Global Challenges Facing Humanity

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1. Sustainable Development and Climate Change: How can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change?

The World Meteorological Organization reports that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached a record levels in 2012, or 140% of the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million. The daily average of atmospheric CO2 as measured in Hawaii surpassed 400 ppm on May 10, 2013. It was 391.03 ppm in October 2012; 388.92 ppm in October 2011; and 387.15 ppm in October 2010. According to NOAA, 2012 was the hottest year in the U.S. (coterminous 48 states) since record-keeping began in 1895, and the ninth warmest on record globally.

The total human-induced GHG emission is about 49.5 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year. Nature absorbs about half of this annually, but that ability is diminishing. To achieve carbon cycle equilibrium, assuming nature’s absorption capacities remained the same, we would have to cut back to about 25 GtCO2e per year, which is deemed politically and economically unacceptable. The politically accepted target is a 2°C increase by 2100, requiring a reduction to around 44 GtCO2e by 2020. The business-as-usual scenario is an increase to about 56 GtCO2e by 2020. Oceans absorb atmospheric CO2 (about 25% of it today) and 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.

If all Annex I pledges were fully implemented, Annex I 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 only be 5% below the 1990 level. There is also a growing fear that the target of not acceding 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. The volume of the carbon market grew 11% in 2011, reaching $176 billion. The voluntary carbon market grew 33% in value in 2011, to $576 million, but volumes decreased by 28%.

Global ecosystem services that provide life support and economic foundations are valued at $16–64 trillion. These are being depleted faster than nature can resupply. Human activity dominates 43% of Earth’s ice-free land surface and affects twice that area. In just 18 years (by 2030) demographers expect an additional 3 billion middle-class consumers drawing even more on these ecosystem services. In 2013, Earth Overshoot Day - the approximate date human resource consumptions exceed nature's budget - fell on August 20, two days earlier than 2012. Since 2001, Earth Overshoot Day has moved ahead on average 3 days per year. Unless we improve our economic, environmental, and social behaviors, the next 100 years could be disastrous. The Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services, a global partnership, is developing guidelines for ecosystem accounting and their integration into national policy analysis.

The Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network – GEO BON – was set to organize and improve biodiversity observations globally and make the outcomes more readily accessible to policymakers, experts, and other users.

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 leaders in L’Aquila pledged $20 billion in 2009 to boost food security, yet only 22% of these funds have been committed. The Global Landscape of Climate Finance 2012 identifies global climate finance flows of $364 billion in 2011. 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. Meanwhile, the world spends 1-2% of global GDP on subsidies that often lead to unsustainable resource use.

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; Antarctic melting reflects less light, absorbs more heat, and increases melting; and the Greenland ice sheet (with 20% of the world’s ice) could eventually slide into the ocean.

Glaciers are melting, polar ice caps are thinning, and coral reefs are dying. 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—areas with too little oxygen to support life—has doubled every decade since the 1960s.

It is time for a U.S.–China Apollo-like 10-year goal and global R&D strategy to address climate change, focusing 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, and a global climate change collective intelligence 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, cogeneration, conservation, recycling, and a switch of government subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

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 the ecological footprint by nearly 50% by 2050 compared with business as usual. Meanwhile, the world spends 1–2% of global GDP on subsidies that often lead to unsustainable resource use.

The amount of global wealth exposed to natural disasters risk has nearly tripled from $525.7 billion 40 years ago to $1.58 trillion. The world’s economic losses due to natural disasters in 2011 reached $270 billion. Large reinsurance companies estimate the annual economic loss due to climate change could reach $300 billion per year within a decade. Meanwhile, 3,000 corporations cause $2.15 trillion in environmental damage every year; only six countries have a GDP greater than $2.15 trillion.

Scientists are studying how to create sunshades in space, build towers to suck CO2 from the air, sequester CO2 underground, spread iron powder in oceans to increase phytoplankton, and reuse carbon at power plants to produce cement and grow algae for biofuels. Large-scale geoengineering, such as spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to reduce sunlight, could have unintended and irreversible side effects, such as making 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 (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 via popular film, television, music, games, and contests should stress what we can do.

Without a global strategy to address climate change, the environmental movement may turn on the fossil fuel 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. 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: 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. Ten African nations have pledged to include the economic value of natural resources in their national accounts. The regional focus will be on adaptation to climate change rather than mitigation. Price and weather-indexed insurance schemes will help Africa stabilize prices in domestic markets and help farmers adapt to climate change. Southern Africa could lose more than 30% of its maize crop by 2030 due to climate change. Sudan planted Bt cotton for the first time in 2012, making it the fourth country in Africa to commercialize a biotech crop after South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt. Re-afforestation, saltwater agriculture along the coasts, and solar energy in the Sahara could be massive sources of sustainable growth. Mayors in Mali are now required to have couples plant trees as part of their marriage registration process.

Asia and Oceania: The Asia-Pacific region has half of the world’s megacities; half the people will live in urban areas by 2026; the majority of the world’s poverty, densely populated areas with slums are more vulnerable to climate change; rapid applications of urban systems ecology will be vital for sustainable development of the region. Asia accounted for 90% of the world’s $270 billion in economic losses due to natural disasters in 2011. China has set caps on CO2

Europe: EU is on track to achieve its 2020 climate target to cut emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels, but the Euro debt crisis could increase a climate funding gap to $45 billion by 2015. Due to excess of allowance and sluggish economy, the EU carbon price dropped to around €3 euros per tonne in early 2013, down from its peak of over €30, undermining the role of the ETS in encouraging EU's industry to de-carbonize. The EU is discussing a new gas emission reduction objective toward 2030 to take into account the delays in achieving Europe 2020 climate/energy objectives (GHG emissions 20% lower than 1990; 20% of energy from renewables; 20% increase in energy efficiency). Russia aims to reduce GHG emissions by 22–25% by 2020 compared with 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. Bad air quality in Europe causes nearly 500,000 premature deaths a year across all countries, and costs up to €790 billion a year to address. The UK plans to have its own “GDP-plus” national accounts by 2020.

Latin America: The region faces a $100 billion annual loss by 2050 if the global temperature rises 2°C over pre-industrial levels. About half of the carbon stored in tropical forests worldwide is in Latin America; the deforestation rate is going down in Brazil, but the demand for hydropower and biofuels may reduce Latin America’s forests as a carbon sink in the future. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen by 75% since last peaking in 2004, while it has become the world’s second producer and exporter of soybeans. South America has 40% of the planet’s biodiversity. 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 goals: 30% reduction of CO2

North America: 2012 was the hottest year in US recorded history. Although President Obama created the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, municipalities initiate and implement more policies for sustainable development and reducing GHGs than the federal government. Without a successful green tech transition, U.S. GHG emissions may increase 6% between 2005 and 2035. Boy Scouts of American created Sustainability Merit Badge. 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. On average, every American wastes 253 pounds of food every year. U.S. Congress refused to end oil subsidies. Bank of America announced its 10-year, $50-billion green investment program.

Graph: Global Surface Temperature Anomalies (°C)

Source: NOAA National Climatic Data Center with Millennium Project estimates

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