World Environment Day 2021: Climate change and human action: World leaders gave a clarion call on Friday for increased efforts to prevent and reverse degradation of grasslands, forests, oceans and mountains, vital for life on Earth. On Friday, they joined the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Speaking at an online conference on the occasion, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the planet is reaching the point of no return with humanity staring at a “triple environmental emergency” of biodiversity loss, climate disruption and escalating pollution.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will end in 2030, a deadline set by scientists to prevent catastrophic climate change that can threaten much of humanity and other life on earth. “We are ravaging the very ecosystems that underpin our societies, and in doing so, we risk depriving ourselves of the food, water and resources we need to survive,” Guterres said.
The UN Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization will lead the global efforts to re-imagine, recreate and restore ecosystems through this decade. The effort will involve the governments, businesses and the financial sector reimagining the way they work so that the natural world is restored, not destroyed.
A number of new diseases like Covid-19, rapidly changing climate patterns, pervasive pollution of land, water and air, as well as huge damage to biodiversity have raised questions about the future of life on the planet, prodding international organisations and national governments into serious soul searching. Researchers say more than nine million people die every year because of the environmental crisis.
Climate change and future of humanity
A large number of environmental scientists and writers believe that it is too late to rescue the planet. The optimists believe that the world has 10 more years to stop a catastrophic change in climate patterns. The deadline was set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 to limit global warming to 1.5-degree Celsius (2.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial levels by the end of the century to stop climate change.
But, is climate change a distant event that can be fought off by human action? The fact is that the worst of the crisis may be a long way away, but the disastrous manifestations are already visible. Pandemics like Covid-19 and the ones before it are just pointers to the possible consequences of unrestricted global warming. Such events highlight the urgency to reduce carbon emissions and taking mitigating measures.
The tipping points of climate crisis
There is credible research linking some of the climate events currently unfolding to climate change. Scientists have explained how steady increase in global average temperatures cause shifts in climate patterns and events like cyclones and wildfires. Here is a compilation of such events that uses research by some of the top scientists and institutions.
Shifting Indian monsoon
Indian monsoon is the seasonal reversal of winds and the resultant rainfall that is the lifeline of the nations in the Indian subcontinent. The southwest monsoon that comes during the summer months was known for its regular pattern and predictability. India’s agriculture sector is totally dependent on the monsoon that accounts for 70% of the country’s annual rainfall.
The monsoon pattern is changing drastically as land heating faster than ocean, causing higher rainfall and higher variability. But areas like central India get 10% less rainfall these days. Some studies point to rising pollution in these areas for the change in rainfall pattern.
The IPCC report that sent the 1.5C warning the variance in Indian monsoon will be smaller under 1.5-2C warming, while suggesting that 3C will see the intensity of Indian monsoon intensifying further. Scientists expect earlier onset and delayed retreat of Indian monsoons. This could result in a longer rainy season that will affect the cropping patterns in the sub-continent.
Melting glaciers, rising ocean levels
A scientific study published in Nature journal shows that climate change is causing the world’s glaciers to melt faster, adding around 328 billion tonnes of water to the oceans annually. Fast disintegration of icesheets in Antarctic and Arctic regions is a big cause of concern. Though the rise in sea levels is currently measured in millimetres, scientists are worried about the event.
Unchecked rise in ocean temperature can result in heavy damage to coastal regions, forcing world nations to relocate coastal communities or build barriers to stop oceans from destroying human life and property.
Falling oxygen levels in lakes
Another study published in Nature journal by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Minnesota has highlighted the falling oxygen level in lakes across the world due to rising temperatures.
The study found that deep-water lake habitats are facing huge threat from the phenomenon that could result in the extinction of several cold-water and oxygen-sensitive species. The study found that oxygen levels at freshwater lakes’ surfaces have fallen by 5.5%, while that in deeper waters went down by 18.6%.
Mounting death toll from heat
Another study in Nature Climate Change by researchers from multiple universities found that 37% of all heat-related deaths between 1991 and 2018 can be attributed to climate change. The study used data collected from 43 countries across the world.
The negative impact of climate change on health can be measured, says Antonio Gasparrini, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine an author of the study, told a news agency. The study said that around 1,100 people die every year in the US from heat death caused by climate change.
Wildfires across the world
The rising global temperatures are causing / worsening wildfires in the US, Canada, southern Europe, Scandinavia, Australia and the Amazon region. There has been a 10-fold increase in the number of wildfires in the last 40 years. Climate change escalates the conditions such as drying vegetation that helps wildfires.
A wildfire broke out in northern California destroyed 10% of the redwood trees that can absorb 250 times more carbon as an average tree. The impact of wildfire smoke on human health is being studied. It is estimated that wildfire smoke generates almost half of all health-damaging small-particles in the western US.
Climate change deadlines could be misleading
Some environmentalists feel that emphasis on the 2030 deadline is reductionist and misleading. The IPCC report of 2018 said limiting of global temperature increase to 1.5C by the turn of the next century meant cutting human carbon dioxide emissions 45% by 2030 and achieving zero emissions by 2050.
The world will not end if humanity failed to achieve these targets. But it will accentuate long-term climate shifts that could have disastrous consequences to agriculture and food security. World leaders should not lose sight of the short-term goal of emissions cuts as well as the longer-term efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions would mean more efforts to capture carbon. This would be crucial to avoid uncontrollable climate tipping points.