by Larry Smith
It's a sign of the times that strawberries now grow in Greenland, on the Arctic Circle.
Until a few years ago farming was difficult to impossible in this ice-covered landscape because the temperatures did not stay warm long enough. But the times, as they say, are changing.
"There are now huge areas where you can grow things," said Josephine Nymand, a scientist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. Crops now include potatoes, cabbage, strawberries, thyme and tomatoes.
That may be good for a handful of chefs and smallholders in Greenland, but what it means for the future of humanity in general was outlined in the latest global report from hundreds of climate scientists.
The three-part report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessed the current state of the world’s climate based on multiple independent scientific analyses and observations. It also considers the impacts that climate change will have on societies and ecosystems around the world.
The final instalment - released just this month - looks at how the world can cut carbon dioxide emissions to keep atmospheric warming within an agreed safety limit by the end of this century - something which scientists refer to as 'mitigation’. The IPCC doesn't tell decision-makers what to do. Instead, it suggests different potential future scenarios, based on the evidence available.
The key conclusion from the report - after years of intense scientific collaboration by hundreds of authors from around the world - is that "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.
Continued carbon emissions will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system, the report says. Unfortunately, annual emissions are rising rather than slowing. Most of these emissions (78 per cent) are from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes.
After setting out the extent of the problem in the first two instalments last year, in March a Summary for Policymakers was approved line-by-line at a conference in Japan and accepted by 195 member governments - including the Bahamas.
This summary argues that with the right policies it's possible to prevent dangerous human-caused climate change, allow ecosystems to adapt, make sure global food production is not threatened and allow countries to develop sustainably - all at the same time. In short, catastrophic climate change can be averted without sacrificing living standards.
The cheapest and least risky route to dealing with global warming is to abandon all dirty fossil fuels over the next several decades. And the report dismisses fears that doing so would wreck the world economy.
Diverting hundred of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06 per cent off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3 to 3 per cent, the IPCC concluded. And the benefits in terms of energy security and lower pollution would easily outweigh the costs. But the longer we wait, the more costly it will be.
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has outlined this 'nightmare agenda' in the American context: “We would have permanent tax incentives for renewable energy to make sure we lead in that industry, and we would ensure that no more coal plants are built to poison the air."
There would be a carbon tax to replace payroll and corporate taxes - something proposed by former Reagan secretary of state, George Shultz. A penny-a-ton carbon tax would send a big signal to the private sector, which is already close to a real take-off in clean-tech energy developments.
"There is only one effective, sustainable way to produce green jobs, and that is with a fixed, durable, long-term price signal that raises the cost of dirty fuels and thereby creates sustained consumer demand for, and sustained private sector investment in, renewables,” Friedman said.
Meanwhile, the World Bank calculates that China - the planet’s second biggest economy - loses as much as 9 per cent of its annual gross domestic product due to environmental degradation and pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion. That means it could boost its GDP by adopting more green development policies.
And Japan - the world’s third largest economy - recently turned an energy emergency caused by the shutdown of its nuclear power plants into lasting energy efficiency solutions. As a result, anticipated rolling power cuts never happened, as energy-conscious practices became widespread. And experts see huge potential to reduce energy usage even further.
The world’s fourth biggest economy - Germany - has already committed to produce half of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. And blackmail by Vladimir Putin over Russia’s oil and gas supplies to Europe could help push things along. The IPCC says new sources of shale gas could contribute to a green economy if coal is phased out at the same time.
However, the report also notes that the effects of climate change can already be seen everywhere and predicts that the worst is yet to come. This is because current emission-cutting pledges by the world’s nations make it more likely than not that the two degree centigrade safety limit will be broken.
If we are to keep global temperature rises below that safety limit and avoid dangerous climate change, carbon emissions must be limited to 450 parts per million by the end of this century. This would require lowering global emissions by 40 to 70 per cent from 2010 levels by mid-century, the report said, and to near-zero by 2100, mainly through large-scale changes in energy systems and land use.
According to the New York Times, 10 countries are responsible for 70 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas pollution. While the IPCC makes clear that all major economies must act, the actions of China and the United States, the top two carbon polluters, will be most crucial.
This is the fifth landmark report on the state of climate science issued since the IPCC was formed in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. It is also the last before an all-important global conference on climate change next year, which will seek to achieve a binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.