Biden Win Puts World ‘Within Striking Distance’ of 1.5 C Paris Goal
If President-elect Joe Biden follows through on his plan to combat the climate crisis, it could put the world "within striking distance" of meeting the Paris agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
That's according to new analysis from Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific analysis of how national climate policies stack up against the Paris agreement goals. The analysis found that Biden's stated goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by around 75 gigatons between 2020 and 2050 and lower projected end-of-century warming by 0.1 degree Celsius. Building on recent net-zero commitments from the EU, China, Korea and Japan, a Biden presidency could help put the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal within reach.
"This could be an historic tipping point: with Biden's election China, the USA, EU, Japan South Korea — two thirds of the world economy and over 50% of global GHG emissions — would have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century commitments," Bill Hare of CAT partner organization Climate Analytics said. "These commitments are very close, if not within, 1.5 degrees C-consistent pathways for this set of countries and for the first time ever puts the Paris Agreement's 1.5 degrees C limit within striking distance."
The 2015 Paris agreement set a goal to limit global warming well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and ideally limiting it to 1.5 degrees. However, a 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found there was a big difference between 1.5 and two degrees of warming. Preventing that extra half a degree could save hundreds of millions of people from poverty and climate risk, forestall an extra four inches of sea level rise and limit tropical reef die-off to 70 to 90 percent instead of 99 percent.
However, countries' current pledges under the Paris agreement put the world on the path to 2.7 degrees of warming by 2100, according to CAT. China's recent commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2060 could lop 0.2 to 0.3 degrees of warming off that estimate. If the U.S. reaches net zero emissions by 2050, it would lower that number by another 0.1 degree.
"Taken together, the U.S. and China going to net zero emissions would reduce our estimate of end-of-century warming to 2.3-2.4 degrees C, taking the world 25-40 percent of the way towards limiting warming to the Paris Agreement's 1.5 degrees C limit," Niklas Höhne of CAT partner NewClimate Institute said.
In addition to the 2050 goal, Biden's plan also includes a $1.7 trillion investment in renewable energy, an end to fossil fuel subsidies and a ban on future oil and gas drilling on public lands, CNN reported. Biden's coronavirus recovery plan also includes investments in greening infrastructure, buildings, power, transport and agriculture, as well as funding conservation and environmental justice.
However, Biden's proposal will face opposition from the Republican party, The Guardian reported. And it is still unclear which party will take a majority in the Senate. Any of his policies that are challenged legally would be decided by a conservative Supreme Court.
CAT pointed out that Biden could still implement some policies by executive order and that the "We're Still In" coalition of states and cities would continue to pursue climate action. Furthermore, U.S. action could make a difference on the international stage, The Guardian reported.
The U.S. has the world's largest economy and is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement and encourage other countries to up their ambitions.
"It is the U.S. driving the world in this direction that will be most important," Obama U.S. special envoy for climate change Todd Stern told The Guardian. "If you have got the U.S., the EU, China working together you can expand to the whole world. It is not just about the U.S.'s domestic emissions, but the U.S. position as a world leader."
CAT noted that if the U.S. does make a net zero commitment, it would mean that 127 countries covering 63 percent of emissions had made similar pledges.
"What can other countries now do other than follow this overwhelming trend to net zero greenhouse gas emissions?" Höhne said.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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