Global Challenge 1

Global Challenge 1. How can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change?

(c) 2018 The Millennium Project
Brief Overview:
Some 252 million years ago, global warming due to increased atmospheric CO2 that led to ocean current changes, increases in hydrogen sulfate (H2S), and ozone depletion killed 97% of life during the Permian extinction. This could happen again unless we learn how to turn around the growing greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the volume already in the atmosphere today. According to NASA, 16 of the 17 warmest years on record occurred since 2001.
The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, with 197 Parties to the Convention, that went into force in November 2016 calls for efforts to cap temperature increases to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels. Even though the growth in CO2 emissions has slowed over the past three years due to efficiencies and a move away from coal by the U.S. and China, the accumulative effect continues warming Earth. The US Administration withdrawal from the agreement, may increase efforts of other nations to achieve the new goals.
According to NASA the global temperature has already increased by 0.94°C (1.7°F) since 1880 and sea levels have risen 8–9 inches during the same period. If current trends continue, the 2017 US Climate Report projects an increase of 2.8–4.8°C (5–7.5°F) increase by 2100. Sea levels are rising at 3.4 millimeters per year and ocean acidity is projected to increase 100–150% over pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.
Turning around GHG growth will require unprecedented global efforts since today’s 7.5 billion world population is expected to grow by another 2 billion by 2050 and the global economy is expected to triple during this same period.
Although the CO2 equivalent of 450 ppm is the politically acceptable cap, some argue it should be 350 ppm since we already see massive impacts today with 410 ppm, so why would 450 be sustainable? We have to reduce not only GHG emissions but also the volume of GHGs already in the atmosphere today. The Paris Convention on Climate Change and country pledges should be enforceable through boycotts, sanctions, and other means. Global citizens should understand that Earth does not possess infinite resources; that the Earth is a Closed-Loop System that should be applied to various economic, political, and environmental management systems; that consumption and waste management will have to change; and that environmental sustainability is a top economic, social value, and political priority.
World leaders have agreed to achieve 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals with 169 sub-goals by 2030.
Actions to Address Global Challenge 1:
  • U.S.-China Apollo-Like Goal, with a NASA-Like R&D program to achieve it, that others can join; if U.S. falters, then an EU-China Goal should be pursued.
  • Produce meat, milk, leather, and other animal products directly from genetic materials without growing animals: Saves energy, land, water, health costs, and greenhouse gases.
  • Seawater/saltwater agriculture.
  • Increase vegetarian diets.
  • Retrofit older cities to Eco-smart Cities and build new additions as Eco-smart Cities.
  • Continue policies that reduce fertility rates in high population growth areas.
  • Reduce energy per unit of GDP.
  • Increase forest coverage.
  • Transition from fossil to renewable energy sources (see Global Challenge 13 for more detail and for current global status).
  • Disinvest into fossil fuels
  • Introduce cap-and-trade systems.
  • Establish carbon taxes.
  • Engage arts/media/entertainment to foster work/lifestyle changes.
  • Train community resilience teams.
  • Make long-range coastal evacuation and migration plans.
  • Evaluate geo-engineering options.
For more information, including regional considerations in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America, click on Short Overview at:, Challenge 1, “Report” section.


Figure 1.2 GHG emissions, CO2-equivalent mixing ratio (ppm)
Source: NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, with Millennium Project compilation and forecast


Short Overview and Regional Considerations
The Paris Agreement on climate change entered into force on 4 November 2016, and 153 Parties, including the US and China, have ratified as of July 2017. US President Trump announced that the US will withdraw from the agreement but less than one-third of Americans support the decision. All Parties agreed to keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5C; To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning between 2050 and 2100; To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years; For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance” . The Green Climate Fund (GCF) to help with technology transfer. transparency in the national reporting on progress, and other mechanisms are identified to limit climate change.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in September 2015 set a framework for policy, action, and monitoring to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each of the 17 goals has specific targets to be achieved by 2030. IMF estimates that developing countries need to invest 3.9 trillion per year to achieve SDGs with an investment gap of about $2.5 trillion. Meanwhile, achieving SDGs could create at least $12 trillion of market opportunities in food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being alone and create 380 million new jobs by 2030.
The global average surface temperature in 2016 is likely to be the warmest on record and to reach the milestone of 1C° above the pre-industrial era. The years 2012-2016 have been the warmest five-year period on record. Monthly CO2 ppm as measured at Mauna Loa monitoring station reached 406.7 in May 2016 (it was 403.7 in May 2015, 401.88 ppm in May 2014, and 399.9 ppm in May 2013). And on April 18, 2017, the figure hit 410 ppm for the first time.The IPCC reports that each decade of the past three were consecutively warmer, that the past 30 years was likely the warmest period in the Northern Hemisphere over the last 1,400 years, and that even if all CO2 emissions are stopped, “Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries;” hence, the world has to take adaptation far more seriously. IPCC says the sea level rose 19 cm from 1901 to 2010, and could rise an additional 26 to 98 cm by the end of this century and the earth’s average surface temperature has warmed by about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. Warming soil now found to release CO2 not included in previous forecasts.
The total GHG emission is about 54 Gt of CO2 equivalent per year. In business-as-usual scenario, the emissions are estimated to reach 59 Gt of CO2 equivalent in 2020 and 68 Gt of CO2 equivalent in 2030. The IPCC estimates that no more than 1000Gt of CO2 equivalent shall be emitted between 2012 and 2100 if we want to have 66% chance of limiting the warming below 2°C. Nature’s capacity to absorb human-induced emissions is diminishing. Oceans will continue absorbing human-generated CO2 for decades if not centuries, which increases acidity, affecting coral reefs and other sea life. Over the long term, increased CO2 in the atmosphere leads to a proliferation of microbes that emit hydrogen sulfide—a very poisonous gas that could lead to mass extinctions. Surface ocean pH has already fallen by about 0.11 pH units from preindustrial times to today, and if the current trend continues, it is likely to drop by 0.3-0.4 units by the end of this century with devastating impacts on the marine ecosystem.
If all Kyoto Protocol Annex 1 country pledges were fully implemented, their emissions would reach a level by 2020 that is 12–18% below the level of 1990; however, if only their unconditional pledges were implemented, the decrease would be only 5% below the 1990 level. There is also a growing fear that the target of not exceeding 450 ppm of atmospheric CO2 is inadequate and should be lowered to 350 ppm, or else the momentum of climate change could grow beyond humanity’s ability to reverse it. Emissions from increased production of internationally traded products have more than offset the emissions reductions achieved under the Kyoto Protocol. Meanwhile, adaptation costs are likely to reach $300 billion per year by 2050, even with strong emissions cuts. A study estimates that a ton of CO2 emitted causes $220 worth of economic damage.
Global ecosystem services that provide life support and economic foundations are valued from $16 to 64 trillion. WWF estimates that the oceans are worth at least $24 trillion. Much of our food is dependent on bee pollination, yet few seem to realize that half of the bee colonies of the US and Europe have collapsed over the past couple of decades. Irrigated fields produce 36% of the world’s food, but a fifth of the worlds’ irrigated soils is affected by salt, which can cut crop yields as much as 70%. About $27.3 billion is lost each year in agricultural value due increasing salt. As ocean levels rise, seawater in will enter fresh water agricultural lands; hence, it will be wise to develop and convert to salt tolerant plants.
The size of the “global middle class” (defined as all those living in households with daily per capita incomes of between $10 and $100 in PPP terms) will increase from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 3.2 billion by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030, drawing even more on these ecosystem services. The world spends 1-2% of global GDP on subsidies that often lead to unsustainable resource use. Global waste has increased 10-fold in the last century, and it could double by 2025 from where it is today. Halving global food waste could save as much as $300 billion a year by 2030. More than 41 million tonnes of e-waste were discarded in 2014. The discarded materials including gold and silver were worth some $52 billion, but less than 20% is estimated to have been properly recycled.
In 2014, Earth Overshoot Day – the approximate date human resource consumption exceed nature’s budget – fell on August 19. It was on August 8 in 2016 and it is expected to be August 2 in 2017. Humanity has been in annual ecological overshoot since the 1970s; it now takes one year and six months to regenerate our one year consumption. Five countries make up nearly half of the world’s ecological footprint: China, US, India, Brazil and Russia. Unless we improve our economic, environmental, and social behaviors, the next 50 years are likely to be for many disastrous. If present trends of climate change continue, one in six species on Earth could become extinct.
Poorer countries that contribute the least to GHGs are the most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts because they depend on agriculture and fisheries, and they lack financial and technological resources to cope. G8 committed to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition aimed at achieving sustained and inclusive agricultural growth to raise 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years. Annual global climate finance flows in 2013 reached $331 billion, $28 billion lower than the previous year, further increasing the gap between finance needed and finance delivered. According to UNEP’s Towards a Green Economy report, investing 2% of global GDP ($1.3 trillion per year) into 10 key sectors can kick-start a transition toward a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy that would increase income per capita and reduce ecological footprint by nearly 50% by 2050 compared with business as usual. As of September 2014, more than 65 countries have green economy policies and 48 of them are taking steps to develop national green economy plans.
Climate change could be accelerated by dangerous feedbacks:
  • melting ice/snow on tundras reflect less light and absorb more heat, releasing more methane, which in turn increases global warming and melts more tundra;
  • warming ocean water releases methane hydrates from the seabed to the air, warming the atmosphere and melting more ice, which further warms the water to release more methane hydrates;
  • the use of methane hydrates or otherwise disturbing deeper seabeds releases more methane to the atmosphere and accelerates global warming;
  • melting ice in polar regions reflect less light, absorbs more heat, which further increases melting.
Glaciers are melting, disease patterns are changing, and coral reefs are dying at an accelerating rate. The Gulf Stream system has weakened to its lowest level in 1,100 years, possibly due to an influx of freshwater from Greenland’s melting ice sheet. A third (FAO) to a half (WFF) the world’s topsoilis destroyed and could run out in 60 years. Some 30% of fish stocks have already collapsed, and 21% of mammal species and 70% of plants are under threat. Oceans absorb 30 million tons of CO2 each day, increasing their acidity. The number of dead zones in the oceans—areas with too little oxygen to support life—caused by agricultural runoffs, has doubledevery decade since the 1960s.
Because the U.S. and China are the largest GHG polluters and have the largest economies, they have the moral responsibility to lead the world in adapting to and turning around climate change. US-China November 2014 joint announcement pledged GHG emissions caps, collaboration on cleaner energy research, carbon capture and reuse, eco-smart city designs, and phasing down of their use of Hydroflurocarbons, but they have not yet declared a joint bold Appollo-like goal – such as reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm – with a NASA-like R&D strategy that could rally global collaboration. Such a U.S.–China lead strategy might focus on new technologies like electric cars, saltwater agriculture, carbon capture and reuse, solar power satellites, maglev trains, urban systems ecology, pure meat without growing animals (produced from either stem cells or vegetable inputs), and a global climate change collective intelligence system to support better decisions and keep track of it all. It is estimated that growing pure meat without growing animals would generate 96% lower GHG emissions, use 45% less energy, reduce land use by 99%, and cut water use by 96% compared with growing animals for meat. These technologies have to be supplemented by policies that support carbon taxes, cap and trade schemes, reduced deforestation, industrial efficiencies, co-generation, conservation, recycling, and switch of government subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy. (Pakistan and Venezuela are spending twice as much on fossil fuel subsidies as they are on public health.) Successful technological and policy implementation in many lesser developed countries will need assistance.
Seriously addressing global warming will require better conservation, higher efficiencies, changes in food and energy production, methods to reduce the GHGs that are already in the atmosphere, and adapting to climate changes already in motion for many years to come.
Scientists are studying how to build towers to suck CO2 from the air, sequester CO2 underground, spread iron powder in oceans to increase phytoplankton to sequester CO2, genetically alter coral to better absorb CO2, reduce solar input with large scale geoengineering project like sunshades in orbit, and reuse carbon at power plants to produce cement and grow algae for biofuels. Large-scale geoengineering, such as spraying sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect some sunlight, may have problems with stratospheric ozone depletion, reaching international agreements to do it, and make the daytime sky significantly brighter and whiter. Other suggestions include retrofitting coal plants to burn leaner and to capture and reuse carbon emissions, raising fuel efficiency standards, and increasing vegetarianism (FAO reports that the livestock sector emits more GHGs than transportation does). Others have suggested new taxes, such as on carbon, international financial transactions, urban congestion, international travel, and environmental footprints. Such taxes could support international public/private funding mechanisms for high-impact technologies. Massive public educational efforts by professional networks (from scholarly associations to Rotary Cubs) should use social media, popular film, television, music, games, and contests to stress what we can do to better pressure political and other leaders.
Without a global strategy to address climate change, the environmental movement may turn on the fossil fuel and livestock industries. The legal foundations are being laid to sue for damages caused by GHGs. Climate change adaptation and mitigation policies should be integrated into an overall sustainable development strategy. Without sustainable growth, billions more people will be condemned to poverty, and much of civilization could collapse, which is unnecessary since we know enough already to tackle climate change while increasing economic growth. Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient acceptance of universal ethical principles for successful implementation. Challenge 1 will be addressed seriously when green GDP increases while poverty and global GHG emissions decrease for five years in a row.
Regional Considerations
Africa: Among ten countries estimated to become the most affectedby climate change are in Africa: Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, and Eritrea. Since Africa contributes little to GHGs, its focus should be more on adaptation to climate change than on mitigation. It is getting about $1-2 billion per year now for adaptation, but needs $7-15 billion per year for adaptation by 2020, and $50 billion per year by 2050. Financial flows for adaptation, however, only amounts to $1-2 billion a year today. Introduction of drought resistant seeds, more eco-friendly farming, closed environmental agriculture, seawater farming along the coasts, reforestation, reduction of slash and burn agricultural practices, will be needed to avoid the IPCC forecast that climate change could reduce rain-feed Sub-Saharan agriculture by 50% by 2020. Price and weather-indexed insurance schemes will help Africa stabilize prices in domestic markets and help farmers adapt to climate change. If agricultural practices don’t change and global warming exceeds 3°C, virtually all of the present maize, millet, and sorghum cropping areas across Africa could become unviable.
Solar energy in the Sahara is strategic for African sustainable growth. Africa needs about $675 billion by 2030 to achieve low-carbon sustainable growth; the current carbon market for mitigation is not sufficient to address this. The Clean Development Mechanism, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program, and the voluntary offset program are not fully utilized. Africa’s total ecological footprint is set to double by 2040. Ethiopia is implementing it’s climate-resilient green economy plan to become carbon neutral by 2030. Mayors in Mali are now required to have couples plant trees as part of their marriage registration process. Ten African nations have pledged to include the economic value of natural resources in their national accounts. Meanwhile, West Africa is losing $1.3 billion a year due to illegal and unregulated fishing, and criminal groups take up to 1.3 billion worth of natural resources such as gold, timber and ivory from DRC every year. Militia and terrorist groups in and around Africa may earn up to $289 million annually from illegal or unregulated charcoal trade.
Asia and Oceania: China is the largest GHG polluter in the world, plans to begin to reverse the amount of its GHG emissions by 2030, and have 20% of its energy from zero emissions sources by that year.The region has half of the world’s megacities and the majority of the world’s poverty, many of which live in densely populated slums vulnerable to climate change. Rapid applications of urban systems ecology will be vital for sustainable development of the region. India loses $80 billion per year, or nearly 6% of its GDP due to environmental degradation, and more than half the damage is attributable to air pollution. Particulate matter pollution reduces life expectancy by 3.2 years for 660 million Indians in polluted urban cities. Meanwhile, lung cancer has doubled in Beijing over the last decade and pollution increasingly becomes a cause of protests and lawsuits. Chinese government banned the anti-air pollution documentary “Under the Dome” after it attracted 200 million viewers within a week. China’s solid waste will grow from about 573,000 tons a day in 2005 to 1.5 million tons in 2025. It has pilot emissions trading systems (ETS) in seven provinces and cities and will launch national ETS in 2016. US$320 billion worth of investment will be needed annually to meet China’s environmental targets.The effects of deforestation in south and south east Asian climate needs to be better understood. Due to the affects of global warming the 103,000 citizens of Kiribati are expected to become refugees; and hence, the government has bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji for a reported $9.6 million to resettle this population. Bangladesh will need new agriculture to save farming from ocean level increases of salt water incursions and housing adaptations. Australia repealed the Carbon Tax which was introduced in 2012, but WWF says it could achieve net zero emission by 2050 at a cost of 0.2% of GDP.
Europe: EU is on track to achieve its 2020 climate/energy objectives (GHG emissions 20% lower than 1990; 20% of energy from renewables; 20% increase in energy efficiency). EC adopted a low-carbon roadmap that would cut emissions by 80-95% by 2050. The EU-28 committed in 2014 to the 2030 framework policy to reduce GHG emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030, and increase both energy efficiency and share of renewable energy by 27% from 1990 levels. Member States will have flexibility to set national objectives and policies. The sectors covered by EU ETS have reduced their emissions by 13 % from 2005 to 2013, but incentives for low-carbon investments are too low today due to excess of allowance and sluggish economy. The EU carbon price is around €7 euros per tonne in mid-2015, down from its peak of over €30. Reforms to strengthen the EU ETS will be introduced in 2018, which could push carbon prices up to €20 per tonne by 2020. In 2013, fiscal revenues from auctioning allowances in the EU ETS amounted to EUR €3.6 billion (of which, around € 3 billion will be used for climate and energy related purposes).
France introduced a carbon tax for supporting the transition towards renewables and promoting energy efficiency. Spain’s total greenhouse gas emissions fell by 20% to 344 million tonnes in 2012 from 432 million tonnes in 2007; however, subsidy cuts for renewable energy could change this picture. Russia aims to reduce GHG emissions by 22–25% by 2020 compared to 1990 (which is still an increase in absolute terms, since Russia’s emissions plunged sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union). Nitrogen pollution from farms, vehicles, industry, and waste treatment costs the EU up to €320 billion per year. The EC is preparing a circular economy strategy to increase resource-efficiency by 30% by 2030 which is expected to boost GDP by nearly 1% and create 2 million additional jobs. Air pollution in Europe cost $1.6 trillion, or nearly one-tenth of the EU’s GDP, in premature deaths and diseases. At the end of EU’s ‘Year of Air’, the EU proposed a new strategy toward 2030, which would avoid 58,000 premature deaths and save as much as €140 billion per year. The UK plans to have its own “GDP-plus” national accounts by 2020. Russia has the world’s second largest total biocapacity reserve and is the only major economy not facing a growing dependence on other nations’ ecosystems. Between 1992-2009 its reserve has further improved from 0.9 to 2.6 gha (global hector area a measure of biocapacity) per capita. Norwegians generated the greatest volume of e-waste in per-capita basis (28kg), followed by Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark and UK.
Latin America: The region faces a $100 billion annual loss by 2050 if the global temperature rises 2°C over pre-industrial levels. Mexico and Colombia are implementing sector-wide crediting mechanisms that reward low emission activities. Chile approved a carbon tax to start in 2018. South America has 40% of the planet’s biodiversity and about half of the world’s carbon stored in tropical forests. Brazil has the world’s largest total biocapacity reserve (about 9.6 gha per capita), but unless more environmentally-friendly policies are successful, it could cross into deficit within the next 50 years. Deforestation rate in Brazil went down for several years, but the annual deforestation rates increased 28% for the period August 2012-July 2013. The demand for hydropower and biofuels may reduce Latin America’s forests as a carbon sink. The dieback of the southern part of the Amazon rainforest is expected to be greater than expected because the forest is drying faster than the IPCC models assumed. 40% of Brazilian businesses reported emission reduction targets in 2012. Recycling in Brazil generates $2 billion a year while avoiding 10 million tons of GHG emissions. According to IICA, Latin America holds 43% of the world’s potential for agricultural growth. It is rapidly expanding this potential while trying not to damage vital ecosystem services. Mexico’s new climate change law sets legally binding emission reduction goals: 30% below business-as-usual levels by 2020, and by 50% below 2000 levels by 2050. In Peru, more than 50% of forest cover on the coast was already lost, and more than 150,000 hectares of forest are lost annually by agriculture and mining.
North America: US CO2 emissions fell 3% during 2016. It pledged to cut GHS emissions by 26-28% by 2025 from from 2005 levels. Methane production in the US could be 50% or more than previous EPA estimates due to fossil fuel production and livestock industries, not previously considered. Cities and states initiate and implement more policies for sustainable development and reducing GHGs than the federal government. California and Québec linked their carbon markets in 2014; with the inclusion of the transport sector in January 2015, their linked ETS is the world’s third largest.U.S. oil companies are beginning to plan for carbon taxes. Bank of America announced its 10-year, $50-billion green investment program.
A U.S. National Academy of Sciences panel called for better government coordination to implement an abrupt [years to decades faster than expected] climate change early warning system, while the U.S. Congress refused to end oil subsidies. Honey bee keepers have reported that bee population has been falling about 30%per year since 2006. Air pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals cost U.S. children $76.6 billion in health expenses. The U.S. will invest $880 million to clean up Florida Everglades. Permafrost temperature in northern Alaska increased about 4–7°C during the last century, almost half of it during the last 20 years. Boy Scouts of America created Sustainability Merit Badge.
Canada’s tar sends exploitation continue to raise environmental concerns. The Alberta government introduced legislation to create a new environmental monitoring agency focused on the oilsands. The new Alberta government promises new climate change strategy. Canada’s intended nationally determined contribution is committing Canada to reduce GHG emissions by 30% below the 2005 levels by 2030. Ontario committed to reduce its GHG emissions by 37% below 1990 levels by 2030, while British Columbia’s carbon tax system is considered one of the most significant in the Western Hemisphere.
Graphs expressing the global situation:
Biocapacity per capita (gha)
Source: Global Footprint Network, with Millennium Project compilation and forecast; graph part of the 2015 State of the Future Index; details in the 2015-16 State of the Future report
Graph using Trend Impact Analysis (TIA); it is part of the 2012 State of the Future Index computation (See 2012 State of the Future Index)