6 Environmental Challenges in the Next Decade

09

March, 2020

By Jan-Niclas Schindzielorz

“Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much, about climate change. Today we have no excuse.” – Desmond Tutu

The next decade will be an essential chapter in the fight against climate change. Our action (or inaction), will write the future.

Here are six challenges that we will face in the upcoming decade. And a few examples of how we are working to overcome them.

Reducing emissions and managing rising temperatures

In the past decade, we have broken several temperature records. It was the hottest decade since record-keeping began in 1880, with 2016 taking the top spot for being the hottest year ever. This trend is believed to continue. Scientists predict the next decade to beat the last one, with new annual record-highs to be reached.

Global warming is the main focus of the Paris Agreement from COP21 in December 2015. The goal that emerged from the conference was to keep the rise of global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and aiming for a maximum rise of 1,5 degrees. According to the scientists referred to earlier, the upcoming decade represents the deadline to achieve that.

The main factor in the rising temperatures is greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting those is key and there are already countless ideas on how to make that possible.  A popular strategy to reduce carbon emissions is large scale forest restoration. In 2016 India did just that with planting 50 million trees within one day, setting a world record. Only three years later Ethiopia chose a similar approach, making it 350 million trees planted in twelve hours, according to officials.

On the technological side, different new inventions are on their way to the front. Negative-emission technologies might be unavoidable if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to be met. These innovations aim to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. At the moment, due to being stuck in the early stages, the costs of such projects are high, but they have the potential to make huge impacts in the future. 

 

Adapting to climate change

The last few years have shown us a preview of what’s to be expected from the upcoming decade. Increases in natural disasters, changing weather patterns and unending droughts have shown us that the effects of climate change are already being felt. 

Massive fires in the Amazon and Australia sent shockwaves across the world. Cape Town has suffered from a serious drought, forcing the whole population to reduce their water consumption. One of the biggest challenges that we will have to face is to adapt to the changing climate. 

With the weather predictions mentioned above, we can only imagine what’s to come in the next few years. A study published by nature communication says that the Northern Hemisphere could experience compound hot extremes by the end of the century. Longer droughts and more frequent fires are going to be the first indicators of that. Another side effect will be the growing risk of storms and floods, putting the coasts to danger.

The latter is not necessarily an unknown enemy. Dams and other logistical measures have been in place for a while. Now it’s a task to adapt to the growing severity. Rotterdam, in The Netherlands, a city that lies below sea level, is among great examples on how to tackle rising sea levels. Floods have always threatened the city. Its population has taken that as an opportunity to grow more resilient and keep constantly developing. This shows that the right attitude is an important partner in combating climate change.

And also across the African continent, the cities start preparing for the coming changes. Lagos, Nigeria, is growing very fast and already overpopulated. To protect the population from the expected rise of temperatures, architects return to traditional designs. This way the buildings can passively cool down, without the need for air conditioning. Rammed earth is their main material, which heats slowly and releases energy easily.

Outside of the cities, in the rural areas, the people struggle with the changing climate in a different way. There the inconsistent and unpredictable weather challenges the local farmers. In Nigeria, an startup called ColdHubs gives farmers and traders a chance to store the supplies. These walk-in cold rooms are solar powered and keep the stored products fresh and edible for up to 21 days. That way, food waste gets reduced, local farmers can sell more of what they harvested and the risk of malnutrition lessens. This is just one of many great examples of communities working together in adapting to climate change.

 

Supporting climate refugees and managing climate migration

Migration has always been part of humanity. In the recent past, political unrest has been one of the major driving forces behind migration. 

Environmental migration didn’t get too much attention yet. That’s due to the fact that so far environmental migration has often happened within national borders. For 2018 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) has recorded 17.2 million new displacements due to disasters. This number includes people, who had to flee their habitual residences because of floods, storms, earthquakes, etc.

Looking at the current developments we can say that environmental migration will move into focus. The IPCC has identified the “risk of food and water insecurity and loss of rural livelihoods and income, particularly for poorer populations” as one of the key risks due to climate change. This result was published in their AR5 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014.

For now, climate migration lacks any official and legal definition. There is no general consensus on who qualifies for asylum due to environmental disasters and what measures need to be put in place. 

But already organizations have recognized this topic as highly important. One of them is the Platform on Disaster Displacement. It was launched in 2015 and follows up on the consultative work of the Nansen Initiative. By implementing the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda they prepare for the upcoming challenges related to climate migration across borders. Basically they offer tools, knowledge, and facilitation to make sure that in the future people affected by disasters get the best help possible.

 

Fostering international collaboration

In 2015 the Paris Agreement sent a clear signal: To battle climate change and to protect our planet the whole world needs to work together. These papers represented an international collaboration, the first of its kind. Since then all the participating countries have come together annually.

Unfortunately, the recent meetings haven’t given the impression of a unified world. Agreeing to a final paper showcasing new results seems to be a struggle every year. After coming together in 2015, collaboration seems to be a foreign word to some parties.

This sense of separation and rather doing things by themselves has been a trend for the past years. The UK government has gone through a tough period, getting Brexit done. U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. After pledging to work together in the upcoming challenges, this gives the feeling of a step backward.

Fostering international collaboration will be an essential part of the fight against climate change in the upcoming decade.

This situation reflects in the actions of the public. Huge protests go with the annual COP meetings. Several movements take their concerns to the street every week. The pressure on politicians all over the world is high. If that keeps going, we can hope for actions to be taken.

In the United States of America, we already see some great examples of collaboration despite the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Compared to 2005 the U.S.’s carbon emissions are already reduced by 12%, reaching almost the halfway stage of their pledge of 26%-28% reduction. In the meantime, 24 states and Puerto Rico formed the U.S. Climate Alliance. They are joined by the Climate Mayors, a group of 400 U.S.-American city leaders likewise keeping up their support of the Paris Agreement. An assessment by America’s Pledge says, that “broader engagement of states, cities, businesses, other real-economy actors, within realistic legal and political limits, has the potential to reduce U.S. emissions more than 24% below 2005 levels.” That keeps the original targets within striking distance and the hopes for success in the battle against climate change alive.

 

Getting international superpowers to commit to climate goals

When it comes to climate politics, the United States of America has caused some controversy. On the 1st of June, 2017 president Donald Trump announced the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Due to regulations included in the agreement, the process of withdrawal only started at the end of 2019. This will be finalized in November 2020, right at the end of the current presidential term.

This puts the environment into focus for the upcoming elections. In the case of reelection, the U.S. will most likely hold on to its strategies. Meanwhile, all the potential candidates from the Democratic Party pledged to rejoin the agreement. That would be possible within a month after such a request.

With the U.S. being the country whose carbon emissions are the second-highest in the world, its climate actions are crucial to our planet’s future.

So are the steps of China. Its emissions are the highest in the world, and therefore a leadership role in the fight against climate change was part of the communicative strategy presented at international summits and announcements. 

Since the economy appears to be slowing down that terminology has changed. At last year’s UN Climate Action Summit Foreign Minister Wang Yi turned towards the global community to take joint action, instead of putting China to the front. International commentators worry that the focus on economic growth could “distract” China from taking the necessary action to reach its targets in the Paris Agreement, let alone set more ambitious ones.

On the other hand, China’s leading in multiple sectors important for the future of our planet. Electric vehicles, renewable energy, energy storage. Growing investments continue to battle the country’s emissions and remain exemplary to the rest of the world’s approaches.

 

Accurately measuring the impact and progress of climate change

Science is never easy. If it was, everyone could be a scientist. No different is the field of climate science. It covers a huge variety of specifications and experiences a rise in attention as the effects of climate change get more severe every day.

Researching climate and its behavior takes patience. The reason why we didn’t effectively act on climate change earlier is the fact that it happens slowly. That means, the indicators of change and its sources need to be identified early enough, before that process gets irreversible. 

Another factor complicating this work is the future. It’s comparable easy to monitor current developments. Predicting what the next ten years are going to bring not so much. Climate change at this severity has never occurred before. There are no records to look at that help us to know what to expect. What they can do though is determining what influence humanity had and has on the global climate.

Despite these challenges, there is a broad field of people, trying to deliver a full picture of the most recent scientific conclusions.

The first half of the next decade holds some exciting events and publications in store. For example the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) by the IPCC. They invested a great effort, to create a valuable source for policymakers in the future. Since it was established in the late 1980s the organization put out five reports. The latest of which has been used at COP21, giving input for the creation of the Paris Agreement.

This new report will see daylight by the beginning of 2022, ready in time for the first Global Stocktake one year later. The stocktake will assess the progress in achieving the targets agreed on to battle Climate Change.

Activists and scientists keep demanding more ambitious targets. They hope that the AR6 and the Global Stocktake will lead to such a development.

Their hopes get backed by much-improved science. Very productive ten years have filled data gaps, improved old models and seen scientists ask and research new questions. As a result of that, the available databases are bigger than ever, helping backing predictions with evidence.

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