Global Challenge 1:

How can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change?

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COP28 in Dubai agreed to transition away from fossil fuels, while the 2023 UN FCCC report called for systems transformations to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. The 2022 IPCC report concludes that if GHG annual emissions are not cut in half by 2030, then global warming will not be limited to an increase of 1.5°C (2.7°F) and much of 2024 has hovered around 1.5°C  2023 was the hottest year on record, and global temperatures were close to the 1.5°C limit. The 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Scotland included the pledge to reduce methane by 30% by 2030 which has increased attention to agriculture in addition to energy and transportation emissions. The 2022 UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt confirmed “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries.

The annual growth of GHG emissions has decreased from an average of 2.6% during the first decade of this century to 1.1% during 2012 to 2019. The Covid Recession did temporarily reduce emissions, but following the economic recovery, coal usage increased. CO2 emissions increased to 421.86 ppm in December 2023 from 416.67 ppm in December 2021; hence, we are not on a path to achieve1.5 net zero emissions by 2050 and major conflicts of interests have to be resolved. The previous decade was the hottest in recorded history, 2023 was the hottest year ever recorded, and each year we continue to emit more carbon than nature can sequester. Global warming forced school closures for 40 million students in North Africa and Asia with temperatures as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). It rained on the summit of Greenland’s Ice Sheet for the first time ever recorded, and Antarctic’s flowers are blooming with greater density. Reduced glaciers and snow melt threaten hydroelectric plants and freight on navigable rivers. The risk of major ocean currents collapsing has been reported. Although air transportation CO2 gets attention, shipping emits more: OECD estimates 858 million tonnes of COwere emitted globally from the shipping industry, compared with 739 million tonnes of COemissions from air transport.

Even when net-zero emissions are achieved, global temperatures and ocean levels will likely continue to rise for several decades before a new environmental equilibrium is achieved. If this continues, then over 200 million people are likely to migrate within their own countries by 2050 and climate change induced migration will certainly increase. The public is not prepared for the severity of future climate changes.

Some 252 million years ago, global warming due to increased atmospheric CO2 led to ocean changes, reducing oxygen that increased growth of a micro-organism that emits hydrogen sulfide (H2S) when it dies. This, in addition to ozone depletion, killed 97% of life during the Permian extinction. If trends continue, such an event could happen again sometime after 2100 with atmospheric CO2 reaching 1000 ppm. This could happen earlier due to increasing fertilizer run-off reducing oxygen in the oceans, and accumulating GHG already in the atmosphere. Global warming also reduces cloud cover, further heating the earth. Melting ice reduces solar reflection, while warming tundra releases more methane.

“The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy,” says Gus Speth, former Administrator of UNDP. However, a recent study shows a global trend of financial institutions increasingly investing into sustainability priorities. Turning around GHG emissions will require unprecedented global efforts since today’s 8 billion world population is expected to grow another 1.7 billion by 2050 and the global economy is expected to triple during this same period. It is estimated that it will cost $135-176 trillion between 2020 and 2030 to achieve all the SDGs and an additional $3.5 trillion added to annual expenditures of $9.2 trillion to reach net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. About 85% of the world’s more than $400 trillion of liquid assets is managed or allocated by financial institutions, while only 15% is held directly by the ultimate owners, mainly nation-states. Hence, the UN Member States alone are not able to provide the financial investments needed to achieve the SDGs and turn around global warming, but individuals and financial institutions are and should become a financial force for good. Elon Musk has committed $100 million for the XPrize for Carbon Removal, which has awarded an initial $1 million each to 15 innovations in CO2 removal. CDP has enlisted 263 financial institutions with over US$31 trillion in assets to demand environmental data from over 1,400 companies with high environmental impact. The World Economic Forum is enlisting companies like Salesforce to plant, restore, and conserve 1 trillion trees by 2030 (there are 3 trillion trees on the earth now). The top ten publicly traded companies fighting climate change are Alphabet (Google parent), Beyond Meat, HP, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Tesla, Microsoft, Apple, Nike, and Hasbro.

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 2021 IPCC report projects a 2.1–3.5°C (3.78–6.3°F) increase in average global temperature by 2100. This is a decrease from the 2017 US Climate report projection of 2.8–4.8°C (5–7.5°F) by 2100. Meanwhile, sea levels have risen at a rate of 3.0 to 3.5 millimeters per year since 1993; oceans are now the warmest in recorded history; and ocean acidity is projected to increase 150% over pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.

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 420 ppm. We have to reduce not only GHG emissions but also the volume of GHGs already in the atmosphere. Country climate change pledges should be enforceable through boycotts, sanctions, and other means. The public should understand that Earth does not possess infinite resources; it is a “closed-loop” system. Consumption and waste management will have to change. Environmental sustainability is becoming a top political priority worldwide.

An estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals in our environment have exceeded nature’s capacity to manage them in the air, on land, and in rivers, lakes, and the oceans. And they are beyond human assessment capabilities. As a result, the ability of nature to support life is decreasing. Microplastics are increasingly found in food, water, and our bodies leading to the UN Environmental Program Agreement, to turn around this global hazard, and bans on single use plastics and plastic substitutes.

World leaders have agreed to achieve 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals with 169 sub-goals by 2030.

  • Establish a U.S.-China Apollo-like goal, with a NASA-like R&D program to achieve it, that other countries, corporations. and universities can join.
  • Major financial institutions should create financial instruments for massive investments that will accelerate technological solutions.
  • Accelerate research in carbon capture, storage, and reuse such as CO2 from coal plants to make concrete-like building materials.
  • Disseminate AI processed satellite imaging that monitors GHG emissions worldwide in near-real-time.
  • Increase vegetarian diets, promote eating insects as substitute for meat, and add algae to human and animal feed as nutritional supplements.
  • Produce meat, milk, leather, and other animal products at competitive prices directly from genetic materials without growing animals: Saves energy, land, water, health costs, and greenhouse gases.
  • Replace animal hides in the production of leather products with mushroom/sawdust-based alternatives and cell-based skin without animals.
  • Invest into seawater/saltwater agriculture.
  • Businesses should develop ESG (environmental, social, and governance) goals that will attract financial investors.
  • Back lawsuits for environmental damage by major GHG emitters: the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child empowered by the Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified by 196 States (but not the US) states that children have a right to a sustainable environment; this could lead to the right of children to sue their elders for global warming inaction.
  • Retrofit older cities to Eco-smart Cities and build new additions as Eco-smart Cities.
  • Establish consistent or comparable data taxonomy, standards and structures for accountability for public monitoring of national and corporate commitments.
  • Continue policies that reduce fertility rates in high population growth areas.
  • Invest in CRISPR to make plants able to sequester more CO2.
  • Accelerate tree planting with innovative methods such as drone-fired tree planting.
  • Facilitate the transition from fossil to renewable energy sources (see Global Challenge 13 for more detail).
  • Divest fossil fuels in proportion to growth of replacements.
  • Expand cap-and-trade systems.
  • Establish carbon taxes.
  • Engage arts/media/entertainment to foster work/lifestyle changes.
  • Train community resilience teams.
  • Make long-range coastal management and migration plans.
  • Evaluate geo-engineering options.
  • Develop the digital and green economy (mobile payment, virtual reality, digital manufacturing plants, and tele-everything).
  • Give resources to the National Academy of Sciences Ocean for CO2 removal strategies funding programs and replicate them in different regions of the world.
  • Extend the measure of economic health beyond GDP to include nature and social values in the accounting, and internalize externalities as well.
  • Remineralize soil to sequester carbon, improve agricultural production, and use fewer fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
  • Ban/restrict use of hazardous chemicals/substances and fertilizers.
  • Invest in synthetic biology for bacteria that can convert CO2 into products
  • Invest in carbon-removal methods: CO2 mineralization, ocean alkalinity enhancement, soil carbon sequestration, improved forest management, afforestation, reforestation and agroforestry; blue carbon; biochar; bioenergy with carbon capture and storage; direct air capture; synthetic fuels, enriched concrete.

Africa: Africa’s total accumulate contribution to GHG is 2.7%, but seven of the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change and least sustainable are in Africa (Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, and Eritrea). Southern Africa is increasingly becoming more vulnerable to both droughts and flooding. Africa’s focus should be on adaptation to drought and water scarcity, flooding, food security, and spread of infectious diseases, but not GHG mitigation. It needs early warning systems and disaster management plans. Africa will grow to 40% of the world’s population by 2100; either global warming is turned around or there will be massive migration from Africa. The continent needs investments for drought resistant seeds, more eco-friendly farming, closed environmental agriculture, seawater farming along the coasts, growing cell-based meat without growing animals, reforestation, and reduction of slash and burn agricultural practices. All 54 African countries have signed the Paris Climate Agreement and the African Development Bank is coordinating financial resources to meet this agreement. Cumulative investment in renewable energy grew to 58.78 GW in 2022, but needs to expand to 300GW by 2030 to allow for replacement of 60GWs of diesel and other carbon-based power generation.

Price and weather-indexed insurance schemes will help Africa stabilize prices in domestic markets and help farmers adapt to climate change. It needs increased investment in post-harvest technologies at family level for small holder farmers and creation of a sustainable native crops.  Solar-powered, micro-irrigation is increasing farm incomes by five to 10 times, improving yields by up to 300% and reducing water usage by up to 90% while at the same time offsetting carbon emissions by generating up to 250 kW of clean energy. 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.

Asia and Oceania:  Asia has half of the world’s megacities and the majority of the world’s poverty, many of whom live in densely populated slums vulnerable to climate change. Rapid applications of urban systems ecology will be vital for sustainable development of the region. China is the largest GHG polluter in the world, but plans to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 and peak carbon emissions before 2030. China’s national emissions trading system (ETS) traded 239 million tonnes of CO2 (2% of China’s emissions) as of July 2023 (its two-year anniversary). China also leads the world with $546 billion in renewable energy investment in 2022. In 2023 it doubled new solar installations, increased wind capacity by 66% and almost quadrupled additions of energy storage. Although air pollution has decreased over recent years, China’s particulate matter levels are almost four times higher than the WHO guidelines, leading to high rates of lung cancer, protests, and lawsuits. China continues to build coal-fired power stations, but plans to “phase down” coal use by 2026. Transport emissions have increased by 200% in Asia and the Pacific over the past 30 years accounting for 27% of the regions COemissions.

India is the third largest emitter of GHS with 18% of the world’s population, but emits only 7% of global total GHG. It reduced its GHG emissions by 33% between 2005 and 2019 per unit of GDP, however, it emits 19% of the world’s methane emissions, mostly from rice paddies. India pledged to achieve carbon net-zero by 2070 and created a voluntary carbon market, worth $1 billion in 2021. That Carbon Credit Trading Scheme has been revamped in 2024 to allow participation of non-obligated entities. India is the second most polluted country, following neighboring Bangladesh. Poor air quality reduced life expectancy in India by 6.3 years compared to the WHO pollution guidelines and by 3.4 years relative to India’s own regulations.

Climate change disasters killed over 5,000 people in the region and $36 billion in economic losses in 2022. It adversely affected more than 9 million people, with over 2000 casualties and economic damages of $65 billion in 2023.The highest losses were associated with drought in Southern China in nearly every month; however, heavy floods hit Northern Chia in July 2023 and Beijing had the heaviest rainfall in 140 years, affecting 33 million people. Heavy floods also covered a third of Pakistan in 2022, affecting 33 million people. Due to the effects of global warming the 103,000 citizens of Kiribati are expected to become refugees; hence, the government has bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji for a reported $9.6 million to resettle this population. Sea level rise brings salt water into water table making  many islands unlivable without potable water supply. The Mekong delta of Vietnam is experiencing high salinity 40 miles upstream. Bangladesh has lost 30% of its rice production in the last 15 years due to salt water incursions. Bangladesh and others will need new agricultural practices such as China’s success in seawater agriculture to stabilize the agricultural economies.

Europe: The EU “Green Deal” commits the funding and policies to reduce GHG emissions 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels and become carbon neutral by 2050. The EU has many major commitments to sustainable development and climate action initiatives: 1) the European Climate Law to enshrine the 2050 climate-neutrality objective into EU law; 2) European Climate Pact to engage citizens and all parts of society in climate action; 3) 2030 Climate Target Plan to further reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030; and 4) New EU Strategy on Climate Adaptation to make Europe a climate-resilient society by 2050, fully adapted to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. However, the EU will not meet these goals if current trends continue. The rebuilding of Ukraine after Russian’s invasion is likely to increase investments into alternative sources of energy. Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitter of carbon, has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70% of 1990 levels by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. Russia has the greatest forest area (8 million sq. km.) for carbon sequestration. The Netherlands has more bicycles that people. The EU carbon market price increased rapidly up to 2020, and then fell since the war in Ukraine. Carbon capture and storage technology is expected to be cost effective when it reaches at least a sustained price of €100 per tonne. Europe experienced its warmest summer on record in 2023, causing a northward movement of climate zones, reshaping agriculture. Glaciers in the Alps have been retreating and decreased snowfall has led to low water levels threating river freight transportation. In 2023, Europe had the largest wildfire ever recorded, one of the wettest years, severe marine heatwaves, widespread flooding and increasing temperatures.

Latin America:  Global warming brought heat waves, floods, wildfires and hurricanes in 2023, and January 2024 was the hottest on record, >1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The region faces a $100 billion annual loss by 2050 if the global temperature rises 2°C from pre-industrial levels. The Amazon River basin stores 10% of global carbon, but its ability is being cut back due to global warming and export demands for natural resources and soybeans. Chili, Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico, have begun taxing carbon emissions. Latin America has 60% of the planet’s biodiversity and large natural carbon sinks. The region has great potential for carbon sequestration projects; hence, it should benefit from a global carbon market. The Amazon rainforest sequesters 25% of all carbon absorbed by land on earth. Yet forest fires and clear cutting for agriculture have made the ecosystem a net carbon emitter in recent years. 35% of Latin American carbon emissions come from land use change, the most of any region. The demand for hydropower and biofuels is also reducing forests’ ability to sequester carbon. Forest cover is also under threat due to mining, sometimes for crucial minerals for an energy transition. Without a clear economic incentive to preserve the ecosystem, deforestation may continue.

North America: The US cut its GHG emissions by 2% in 2023. Both the US and Canada have pledged to achieve net zero by 2050. President Biden has committed the USA carbon free energy production by 2030. Despite major legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act and Canada’s Green Procurement  policy and the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, the Climate Action Tracker still rates both countries’ policies and actions as insufficient, with international climate finance spending being especially lacking. However, many states and cities have launched more ambitious plans. As the world’s fifth largest economy, California has taken an aggressive approach on climate incentives, including phasing out the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles and phasing in electric-powered vehicles. The US has committed $369 billion in climate and energy spending to help meet President Biden’s commitment to carbon free energy production by 2030, and net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. President Biden has initiated American Climate Corps. US energy-related CO2 emissions have fallen form 6 billion metric tons in 2000 to 5 billion in 2023. However, 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. Many large oil companies are backtracking on previous climate commitments, indicating a disconnect between projected consumer demand and carbon reduction goals.

A U.S. National Academy of Sciences panel called for better government coordination to implement an abrupt climate change early warning system as soon as possible. The U.S. Congress continues to subsidize the fossil fuel industry at an estimated $20 billion per year; although opposition to this practice has grown in recent years. Honey bee keepers have reported that bee population has been falling about 30% per year since 2006. Air pollution continues to be an issue. While less severe than in other nations, the problem produces over 100,000 premature deaths and costs individuals an average of $2,500 a year in medical expenses. Permafrost in Alaska and northern Canada is melting at an alarming rate, raising concerns about releasing stored carbon. Boy Scouts of America created Sustainability Merit Badge.

Canada’s tar sand exploitation continues to raise environmental concerns. The deposits in Alberta are the fourth largest proven oil reserves in the world yet are among the most environmentally damaging. This poses a political dilemma for Canada, a nation committed to ambitious climate goals. The federal government has a target of reducing GHG emissions by 40 to 45% of 2005 levels by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Progress has been made with every province having a carbon pricing system. The Labour Party in Ottawa has pursued this aggressive agenda amid backlash in a more conservative Alberta. British Columbia’s carbon tax system is considered one of the most significant in the Western Hemisphere.