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Two years to save the world from climate catastrophe

UN climate chief Simon Steill warns that climate action has to increase in the next two years for the world to stand a chance against the looming climate catastrophe

Once considered stable, Antarctica's glaciers and sea ice is melting.
Once considered stable, Antarctica's glaciers and sea ice is melting. (Getty Images)

“Two years to save the world.” As far as  opening lines of speeches go, that would be dramatic in most contexts. But when UN climate chief Simon Steill said this to outline the plan for action in 2024 to avert a climate catastrophe, he certainly couldn’t be accused of exaggeration. 

Steill was speaking at the Chatham House in London, effectively setting the agenda for the crucial COP29 international climate summit, to be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in November. These include stronger and more effective commitments from nations to stop emitting planet-heating greenhouse gases (GHGs), and a larger quantum of climate finance from richer, more polluting countries to poorer countries. Steill stressed on the point that it is the G20 countries—primarily the US, EU and China, but also India—that need to decarbonise the fastest, since these countries account for 80% of global emissions.

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The next two years are indeed crucial, especially if the world were to stay on track to fulfil the commitments laid out by the UN’s science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These are that global emissions need to be cut by nearly half by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. However, the current carbon-cutting commitments, called the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) fall well short of this goal. 

Steill’s speech comes at a time when the news on the climate crisis front has been uniformly grim. Globally, temperature records are crumbling every month and carbon emissions show no sign of slowing down. In fact, there’s growing disquiet among climate scientists that it is possible that the rate of climate impacts may have been understated—the world seems to be heading for runaway temperature rise; and climate “tipping points” that had seemed far in the future may actually be closer at hand.

At this crucial juncture, the climate crisis seems to be conspicuous by its absence from the electoral agenda of the two biggest democracies that will vote in 2024: India and the US. And while some election manifestos in India do include policy prescriptions to mitigate against and adapt to climate change, these are by and large hidden from view.

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The heat is on: Recently, Europe’s climate science body, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (CCCS), noted that March 2024 marked the 10th consecutive month of heat records crumbling around the world. The global average temperature for the past 12 months is 0.70 degree Celsius above the 1991-2020 average. Data released by the CCCS showed that global surface temperatures for March were 0.1 degree Celsius higher than the previous record, set in March 2016. And it was over 1.6 degrees Celsius higher than the pre-industrial era, which forms the benchmark.

The past year have consistently seen average global temperatures higher than 1.5 degrees Celsius. For context, the aim of the world’s governments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is to restrict global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

It is no different for India. According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), 2023 was the second hottest year on record, after 2016. The agency has also forecast heatwave conditions for most of the country for the months of April, May and June. India’s new reality is chronic heat, with the average number of heatwave-days rising steadily every decade, from 90 days in 1990-99 to 139 in 2010-19. According to the IMD, the total annual average heatwave days for 2022 was 190. 

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Although climate science models have predicted that the global average temperature may breach the 1.5 degrees mark temporarily in this decade, the continuing hot temperatures are leading scientists to worry if the current spikes in temperature mean that we are in danger of passing this crucial climate tipping point way earlier than expected. “Is this within the range of climate variability or signal of accelerated warming? My concern is that it will be too late if we just wait to see,” said Diana Ürge-Vorsatz of the UN’s apex climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a social media post recently.

While there could well be other reasons for the long temperature spike—from the El Niño weather phenomena to increasing solar activity and the fallout from volcano eruptions—scientists are warily monitoring data. Writing in the journal Nature, the director of Nasa’s Godard Institute of Space Studies, Gavin Schmidt, wrote that “If the anomaly does not stabilise by August…then the world will be in uncharted territory. It could imply that a warming planet is already fundamentally altering how the climate system operates, much sooner than scientists had anticipated.”

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Tipping into the red: If global emissions aren’t slashed drastically, one of the major indicators of worsening climate catastrophe will be when certain “tipping points” are passed. These are natural limits beyond which it is impossible to predict how natural planetary systems will behave. Human beings have been blessed with a clement climate for the entirety of our existence, and these tipping points will mark a profound change in planetary conditions. These changes will, quite simply, pose an existential threat to humanity.

One such tipping point is the health of the vast sheet of ice that covers Antarctica. While Arctic summer sea ice has been decreasing and the Greenland ice sheet has been seriously stressed in recent years, Antarctica’s ice sheets as well as the extent of sea ice has been considered fairly stable, for now. However, recent findings in the frozen continent have sparked concerns that this might be changing faster than anticipated.

In 2022, scientists working in Antarctica’s Concordia research station found that the daily average temperature of 18 March that year was nearly 40 degrees Celsius above average. In the years since, scientists have recorded many more such cases of anomalous heat, and some fear that this might be pointing to more lasting changes in Antarctica. 

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A paper published last month by an international team of scientists in the Journal Of Climate, titled Observational Evidence For A Regime Shift in Summer Antarctic Sea Ice, points to a number of concerns. These are that glaciers on the borders of the west Antarctic ice sheets are calving into the ocean at an increased rate. Concurrently, sea ice levels have also decreased sharply.

For the longest time, Antarctica was considered too cold to be a concern when it came to climate change. However, the study now says that there is evidence of an “abrupt critical transition” in Antarctica, and that the southern ocean is changing, leading to worries that Antarctica could be melting faster than estimated. As to how the health of Antarctica constitutes a tipping point, the answer is fairly evident: global sea levels would rise by about 65m (approximately 210ft). It’s frankly unthinkable.

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