We are on the cusp of the collapse of civilization. Time is growing perilously short but key events in the coming year could put us on track to deal with the multiple interconnected crises we face. To all but the willfully ignorant, there is more than ample scientific evidence to indicate that we are facing a biodiversity crisis and a climate emergency. It is still possible to reverse this trend but we must act quickly. We are getting dangerously close to the upper threshold temperature limit agreed to in Paris (1.5 – 2.0 degrees C below preindustrial norms) As Maxx Dilley, director of climate services at the World Meteorological Organization told AP, “any delay just diminishes the window within which there will still be time to reverse these trends and to bring the temperature back down into those limits”.
In a Time article, Justin Worland says that from where we stand today 2020 may seem like the year “an unknown virus spun out of control, killed hundreds of thousands and altered the way we live day to day,” but in the future, we may see 2020 as “the year we decided to keep driving off the climate cliff–or to take the last exit.” The physics of climate change requires us to cut emissions in half by 2030. That breaks down to 7.6 percent every year for the next decade. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions cut by the coronavirus this year.
Events in China and the EU will play a significant role in determining whether we effectively respond to the climate crisis. China has begun drafting its next five-year plan (FYP), this top-level policy blueprint has been called, “one of the most important documents on the planet” for global sustainability. The 14th FYP which includes a power sector plan is expected to be made public next year. This year the EU is also implementing its carbon border mechanism which will impose taxes on imports from countries that are not doing enough to address climate change. Advocates of such a tax hope that it will be the first wave in what may become a global effort to ensure that all nations do their part to manage the climate crisis.
The 2018 report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that allowing the planet to warm any more than 2°C above preindustrial levels would drive hundreds of millions of people into poverty, destroy coral reefs and leave some countries unable to adapt. Even more devastating, feedback loops could trip tipping points from which we may not be able to recover. This includes the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet and the thawing of Arctic permafrost
A NASA study suggests that to avoid collapse we will need to reach a sustainable steady state beneath the Earth’s maximum carrying capacity. We will also need to distribute resources equitably, enact policies to reduce economic inequality, and preserve natural resources. A June 2020 study on species loss warns that their results “reemphasize the extreme urgency of taking massive global actions to save humanity’s crucial life-support systems.”
Technological solutions are at the heart of a low-carbon economy and a vital part of efforts to siphon carbon out of the atmosphere. However, technological sophistication does not guarantee that we will be able to respond in time. Umair Haque captures some of the urgency when he calls us to invest in nature, “Do it now. Do it like never before in history. Put aside your stupid squabbles, and your pointless pursuits. Put down the remote control, the phone, the drug, the fix. You are here on planet earth,” Haque wrote.
Preparing the way for a substantial reduction in emissions can make this the year that started the revival rather than the year that marks our extinction. We have to cut emissions in half by 2030. That breaks down to 7.6 percent every year for the next decade. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions cut by the coronavirus this year. This is doable, but if we continue to rely on the old energy economy we are done.
We have a choice to make we can either pivot to a more sustainable way of life or can return to our perilous pre-corona course. 2020 is our last best chance, as Worland explains, “there’s no more time to wait. We’re standing at a climate crossroads….What we do now will define the fate of the planet–and human life on it–for decades”. In a BBC article Luke Kemp, a historian who studies fallen civilizations said,
“The collapse of our civilisation is not inevitable. History suggests it is likely, but we have the unique advantage of being able to learn from the wreckages of societies past.” According to Kemp collapse can be averted: “We know what needs to be done: emissions can be reduced, inequalities levelled, environmental degradation reversed, innovation unleashed and economies diversified. The policy proposals are there. Only the political will is lacking. We can also invest in recovery. There are already well-developed ideas for improving the ability of food and knowledge systems to be recuperated after catastrophe. Avoiding the creation of dangerous and widely-accessible technologies is also critical. Such steps will lessen the chance of a future collapse becoming irreversible. We will only march into collapse if we advance blindly. We are only doomed if we are unwilling to listen to the past.”
At present we are not doing anywhere near enough to reduce emissions and if we don’t act soon it will be too late. To address climate change and slow environmental degradation we need to get radically efficient, stop deforestation, switch to a plant-based diet, and most importantly we need to decarbonise our energy supply. The coronavirus is helping to make the transition easier. Worland describes COVID-19 as the most significant post-war disruption to fossil fuels, but he also sees it as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change direction”. The virus has exposed fault lines that are driving a paradigm change.
The shutdown associated with the coronavirus radically decreased emissions, however, a post-lockdown surge in activity could imperil hopes of keeping temperatures below the upper threshold limit. While the coronavirus shutdown caused CO2 emissions to decrease by a global average of 17 percent in April, they are surging again. This has prompted International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol to warn that the world has six months to avert a climate crisis. “This year is the last time we have if we are not to see a carbon rebound,” Birol said.
The next 12 – 18 months will be critical for the future of humanity. Three critical summits that were scheduled to take place in 2020 have been postponed until 2021 (the high-level Ocean Conference in Lisbon, the Biodiversity Summit in Kunming, and the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow). This may be a godsend for environmental action as the single most important event in 2020 may be the U.S. presidential election on November 3rd. The fact that these 3 summits have been postponed until 2021 gives Americans the chance to elect a new administration and that would be a game changer.