MIKE SCRAFTON. Global warming – we’re screwed!

Nov 29, 2019

In 2018, the IPCC warned with high confidence that ‘Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if [the rate of emissions] continues to increase at the current rate’. The World Meteorological Organisation reported this week that in 2018 emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide had equalled or surpassed emissions in the previous year. We’re screwed!

The Australian political elite faces a bleak reality that is overwhelmingly imposed on Australia from outside; it is the product of forces and developments over which Australian governments can have no control. Australia can only become a forceful and persistent advocate for international cooperation and coordination on the matters related to or flowing from global warming and an exemplar. In addition, the government must rapidly introduce measures domestically that are aimed at shielding Australian citizens to the extent possible from the consequences of global warming.

The world’s population is projected to increase by ten percent to 8.5 billion in a decade and to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. That is, in the period in which global warming will have passed 1.5oC (and be on its way to a 2oC or 3oC rise) there will be another two billion people to feed, clothe, house, and employ.

The implications of this needs to be absorbed. The world faces the seemingly impossible task of transforming the global economy, industrial production, agricultural practises, transport, food supply chains, and energy generation while at the same time that it caters for an increase of 25 percent in the demand for these outputs.

The combination of population growth and global warming poses a technical and moral quandary for the transformation of food production. Presently, the number of people in the world who suffer from hunger continues to increase and ‘more than 820 million people in the world were still hungry in 2018’. Rates of hunger are growing in Africa, Western Asia and Latin America. Moreover, a 2019 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates ‘that over 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, including 8 percent of the population in Northern America and Europe’. That’s the contemporary problem.

Based on IPCC figures, agriculture, forestry and other land use are responsible for an estimated 23 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. An unavoidable area for radical reduction in emissions. But, the intersection between food scarcity and food insecurity with global warming is complicated.

Existing inefficiencies in food distribution and production, and especially food wastage, are being compounded by the effect that desertification, water shortages, shifting precipitation patterns, droughts, seasonal temperature variations, and changes in disease and pest vectors attributable to climate change. So, to continue providing adequate nutrition to the world with the current agricultural practises is going to be difficult enough let alone feeding an additional couple of billion more in the next three decades. To maintain an adequate supply of food while simultaneously expanding production and at the same transforming the agricultural sector into a low or zero emissions sector seems impossible. It is also analogous to similar problems that will be faced in other high emissions sectors. In such a transformation it would not just be radical on-farm change that would be required but radical changes to the means of transport, distribution, and storage. Serious disruption to the sector could lead to malnutrition and starvation across the globe, especially among the most disadvantaged and otherwise vulnerable.

Even if the required investment could be found, the alternative agricultural practises proven, the transition path identified, and the managerial capacity located, it seems inordinately optimistic to believe any individual government would embark on such a program or that governments around the world could coordinate their actions on this. How would any government sell the risk of going hungry?

If global warming is to be limited to 1.5oC, simultaneous with agricultural emissions being dramatically reduced to low or zero, the same outcome has to be achieved simultaneously in global energy sector. Consider the feedback loop implications. The IPCC has reported ‘Global model pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C are projected to involve the annual average investment needs in the energy system of around 2.4 trillion USD2010 between 2016 and 2035’. Actions in these areas ‘include the widespread adoption of new and possibly disruptive technologies and practices and enhanced climate-driven innovation’. Drastic reductions in the rate of growth of energy sector emissions before 2035 seem unlikely.

There are, of course, many other steps that need to be taken in parallel. Sea level rise will continue inexorably beyond 2100 affecting hundreds of millions of people living in low lying areas. Apart from large scale emergency humanitarian assistance being required by disadvantaged groups, significant investment will be required in protecting coastal urban infrastructure or relocating populations. To facilitate the necessary changes the financial sector will need to be restructured. The list goes on!

And it’s just getting worse. The UN’s Emissions Gap report concludes ‘The summary findings are bleak. Countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions, meaning that deeper and faster cuts are now required’. To avoid overshooting 1.5oC warming emissions would need to be 25 percent lower by 2030 and staying below 2oC means being 55 percent lower than in 2018.

Not going to happen!

The Australian government cannot fix the world’s global warming problem but it can set an example; it can contribute. The task is avoiding the catastrophic case. Even then it seems highly improbable that the global community will be able to reach consensus and agree on a path to avoid 2oC, let alone plan and implement it. Given the inertia and lassitude of governments around the world it won’t happen.

We’re screwed!

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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