Zero chance of net zero: the human security challenge after 2050

Oct 19, 2021
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We are condemned to a hot planet. A 4-degree warming is inevitable no matter what measures are taken, so humans must now consider how to cope with this reality.

The world is not going to get zero emissions by 2050. Society must be mobilised to respond to our failure to halt global warming. This will be inordinately difficult, but procrastination is unacceptable.

The International Energy Agency has indirectly highlighted the challenge and the fruitlessness of assuming global warming can be limited to between 1.5C and 2.0C. The World Energy Outlook 2021 joins a long line of previously ineffectual warnings (here, here, and here for example). According to the Outlook, 2021 is on track for “the second-largest annual increase in CO2 emissions in history”.

Emissions have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and even “the successful pursuit of all announced pledges [at COP26] means that global energy-related CO2 emissions [will] fall by 40 per cent over the period to 2050”. (That’s not taking into account the additional need to reduce methane levels 75 per cent by 2030.) Demand for fossil fuels is set to grow as oil and gas remain major energy sources.

‘‘Falling’’ here means that more than 60 per cent of current and projected greenhouse gas emissions from energy will still keep going into the atmosphere beyond 2050. By 2100 global warming will be at 4.0C, 5.0C, or more.

Coal exploration expenditure in Australia is back to the 10-year average, and 45 coal projects worth $59 billion are at the feasibility stage. Similar situations can be seen around the world. The most sanguine of observers cannot expect that nations collectively will meet even their manifestly inadequate targets.

The IPCC’s Climate Change 2021 — The Physical Science Basis shows that the causal relationship between a unit change in global average temperature and the associated changes in annual mean surface temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture is not linear. The change from 1.0C to 2.0C is not nearly as great as that between 2.0C and 3.0C. At 4.0C the climatic changes and frequency of extreme weather events will be exponentially greater than those that have transpired so far.

The IPCC notes “the magnitude of feedbacks between climate change and the carbon cycle becomes larger but also more uncertain in high CO2 emissions scenarios”. That’s the neighbourhood into which the world is inexorably heading.

While not reaching zero emissions by 2050 will be the collective failure of the international community to fix an international public good, responding to the resulting hotter world can only be a national responsibility. At a minimum, governments will need to optimise human security in a hostile climate.

This means ensuring access to shelter, food, power, and health services for their populations in a physically safe environment. Beyond these fundamental human rights, governments need to be able to deliver social justice in order to maintain social harmony and coherence in the face of persistent crises. Governments will have to reform and support the administrative, legal, economic, and civic institutions that are fundamental to maintaining the welfare, wellbeing, and security of people. At 4.0C warming these will be formidable and daunting tasks.

The impacts of climate events ranging from localised extreme rainfall to more widespread rain, hail, snow and storms, and to hurricanes and cyclones, will be determined by their scale and intensity, and by the combination of geomorphic, topographic, and hydrologic characteristics of the locations at which they occur, as well as the demographic factors. The consequences of extreme temperatures and drought will also vary capriciously according to location and local terrain.

Global warming is likely to be a common experience in some instances as extreme temperatures, droughts, and hurricanes affect widespread areas. At other times, the climate effects will be highly specific and place-based. Valley dwellers will face risks of a very different nature to floodplain occupants or the residents of mountainous or broad grassland regions. Extreme climate impacts will differ in scope, and the consequences for infrastructure, economic activity, casualties, and the scope to recover, will vary widely.

Two issues add to the complexity. The first is that global warming is not occurring in isolation. It will take place against the backdrop of many other shifting currents in international affairs. Climate will affect trade in agricultural and food products, changes in energy sources and security, forced migration, water security, and health and pandemics which in turn will play into great power competition. In addition, many nations face major change and disruption from emerging technologies like digital distributed ledgers (blockchain) and artificial intelligence, and from advances in biotechnologies, new materials, and nanotechnology.

Moreover, serious consideration of a much hotter future leads into more uncomfortable esoteric grounds for policymakers; namely the ecological-human relationship and social-ecological change. There are deep social, cultural, and normative implications in responding to the future we failed to avoid.

Writing in the US National Library of Medicine, Karen O’Brien believes we need to comprehend “how transformations in perceptions, meaning making, and relationships with nature actually can and do shift, and how such changes play out in the political sphere”. She argues we are “still paying insufficient attention to how to deliberately transform systems and cultures to avoid the risks that science itself has warned us about”. This is an acute observation. The biggest changes required before the world can successfully adapt will be mental.

People will need to relate differently to each other, and to their communities and governments, in the hotter future. Organising for extreme climate events could see the boundaries between the state and individual liberties shift dramatically. At national, regional, and local levels populations will need to be organised and prepared, perhaps obliged and conscripted, to handle a climate emergency. Far-reaching changes in settlement patterns, and building materials and styles, will be needed to limit damage and permit recovery. The issues are numerous.

Optimism over net zero is unfounded. Nothing points to success. Without brave and creative responses in the next decade the hotter future will be on us before we are in any way ready. The procrastination and inertia that characterised the last decades of climate policy must not be repeated as we reap what we have sown. Otherwise, the only certainty is that net zero emissions by 2050 will become an historical curiosity that future generations will mock and condemn us for missing.

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