Code red for human survival

The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide us with a global agenda for human survival. From poverty to peace and justice they list the urgent challenges we face and set a broad direction of travel towards a fairer and more equitable world for human flourishing.

But, according to the 2022 Sustainable Development Goals Report, the aspirations of this agenda are in jeopardy, with progress on each goal either stalled or going into reverse. To recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and deliver equitable global sustainability, we need to rescue the SDGs. We are simply not delivering on our commitment to supporting the world’s most vulnerable people, communities and nations, reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources, investing in public services and better jobs or tackling growing inequalities and poverty.

This year’s 27th Conference of the Parties (COP) is the opportunity to focus attention on one of the SDGs: 13. Climate Action. The climate emergency is humanity’s ‘code red’ warning, impacting across all the other SDGs and acting as a crisis multiplier with impacts across the globe. Increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are affecting billions of people worldwide, contributing further to poverty, hunger and instability. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have further delayed the urgently needed transition to greener economies.

Rising global greenhouse gas emissions are leading to record-breaking temperatures and more extreme weather. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth Assessment Report calls for urgent climate action now and provides a stark warning, outlining what we can expect if global temperatures rise by 1.5 °C or higher. As the planet warms, scientists anticipate increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and potentially irreversible changes in global ecosystems.

Projections show that sea levels could rise 30 to 60 centimetres by 2100 even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and global warming is limited to well below 2 °C. Rising sea levels lead to more frequent and severe coastal flooding and erosion. Ocean warming would continue, with increasingly intense and frequent marine heatwaves, ocean acidification and reduced oxygen. Declining ecosystems and biodiversity loss threatens human health and our very survival, and increase opportunities for the emergence of new zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, and possible future pandemics.

The droughts, floods and heatwaves brought on by climate change add to the pressure on food production in many regions of the world. Parts of Africa and Central and South America are already experiencing increased, sometimes acute, food insecurity and malnutrition due to floods and droughts. Other projected impacts include devitalized soils, increased pest infestations and disease as well as weakened ecosystem services such as pollination.

In 2020, the social and economic disruption of COVID-19 reduced energy demand around the world and global carbon dioxide emissions declined by around 5%. But by 2021, fossil fuel emissions had rebounded to a record high, cancelling out all of this pandemic-related decline.

But it gets worse. Based on current national commitments, global greenhouse gas emissions are set to increase by almost 14% this decade. According to the IPCC report, any further delay in concerted global action will lead to climate catastrophe and we will have missed the brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.

Climate change is affecting everyone, but the most vulnerable are hardest hit. The IPCC report estimates that over 3 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change. Poverty, limited access to basic services, conflict and weak governance limit people’sadaptability to climate change, resulting in humanitarian crises that could displace millions from their homes. By 2030, an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of displacement by drought alone.

Current national commitments are simply not sufficient to meet the 1.5 °C target. Under these, greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by almost 14 per cent over the next decade. Immediate and deep reductions in emissions are needed across all sectors to move from a tipping point headed to climate calamity to a turning point for a sustainable future.

But the resources allocated to climate action are a fraction of what is needed to avert the worst scenarios. Developed countries have jointly committed to mobilizing $100 billion dollars per year up to 2025, for climate action in developing countries. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), developed countries have fallen short of that promise. Even this $100 billion annual target is far below the IPCC estimate of the $1.6 trillion to $3.8 trillion needed annually until 2050 for the world to transition to a low-carbon future and avoid warming beyond 1.5°C.

We cannot afford to ignore this urgent ‘code red’ for humanity and we must judge our political and economic system by its ability to make progress across all the SDGs, starting with radical and determined action on Carbon emissions and climate justice at this week’s COP.

See also:

Climate justice, heat justice and the politics of resilience (August 2022)

Education, social justice and survival in a time of crisis (July 2022)

Nancy Fraser’s eco-socialist common sense (August 2022)

Owning our crises (March 2022)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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