Earth’s vital signs worsen amid business-as-usual climate policy

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Dr Thomas Newsome.

Dr Thomas Newsome from the Desert Ecology group in the School of LIfe and Environmental Sciences.

“Opportunities still exist to shift pandemic related monetary support measures into climate friendly activities; it is encouraging to see fossil-fuel divestment and fossil-fuel subsidies improving in record setting ways.”

The scientists note an unprecedented surge in climate-related disasters since 2019, including devastating floods, record heatwaves, and extraordinary storms and fires.

“There is growing evidence we are getting close to or have already gone beyond tipping points associated with important parts of the Earth system, including warm-water coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest and the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets,” said Professor Ripple, distinguished professor of ecology in the Oregon State University College of Forestry.

Last year was the second hottest year in recorded history, with the five hottest years on record all occurring since 2015. And in April this year, carbon dioxide concentration reached 416 parts per million, the highest monthly global average concentration ever recorded.

“Priorities need to shift toward immediate, drastic reductions in greenhouse gases, especially methane,” said Dr Wolf, a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State.

With its myriad economic interruptions, the COVID-19 pandemic had the side effect of providing some climate relief but only of the ephemeral variety, the scientists say.

“Global gross domestic product dropped by 3.6 percent in 2020 but is projected to rebound to an all-time high,” Professor Ripple said. “Likely because of the pandemic, fossil-fuel consumption has gone down since 2019, as have carbon dioxide emissions and airline travel levels. All of these are expected to significantly rise with the opening of the economy.”

A major lesson of the pandemic, the authors say, is that even sharply decreased transportation and consumption are insufficient to tackle climate change and instead transformational system changes are required, even if politically unpopular.

Despite pledging to “build back better” by globally directing COVID-19 recovery investments toward environmental policies, only 17 percent of such funds had been allocated that way as of early March 2021.

“As long as humanity’s pressure on the Earth system continues, attempted remedies will only redistribute the pressure,” Dr Wolf said. “But by halting the unsustainable exploitation of natural habitats, we can reduce zoonotic disease transmission risks, protect carbon stocks and conserve biodiversity, all at the same time.”

Other vital signs the authors highlight:

  • Ruminant livestock now number more than 4 billion, and their total mass is more than that of all humans and wild mammals combined.
  • Brazilian Amazon annual forest loss rates increased in both 2019 and 2020, reaching a 12-year high of 1.11 million hectares deforested in 2020.
  • Ocean acidification, together with thermal stress, threatens the coral reefs that more than half a billion people depend on for food, tourism dollars and storm surge protection.

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