, was forthright in describing the abdication of leadership by world powers as “criminal”. The world’s biggest polluters, he said, “are guilty of arson on our only home”.
No amount of global heating is safe. If the world’s average temperatures rise by 1.5C – the goal of the Paris climate agreement – the IPCC report warns that up to 14% of species on land face a very high risk of extinction. At 3C, not an outlandish rise, almost a third of life on terra firma could be gone. This report is a final warning. The next time the world’s scientists pronounce will be at the end of the decade – when it will be too late to stop the rot. That is why it remains essential to stick to the UN targets of cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and achieving global net zero emissions by 2050. And why it is hugely disappointing that current commitments will see emissions increase by 14%. This risks a world in social chaos.
Past inaction and the failure to begin significant emission reductions early have cost the world dearly. The idea of a gentle transition away from fossil fuels toward low-carbon alternatives no longer seems realistic. A catastrophic event such as the Arctic permafrost disappearing completely or the Amazon rainforest ending up a savanna could mean the world faces a climate disaster far sooner than the IPCC models predict. Greenhouse gases are not just carbon dioxide. Yet CO2 emissions might need to be reduced even further to compensate if climate-altering non-CO2 gases are not curbed quickly enough. The world must now take emergency action to rapidly reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations and take on the “arsonists” of the fossil fuel industry which refuse to manage their own decline.
A speedy transition to a renewable energy future is required but is, unfortunately, not in sight. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not about hydrocarbons, but has many implications for their use. Moscow has used its gas supply as a sword of Damocles over its major customers. The EU ought to reduce its reliance on gas as a matter of energy security and to stave off planetary destruction.
The Ukraine crisis is showing that governments will spend vast sums of money to address a threat deemed serious enough. Germany reversed its ??post-cold war foreign policy to spend €100bn on rearming its military forces in light of Russia’s actions. It’s a pity that a similar sum could not be found over a decade to help vulnerable nations deal with the climate crisis. African countries will spend, it is reckoned, an average of 4% of GDP on adapting to climate breakdown. What is needed is to find a way of living our lives that combines social justice with ecological sustainability. Depressingly, the IPCC reveals that the search has still not properly begun.