The UN climate change negotiators have been descending on the Polish town of Poznan this week for their annual conference. No big conclusions are expected until next year when they meet in Copenhagen, but it would be useful if they acknowledged the need to examine emerging science.
The new science comes from studying the Earth’s climate history. We may be about to step out of a civilisation “sweet spot”, in climate terms, into conditions that dramatically alter the Earth. This will be dangerous for humans. The planet will continue to exist, but we – and especially our descendents – may not survive the transformed conditions.
Negotiators are not yet listening to the latest science and weighing up the consequences of the risks because, presumably, of a belief that there is still plenty of time. If they could only hear the voice of the planet, they would know this is not so. The fact is there has already been a significant loss of biodiversity, Arctic ice sheets and glaciers on mountain tops are thinning, and the sea is becoming more acidic as it absorbs more carbon dioxide.
These are three of the most obvious pieces of evidence. Once a tipping point has been reached, we may have reached a point of no return and ecosystems could begin to change. For example, vast tracts of the oceans may become dead zones, sea levels may rise faster than previously predicted, and the extinction of species could lead to the loss of many “free” ecosystem services, such reduced pollination capacities and the loss of forests, which absorb carbon dioxide. If the oceans and forests are no longer huge “carbon sinks”, the Earth will be less able to deal with further warming, thus exacerbating the situation.
These threats are the result of human activity. We need to pay much more attention to biodiversity conservation, stop deforestation and begin to restore forests, so that they become strong carbon absorbers. The world needs to significantly reduce consumption of fossil fuels for energy by investing in renewable power, and also use what we need much more efficiently. We are all too wasteful of finite resources.
Some estimates show that Japan is twice as energy efficient as the US, and perhaps up to nine times more energy efficient than China. And it is all done on current technology. If the US can match Japan over the course of the next decade and China matches the US, that will offer a window of opportunity for the world to fight climate change. China and the US are now the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters.
So, why is the world not acting more quickly? Climate negotiations have followed economic logic by beginning with an objective, defining the policy tools needed to achieve it, and relying on market institutions to do so at the lowest possible cost. However, this approach will not be enough to produce results soon. Economics only addresses how people react to their own incentives. It cannot address how the planet may react.
Negotiators, politicians and business leaders should keep key ecological principles in mind. First, human activities are supported by the natural resources and ecosystem services provided by the Earth; and second, the Earth has its own rules and boundaries. People cannot negotiate with the planet using economic logic. These planetary rules and boundaries will need to be observed if dangerous climate change is to be avoided.
If planetary systems are pushed past the point of no return, changes will no longer be reversible on any practical timescale.
Christine Loh Kung-wai is CEO of the Hong Kong based think-tank Civic Exchange
This article is reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post