2021 is already shaping up as an important year for climate change mitigation. As scientist and author Michael E. Mann wrote in Newsweek a few days ago, this year could well mark the tipping point for climate action. This is in no small degree a result of the US rejoining the 2015 Paris Agreement and enacting sweeping reforms in its domestic carbon-based energy economy, he pointed out. As the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), and the world’s biggest historical emitter, you could say that this is the least the US could do.
Moreover, in the run-up to the crucial UN climate change summit in Glasgow in November, Western nations are also driving a change in policy vocabulary by labelling climate change a global security threat. While commentators have weighed in on both the pros and cons of this, 2021 has at least seen renewed energy in tackling the real and present danger of global warming.
To underscore the urgency, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report on 18 February that clearly states how fine the margin of error is. Making Peace With Nature tracks the efforts necessary for countries to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It also calls for the links between climate science, policy and decision making to be made robust. For in the current emissions scenario, the report says, the world is on track to heat up by 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times by 2100. To reach the aspired warming threshold of a 1.5 degree Celsius rise by the end of the century, the report says global carbon dioxide emissions need to be reduced by 45% (compared to 2010 levels) by 2030. Moreover, global net zero emissions need to become a reality by 2050.
The report says covid-19 has made clear the risks of transforming nature. The global economy has grown nearly fivefold in the past 50 years, but only by tripling the extraction of natural resources. This “unequal and resource-intensive model”, the report states, is behind climate change, biodiversity loss, global hunger and pollution. This status quo development discourse needs to change.
Although the SDGs have long been tied to climate change mitigation pathways, in the wake of the pandemic there seems to be a greater urgency in making this connection. After all, global resource-stripping leads both to the rise of new diseases as well as to a warming planet. The UNEP report is clear that to end this, the policy narrative needs to shift towards community rights and a circular economy, with the richer nations ensuring they urgently meet their financial assistance responsibilities towards poorer countries. This last point is likely to play a big role at the Glasgow summit. Only then will we see if a climate action tipping point has indeed been crossed.