Let's be honest: You probably don't follow climate change expecting to hear much good news. Sure, there are the few bright spots – like the Green New Deal, a comprehensive plan to address climate change that's been championed by politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But for the most part, the headlines aren't great. Take the wildfires that ravaged California, causing Northern California's air quality to (temporarily) become the worst in the world in 2018. Or the recent floods in Venice, caused by record-breaking high tides – which are in turn caused by climate change. Then, finally, there are the headlines about the other ways humans hurt our environment – like Sciencing's recent story about how noise pollution hurts animals.
By any standard, though, the newest climate change news is also the bleakest. A new report by the United Nations shows that the emissions gap – the gap between where we actually are in terms of emissions, and where we need to be to limit global warming to 2° Celsius – is growing. Most importantly, the report states that, if things continue as they have been, Earth is on track to warm by 3.2° Celsius by the year 2100.
So, What's in the Report?
Before we chat about the wider implications of the report's findings – and how a 3.2° warming would affect everyone on Earth – let's go over the report itself. An annual report, the UN Emissions Gap report lets us know how we're doing in sticking to the guidelines set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 2° Celsius and protect the planet.
So what did the 2019 report find?
Well, they found that our emissions are on track to reach 56 gigatons of CO2 emissions (Gt CO2e) by 2030. That's much higher than where we need to be – about twice as much as we'd need to limit global warming to 2° Celsius.
They also found that the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5° Celsius is also nearly impossible at this point. While it's not hopeless – the report makes clear that it's still possible – it's not looking likely. To meet that goal, the report explains, governments would have needed to steadily reduce emissions by 3.3% annually, starting 10 years ago.
Instead, our emissions have increased over that time. To meet the 1.5° Celsius goal, the report states we'd need to lower CO2 emissions by 7.6% annually – or about 5 times faster than the emissions decrease laid out by any active climate plan so far.
And, naturally, the longer we wait to truly address climate change, the steeper the emissions cuts needed. Delaying until just 2025 would double the emissions cuts needed to 15.5% – a goal the UN states is "nearly impossible."
All in all, the report paints a bleak picture of our ability to address climate change so far. Left unchecked, our emissions will lead to a global warming of 3.2° Celsius is just a few decades – which means, in the span of your lifetime, the planet could change entirely.
What Are the Impacts of Climate Change?
We've already seen plenty of signs of climate change – whether that means "superstorms" like 2012's Hurricane Sandy, unprecedented Arctic ice melts or extreme flooding. There are also some obvious risks that you probably already know about. Plants, for instance, can't adapt to the changing climate at the rate it's happening, so climate change threatens our global food supply. And rising sea levels make flooding much more common, putting coastal regions at risk. Then there are the extreme heat waves, which can prove fatal, particularly for the very young and very old.
But there are other effects of climate change you may not be aware of.
Like the generation of "climate refugees" – people driven from their homes thanks to events linked to climate change. Catastrophic events caused in part by climate change displace about 24 million people annually, reports NPR. And the World Bank estimates that the number of climate refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could grow to 143 million people by 2050.
Climate change creates new political struggles, too. Governments must be prepared to deal with more droughts, flooding and famine as a result of climate change, which can cause political turmoil. There's also some evidence that climate change leads to more war, though researchers are still trying to better understand this connection.
Overall, global climate change isn't just an environmental crisis, but a political and humanitarian one as well.
Who is Responsible for the World's Carbon Emissions?
If you're reading this site, you're probably in one of the countries with the biggest contributions to global carbon emissions. The UN reports that The G20 – a group of 19 countries, including the United States, plus the EU – generate a staggering 78% of global carbon emissions. So your government is probably is a good position to stop or slow global warming.
Break it down even farther, though, and you'll see some of the biggest polluters are a smaller group than you may realize. A report published by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) reports that just 100 companies were responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2015.
What's more, a third of global carbon emissions come from just 20 companies, reports The Guardian. And just four fossil fuel companies – Chevron, BP, Shell and Exxon – generate 10% of the world's emissions, that same report states.
What Can We Do About Global Carbon Emissions?
Here's one piece of good news: because most of the world's global emissions are actually generated by a handful of people – granted, an extremely powerful and influential handful of people – it means that addressing their behavior would go a long way to fighting climate change.
How can you help fight for that? Well, for one thing, do everything in your power to support climate legislation. Proposals like the Green New Deal not only include a plan to address climate change directly, but also include an economic plan. So those who rely on the fossil fuel industry to make a living, for instance, can find other jobs that won't harm the environment so much.
What's more, lobby for fossil fuel companies to pay their fair share in the fight against climate change. Think about it: Chevron made $14.8 billion in 2018 being one of the biggest polluters on the planet. But they paid $0 in tax that year, according to Fortune Magazine – and, in fact, they might have received a refund, which would mean that taxpayers actually paid them to pollute the Earth.
If we want to truly fight against climate change, that means spending money on both climate emergency measures – for example, coastal barriers to keep NYC from being flooded – as well as funding for green industries to transition over to a more environmentally friendly economy. Those changes are expensive, and it seems only fair for the biggest polluters on the planet to foot a significant part of the bill.
So what can you do? Get involved in politics! Write to your representative about the policies you'd like to see, and to share your concerns about the growing climate crisis. If you're voting age (or you will be by November 2020), make sure you're registered to vote. And vote with your wallet, too, putting your money toward supporting environmentally friendly companies when you can.
With policies like the Green New Deal on the rise, and more presidential primary candidates talking about climate change, now's the best time to make your voice heard. This is your planet, too. Your future is at stake, and your voice can have an impact on making Earth safer for everyone.
- UN Environment Programme: 2019 Emissions Gap Report
- Sustainability for All: 100 companies are responsible for 71% of GHG emissions
- The Guardian: Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions
- CBC: Earth set to warm 3.2 C by 2100 unless efforts to cut emissions are tripled, new UN report finds
- The Atlantic: Does Climate Change Cause More War?
About the Author
Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Before launching her writing business, she worked as a TA and tutored students in biology, chemistry, math and physics.