The recent report on keeping global warming under 1.5 °C by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a nightmarish future for the world – one that is much worse that any of those in previous IPCC reports. It reads like a final wake-up call from scientists on the serious implications of rising global temperatures. The take home message? We’re well on our way towards a 3°C rise at our current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The report however sets a crystal-clear target: reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 to have a fighting chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
This report is a must-read for all government policymakers who must recognise the crucial decisions we now have to make for the future… and fast.
Governments around the world must ramp up the transition to low carbon development and sustainable growth or suffer the devastating consequences of rising sea levels, tropical storms, droughts and floods that will severely undermine actions to tackle poverty and inequality, improve wellbeing and living standards and increase economic growth and prosperity.
The 34-page summary report for policymakers – which is based on over 6,000 cited scientific studies and written by 91 authors from 40 countries – warns that human activities have caused global mean temperatures to increase by about 1°C since the mid-19th century above pre-industrial levels and could reach 1.5°C at the current rate of global warming before 2050.
We are already experiencing major climate impacts although we have not even crossed the 1.5°C threshold, as the past year of intense typhoons and hurricanes, wildfires, heatwaves and floods around the world has shown. The extensive devastation left by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean just one year ago comes to mind.
However, even 1.5°C of warming would have serious implications and any higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as loss of critical ecosystems. Coral reefs for example, would decline by 70-90 per cent with a warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all would be lost with 2°C. Small islands and low-lying countries such as TT are already highly vulnerable to sea level rise which causes more saltwater intrusion, flooding and inundation and infrastructure damage. Higher rates of sea level rise mean that small islands have less time to adapt – to restore natural coastal ecosystems like mangroves and coral reefs and reinforce infrastructure. These issues are amplified at 2°C as compared to 1.5°C, making it harder for small islands to recover economically and socially from any climate disaster.
Moreover, poor people are especially vulnerable as the threats of food and water shortages increases especially in developing countries like the Caribbean. Several hundred million people would be exposed to “climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty” by 2050. Diseases like malaria and dengue fever will be more widespread, and staple crops like maize, rice, and wheat will have increasingly smaller yields — especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America.
This summary report, which condenses the most salient messages of the much larger IPCC special report, is still a very conservative assessment. It omits some of the largest climate threats like the potential for human populations to migrate and be displaced due to climate change which can increase the likelihood of war, especially in existing conflict zones and fragile states (such as the Middle East and Venezuela). It also excludes potential “tipping points” in the climate system, beyond which impacts become irreversible or unstoppable, such as the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet or shifts in the monsoon in Africa and Asia which can have profound effects on economic growth and human security around the world.
Nevertheless, the IPCC special report provides ample evidence to justify a reversal by the Trump Administration – which withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement in June 2017 – of their current “policy of inaction” on climate change.
Meeting the required target of 1.5°C is still technically feasible especially if there is an immediate and robust response from governments to enable "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". It will be incredibly costly, but the window of opportunity currently remains open. To meet the 1.5°C target, there must be a 45 per cent reduction of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 below 2010 levels, and by 2050 net carbon dioxide emissions must equal zero. Governments and private businesses must make radical transformations in four big global systems: energy, land use and management, industry and cities (including buildings and transport).
The next 10 years will be critical in determining whether we create a sustainable, safe and more equal world for everyone, both now and in the future. This IPCC report provides policymakers and practitioners the necessary information to make sound and evidence-based decisions they need to address climate change while also considering local circumstances and needs.
On a global scale, TT and the Caribbean emit less than one per cent of total annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change doesn’t discriminate against large and small emitters and unfortunately, small islands are amongst the most vulnerable countries to climate change, due to our unique geographic and socio-economic features. We are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine in a warming world and we are already experiencing the adverse impacts. We can no longer follow a “business as usual” approach where climate change is concerned.
According to the World Bank, estimates of annual damage to Caribbean countries due to climate change will rise to US$11 billion by 2080 – or 11 per cent of the region’s GDP. Across the region, governments are already undertaking actions to tackle climate change from climate change policies and plans to renewable energy systems to climate-smart agriculture. In TT, we have (or are currently developing) policies, plans, studies and pilots on climate change. However, it seems that we consistently lack the strong political will, leadership and long-term vision required for the radical transformation of our economic system, investment decisions and lifestyle and behavioural choices that these policies and plans require for us to be climate resilient, now and in the future.
TT is at an interesting junction in time, given our continued sluggish economy, high crime and increased unemployment which are compounded by continued environmental degradation across the country. This IPCC report allows TT an enormous opportunity for our government, businesses and citizens to lead the rapid transition to a low carbon and sustainable economy. The time for action is now and quickly.
Sasha Jattansingh is a climate and environmental consultant and lecturer at the Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business. She has developed the implementation plan and institutional framework for the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for TT for 2017 to 2030, which is the national greenhouse gas reduction target under the Parish Agreement. This is one of the first implementation plans for any country to be developed and is inclusive of sectoral implementation plans, a climate finance plan and an institutional capacity building and governance plan.