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Do we really have 12 years to save the Earth?

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You might have heard the common phrase from climate change activists and organisations that we only have 12 years to save the Earth, but what does this mean and, more importantly, is it accurate? What exactly will happen when this metaphorical timer gets to zero.

The figure of 12 years came about in 2018 when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report describing what it would take to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report laid out clear targets in response to the 2016 Paris climate agreement where almost all the nations on earth agreed to work towards eliminating all carbon emissions by 2050 with a reduction of 45% by 2030.

Although the mid-century date is often seen as the more prominent one, the 2030 date serves as a benchmark for countries to show they are on the right track. A gradual decrease of 45% by 2030 is considered achievable without causing a huge impact on industry and the economy underpinning it. If the 2030 deadline is missed the subsequent 2050 deadline would only be able to be met with rapid and disruptive change on a global scale.

The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) was set up to provide an up-to-date assessment of countries’ individual reduction targets and with an overview of their combined effects. Of the countries submitting data to the tracker only two, Morocco and The Gambia, are in compliance with the targets set out in the Paris agreement. The rest all fall short, some woefully.

The two biggest polluters, China and America, have shown no sign of slowing down their emissions. Donald Trump has unilaterally removed America from the Paris agreement and has encouraged fracking and coal companies to continue to operate, releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gases. China is moving forward to constructing 121 gigawatts of coal plants, which is more than is being built in the rest of the world combined.

So what effect is our incompetence having on our planet? Increasing carbon dioxide emissions are already having an impact on the weather and ecosystem all over the world. We are seeing increasing wildfires from Australia to California, all the way up to the arctic circle. Flash flooding is devastating communities in Bangladesh, Mozambique and Indonesia. Even here in the UK flooding is set to become a huge issue particularly in lowland areas. The Environment Agency has warned that if global temperatures continue to rise in line with current trends, the UK will have to spend £1 billion a year to adequately protect homes from flooding.

One particularly harrowing aspect of climate change is feedback loops which have the potential to make the crisis exponentially worse. An example of a feedback loop would be rising temperatures causing more arctic permafrost to melt. This leads to the trapped greenhouse gases in the ice to be released into the atmosphere further causing temperatures to increase. This, in turn, will lead to more ice melting and so on. This runaway effect has the potential to spiral out of control to a point we cannot come back from.

The world will still exist if the 2030 or 2050 deadline is not met but it will be a world much weaker and fragmented than before. It will be one in which the extreme weather has rendered huge areas of land impossible to inhabit either due to floods, extreme heat or wildfires. There will be less food security as more and more crops fail to adapt to changing temperatures. Conflicts will break out between countries over control of resources as they become more scarce. There is a lot of work to be done globally to reduce emissions and time is running out fast. We now only have 10 years out of the 12-year deadline first envisioned in 2018. New agreements must be made that are more stringent and binding on nations that will successfully curb and eliminate emissions.

By Sakariya Yasin


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