The Global Risks Report 2018 produced by the World Economic Forum lays out very clearly why this ridiculous debate about emissions reduction must stop. If they won’t believe the scientists, perhaps the economists can convince them.
“Among the most pressing environmental challenges facing us are extreme weather events and temperatures; accelerating biodiversity loss; pollution of air, soil and water; failures of climate-change mitigation and adaptation; and transition risks as we move to a low-carbon future.
Extreme weather events in 2017 included unusually frequent Atlantic hurricanes, with three high-impact storms – Harvey, Irma and Maria – making landfall in rapid succession. According to the Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) index, which is used to measure the intensity and duration of Atlantic storms, September 2017 was the most intense month on record. It was also the most expensive hurricane season ever.
Extreme rainfall can be particularly damaging – of the 10 natural disasters that caused the most deaths in the first half of 2017, eight involved floods or landslides. Storms and other weather-related hazards are also a leading cause of displacement, with the latest data showing that 76% of the 31.1 million people displaced during 2016 were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related events.
Last year also saw numerous instances of extreme temperatures. When the data are finalized, 2017 is expected to be among the three hottest years on record – the hottest was 2016 – and the hottest non–El Niño year ever. In the first nine months of the year, temperatures were 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels and further increases are inevitable – the most ambitious target included in the Paris Agreement envisages increases only to 1.5°C.
Average changes are giving rise to localized extremes: during 2017, record high temperatures were experienced from parts of southern Europe to eastern and southern Africa, South America, and parts of Russia and China. California had its hottest summer ever and by the end of November, wildfire burn across the United States was at least 46% above the 10-year average, and was continuing into December. Chile had its most extensive wildfires ever – eight times the long-run average – while in Portugal more than 100 wildfire-related deaths were recorded.
Rising temperatures and more frequent heatwaves will disrupt agricultural systems that are already strained. The prevalence of monoculture production heightens vulnerability to catastrophic breakdowns in the food system – more than 75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and it is estimated that there is now a one-in-twenty chance per decade that heat, drought, and flood events will cause a simultaneous failure of maize production in the world’s two main growers, China and the United States. This would cause widespread famine and hardship.
Fears of “ecological Armageddon” are being raised by a collapse in populations of insects that are critical to food systems: researchers in Germany found falls in such populations of more than 75% over 27 years. More broadly, biodiversity loss is now occurring at mass-extinction rates. The populations of vertebrate species declined by an estimated 58% between 1970 and 2012.
Globally, the primary driver of biodiversity loss is the human destruction of habitats including forests – which are home to approximately 80% of the world’s land-based animals, plants, and insects – for farming, mining, infrastructure development and oil and gas production. A record 29.7 million hectares of tree cover was lost in 2016 – an area about the size of New Zealand. This loss was about 50 percent higher than 2015. As much as 80% of the deforestation in Amazon countries is accounted for by cattle ranching, suggesting that pressures on environmental and agricultural systems will intensify as the global population increases, pushing up demand for meat.
Pollution moved further to the fore as a problem in 2017: indoor and outdoor air pollution are together responsible for more than one tenth of all deaths globally each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). More than 90% of the world’s population live in areas with levels of air pollution that exceed WHO guidelines. Deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in low- and middle-income countries, where health problems caused by pollution exacerbate strains on already stretched health systems and public finances. In November 2017, a public health emergency was declared in Delhi when air pollution reached more than 11 times the WHO guideline levels. Urban air pollution is likely to worsen, as migration and demographic trends drive the creation of more megacities.
Soil and water pollution cause about half again as many deaths, according to findings published in October 2017 by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. The Commission estimates the overall annual cost of pollution to the global economy at US$4.6 trillion, equivalent to around 6.2% of output.
Many of the associated risks to health are still not well understood. Research suggests, for example, that the huge volume of plastic waste in the world’s water – approximately 8 million more tons every year – is finding its way into humans. People eating seafood could be ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of micro-plastic every year. Microplastic fibres are found in 83% of the world’s tap water. One concern is that these micro-fibres could bind with compounds containing toxic pesticides or metals, providing these toxins with a route into the body.
The growing urgency of acting to halt climate change was demonstrated in 2017 with the news that emissions of CO2 had risen for the first time in four years, bringing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 403 parts per million, compared with a preindustrial baseline of 280 parts per million. The increase in emissions last year was partly a result of developments in China, where the heatwaves mentioned above led to a 6.3% increase in energy consumption, and extreme drought in the north of the country led to a switch from hydro to coal-fired power generation.
There are reasons to expect further upward pressure on CO2 concentrations in the future. Having absorbed 93% of the increase in global temperatures between 1971 and 2010, the world’s oceans continue to get warmer and studies suggest that their capacity to absorb CO2 may be declining. Research also suggests that tropical forests are now releasing rather than absorbing carbon dioxide.
The risk that political factors might disrupt efforts to mitigate climate change was highlighted last year when President Trump announced plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. However, several other major economies – notably China – reaffirmed their support of the Paris Agreement during 2017. In addition, many US businesses, cities and states have pledged to help deliver on the country’s emissions reduction targets. This kind of network of subnational and public-private collaboration may become an increasingly important means of countering climate change and other environmental risks, particularly at a time when nation-state unilateralism appears to be ascendant.
In addition to meeting the immediate environmental challenges that we face, we also need to focus more acutely on the potential economic and societal risks that may arise as transition to a low-carbon and environmentally secure world accelerates. Moves towards financial disclosures to quantify the transition risks that businesses face have been accelerating, as has the idea of fossil-fuel divestment. For example, in November 2017 the managers of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund recommended divesting from oil and gas shares, and in December the World Bank announced a moratorium after 2019 on financing upstream oil and gas-related investments.
The potential spillover effects of climate-related transition will be more far-reaching than its effect on financial disclosure norms. For example, dramatic changes in the way energy is produced are likely to trigger large-scale labour-market disruptions. Structural economic changes in affected countries and regions could also stoke societal and geopolitical risks.
There is no scope for complacency about the sufficiency of global efforts to deal with climate change and the continued degradation of the global environmental commons. Equally, however, it is time to prepare for the structural challenges and changes that lie ahead as those efforts gather pace.”
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