2020 was set to be the year of climate action, culminating in what was widely expected to be a significant and action-orientated COP26. The decision-making timetable is expected to be delayed by a year at the time of writing, as governments, NGOS, and the business community work together to address the global health pandemic.
The importance of investing in prevention rather than a cure has never been so clear. We have been warned for years that the point of no return for global warming and the devastation it will unleash loom uncomfortably close. Each year we delay, pressure is piled on the subsequent years – until we end up facing an impossible task. If we’ve learned anything in these last few months it must be that we must be prepared for the next looming crisis.
Writing this blog on World Environment Day 2020, with its focus on biodiversity, I can’t help but reflect that we have more than a million species at risk of extinction because of human activity as we continually expand our economic and environmental footprint. As we are all too aware at the moment, increasing human-wildlife interaction also has serious consequences for global health. We urgently need to change our relationship with the natural world.
I hope the mindset of decision-makers will have changed, with a renewed sense of urgency to address the global climate crisis at scale. That is why I am so encouraged to see many business leaders, including our own, newly appointed CEO, Aiman Ezzat, signing an open and joint statement together with over 150 other global companies, calling on global governmental and business collaboration to reimagine a better future post COVID-19 grounded in bold climate action.
However, the facts for urgent climate change action should speak loudly:
The world is now warming at speed
The planet’s average surface temperature has risen by about 0.9 °C since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere; and most of the warming has occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place all occurring since 2010. There is a greater than 95% probability that this is the result of human activity since the mid-twentieth century, and change is proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented.
As things stand currently, we’re on a business-as-usual trajectory for around 3–4°C warming above industrial rates by the end of the century.
The impact of changes in global temperature at even 0.5°C, could have devastating and irreversible consequences.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body responsible for assessing the science related to climate change, published a special report in 2018 recommending that nations must do what they can to stabilize global warming at a safe level of 1.5°C. To do so, global emissions must be net-zero by 2050 (and must be cut in half by 2030), which is quite the challenge given that historically they have been rising at pace since the Industrial Revolution, with the exception of the financial crash of 2008 and the current lockdown situation.
The report considered warming scenarios at 2°C and 1.5°C, outlining how even this small change of higher temperature thresholds will adversely impact increasingly large percentages of life on Earth. Even limiting warming to 0.5°C would reduce the number of people frequently exposed to extreme heatwaves by about 420 million, with about 65 million fewer people exposed to exceptional heatwaves
However, an average heating of the entire globe by 4°C would render the planet unrecognizable from anything humans have ever experienced. The last time the world was this hot was 15m years ago during the Miocene.
To some, 4°C might feel like merely the difference between a needing a jumper on balmy night on holiday, but when considered as the average of all temperature change across the world, summer and winter, northern and southern hemispheres, land and ocean, it is severe.
Mark Lynas’ famous book “Six degrees – our future on a hotter planet,” first published in 2007 gave the still-relevant view that:
- At 2°C: glacial melt rate doubles, and one-third of wildlife faces extinction with consequent biodiversity disasters.
- At 3°C: the Amazon rain forest basins may dry out and southern Africa will be beyond human adaptation.
- At 4°C: reduced river flows and desertification lead to a decline in agricultural production. Permafrost in Siberia would melt – 1% of permafrost disappears, which is equivalent to doubling our global emissions.
- At 5°C: planet Earth becomes unrecognizable: no ice sheets remain, no rainforests left, rising sea level. Climate change goes well beyond no return – and total collapse of civilization.
We need to learn from this current crisis and take it as a wake-up call
Most of us are experiencing for the first time what it means to live through a global crisis. The cost of waiting for the next, much larger crisis with devastating impacts for humanity doesn’t bear contemplating. We must collectively seize the moment to work on prevention.
I believe and hope that COVID-19 has been that wake-up call.
I hope now that it is clear for all to see that life is fragile and humanity is dependent on the world in which we live. We are not masters of an ever-expanding universe.
Secondly, it has shown that change is possible, accelerating the potential for change at a previously unimaginable scale.
Thirdly, it has shown that we are able to respond as a global community to a truly global threat.
Finally, however, it has highlighted the size of the challenge – and the immediacy of the task.
COVID-19 has highlighted the scale of the problem, and each year we fail to take decisive action, the challenge increases
COVID-19 puts the challenge in context, highlighting the level of change we’d need to see year on year for the next decade. Annual global carbon emissions were around 36 billion carbon tons a year. To keep the world at the 1.5°C level that we need to avoid irreparable damage, we must cut global emissions in half by 2030 to ensure we are on route to a net zero world by 2050. Global emissions would need to fall by some 7.6% every year this decade starting now to get close to meeting this.
The coronavirus crisis is set to trigger the largest-ever annual fall in carbon emissions in 2020, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war. However, it’s worth reflecting here that current estimates on carbon emissions reduction for 2020, with much of the world at a standstill, are around 8%, which is clearly not sustainable.
There is no option to return to business as usual – if we want life on this planet to continue
We can never go back to business as usual, we must seize the moment, seeking instead to find new ways of doing things. In 2018, we made a commitment to use our capabilities and expertise to help our clients with their sustainability challenges, seeking to use technology and innovation to address issues such as agriculture and deforestation.
Some examples include:
But the critical value we can bring is in our ability to transform – working collaboratively with others to ensure organizations can deliver economic value while reducing their environmental footprint.
Our report published last year, the Sustainable Business Revolution, outlined the need for radical business transformation. Achieving this will demand new thinking, new strategies, innovative new business models, and the adoption of new technologies, interlinked platforms, and partner ecosystems. This is feasible, but there is no time to waste. And it can’t be done in silos.
In January 2019, Swedish student Greta Thunberg told world leaders at the World Economic Forum “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
The crisis really is here. Now is the time to act.