The world’s richest countries appear to be taking climate change seriously. At their recent meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, G8 countries agreed that global warming should not exceed two degrees Celsius, on average, over the pre-industrial temperature. The European Union, along with more than 100 other countries, heeded the advice of climate scientists some time ago in committing not to breach the threshold – but it took this meeting to get Canada, the U.S., and Russia on board.
The reason for the limit is simple. Scientific research shows that the impacts of climate change would be dramatic if average global temperatures were to rise above this level. Crop yields would decline, many more of the world’s plants and animals would be at risk of extinction, water availability would decrease significantly for many human populations, violent storms would become more frequent, and oceans would rise more quickly.
The threat of sea-level rise is so serious that 43 island states have set 1.5 degrees as their “dangerous” threshold. Scientists predict that an increase of two degrees would raise ocean levels high enough to swamp many of these island nations.
Tuvalu and Vanuatu have asked nearby Australia and New Zealand to provide refuge for all of their citizens as the ocean rises. The 49 countries that make up the “least developed countries” also use 1.5 degrees as their threshold. And Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier has said that two degrees of warming would provoke “the destruction of Arctic ecosystems” and create serious consequences for Inuit culture.
A pledge by the world’s most prosperous countries to limit warming to two degrees is a step forward, but it’s a small step. To succeed, nations must reduce greenhouse gas emissions sharply over the next decade and continue to reduce them until at least 2050. Action from everybody – governments, industry, and individuals — is essential.
Even if nations fulfill their promises, it won’t be enough. According to a recent article in Nature, Halfway to Copenhagen, no way to 2°C, emission-reduction commitments by the world’s industrialized countries are inadequate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that to stay below two degrees, industrialized countries must reduce emissions by 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. But the Nature article calculated that the collective commitments of industrialized countries add up to only 10 to 16 per cent. The research showed that, even if all countries met their targets, there would be “virtually no chance of limiting warming to 2°C.”
The Nature article also concluded that pledges by developing countries are inadequate. This too can be laid at the feet of the world’s industrialized countries. Wealthy nations filled the atmosphere with greenhouse gases over the course of their development, and so they agreed at the United Nations talks in Bali in December 2007 to provide clean technologies and financial resources so that developing nations could grow sustainably. But rich countries have yet to agree on how to deliver that support.
Reducing poverty is often the first priority for developing nations, and many remain reluctant to make any commitments to curb emissions until they get support from industrialized countries. The head of the UN’s climate program, Yvo de Boer, said it would be “like jumping out of a plane and being assured that you are going to get a parachute on the way down.”
All is not lost though. There may be little time before the decisive Copenhagen conference in December, but countries can still work to solve the climate crisis. A G20 meeting in Pittsburgh in September is expected to result in financial commitments for developing countries to adapt to climate change and tackle emissions. Three more UN negotiations are scheduled before Copenhagen.
The discouraging part is Canada’s interpretation of the G8 commitments. The ink wasn’t yet dry on the final agreement at L’Aquila when Environment Minister Jim Prentice said Canada did not have to change its position to meet the two degree commitment.
With the longest marine coastline of any country and an economy that still depends on climate-sensitive activities such as agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and tourism, Canada is particularly vulnerable to global warming. How can any Canadian leader claim to be working for the future well-being of citizens while stalling on hard targets and deep reductions?
Given that Canada is considered the worst performer in the G8 on climate change and has the weakest 2020 target, the minister should take another hard look at the science.
This column is co-written by broadcaster/scientist David Suzuki and Faisal Moola, a scientist. Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org