Are we heading towards extinction?

Published : 23 Aug 2022 06:53 PM

Due to the increasingly visible consequences of climate change, governments are finding it difficult to downplay the warnings of scientists. Among the weather consequences of the climate change emergency are worldwide record-breaking high temperatures as well as droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, and hurricanes which are having dire consequences- forest fires, draughts, floods and also on biodiversity. Forest fires have swept areas in France, Spain, Portugal and the United States. In fact Europe including the United Kingdom is going through its fourth heatwave this summer. We have also seen how recent floods in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have led to massive destruction of housing, roads and communication links and also agriculture.

These developments have pulled hundreds of thousands below the poverty line and created a scenario where many climatologists are remarking that we are thoughtlessly working together to ensure extinction of not only the human species but also that of many other species currently endangered due to human activities.

In this context one needs to note that the annual global summit on biodiversity, COP15, has been delayed by two months to December and will now be hosted in Canada rather than China, according to environmental charities. This follows concerns the Chinese government might postpone the event for a fourth time into 2023 because of Covid-19. It may be recalled that the conference was originally due to be held in 2020. This summit has potential significance because it is expected to provide governments a chance to come up with a long-term plan to reverse the threat to life on Earth. Many might question as to why biodiversity is considered as important. This is so because biodiversity is the variety of all life on Earth - animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms like bacteria. Animals and plants are particularly important because they provide humans with what is needed to survive - including fresh water, food, and medicines. Plants are also very important for improving our physical environment - by cleaning the air we breathe, limiting rising temperatures and providing protection against climate change. Mangrove swamps and coral reefs can also act as a barrier to erosion from rising sea levels.

Climate analysts and environmentalists have made certain interesting observations in this regard. According to them it is normal for species to evolve and become extinct over time - 98% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. The anxiety has however arisen that the extinction of species is now happening considerably quicker than expected. In this regard the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has maintained a "red list" of threatened species since 1964. Apparently, more than 142,000 species have been assessed and now 29% are considered as endangered - which means they have a very high risk of extinction.

Biodiversity loss is occurring worldwide, but it has been found by the Natural History Museum in London that Malta, the UK, Brazil and Australia have experienced the biggest changes - due to pollution, rapid industrialization and over use of water.

Due to the increasingly visible consequences of climate change, governments are finding it difficult to downplay the warnings of scientists. However, this emerging dimension has led many governments and representatives of civil society to underline the need for the world to agree on a long-term action plan – that will be known as the post- 2020 Biodiversity Framework.

Observers have stated that the key aim of such an initiative will be to slow down the rate of biodiversity loss by 2030, and to make sure that by 2050, biodiversity is "valued, conserved and restored in a manner that will be delivering essential benefits for all people. The post-2020 framework being discussed in this regard has four goals: increased conservation, resources used as sustainably as possible, more equal sharing of natural resources and increased financial support for biodiversity protection.

It also wants greater use of trees and plants to absorb carbon dioxide and balance out greenhouse gas emissions. In order to achieve these targets governments and private organisations are pledging to give at least US Dollar 200 billion per year by 2030 - with 5% going to developing nations. This small figure in terms of potential assistance for developing nations has however, quite correctly led to justifiable disagreement- particularly in certain affected areas in Africa, Latin America and also in certain areas in Asia.

Joseph Chamie has drawn attention to the growth of world population but has also underlined that this dynamic has slowed down from its peak levels in the second half of the 20th century. It continues to increase, currently at about 70 million annually and is projected to reach 9 billion by 2037 and 10 billion by 2058. In this context attention has been also drawn to the fact that if annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industry continue to increase as they have during the past several decades, their annual level of emissions in 2058 when the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion would be more than 50 percent higher than it is today, or approximately 60 billion tonnes.

Warnings that rising carbon emissions are dangerously heating the Earth have been clearly conveyed to governments. In particular, scientists have emphasized that the burning of fossil fuels is already heating up the planet faster than anything the world has seen in 2,000 years.

In 2020 five countries produced approximately 60 per cent of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. In first place was China with nearly one-third of the annual CO2 emissions. The list also includes United States with 14 per cent, India with 7 per cent and Russia with 5 per cent and Japan with 3 percent. It may also be noted that China has the greatest number of coal-fired power stations of any country in 2022.

Likely consequences of such  a course of action include warmer temperatures with increased frequency, intensity, and duration, impacting oceans, seas levels, coral reefs, fish levels, glaciers and ice and snow cover. Also, changes in patterns and amount of rainfall are expected to result in increased droughts and desertification as well as flooding.

Analysts have observed that climate change’s worsening of air and water quality is expected to contribute to the spread of diseases accompanied by increased malnourishment, higher mortality, as well as the deteriorating ecosystems impacting numerous plant and animal species. Climate change will also likely contribute to the increased displacement of people as well as illegal migration of millions seeking to escape the consequences of global warming and environmental degradation.

Various measures have consequently been recommended to address the climate change emergency. Among those measures are stabilizing or reducing the size of human populations, eliminating the use of fossil fuels, moving to renewable energies, reducing air pollutants, restoring ecosystems, shifting from meat to mainly plant based diets, and transitioning to sustainable GDP growth.

The upcoming November COP27 conference in Egypt is expected to follow the usual pattern of previous sessions with an adoption of a negotiated final report. However, that outcome is unlikely to be sufficient to achieve the internationally established goal of limiting the increase in global warming to a maximum of 1.5 Celsius.

Climate strategists have however indicated that despite more than two dozen annual COP sessions, various international agreements, and enumerated goals, a binding international agreement to address the climate change emergency is lacking. In addition, an authority that would impose climate change policies is not likely to be established, particularly given the supremacy of national sovereignty.

Nevertheless, some progress to address climate change has been achieved over the past several decades. The international community of nations adopted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, and the Paris Agreement in 2015. Some efforts to implement emission reduction pledges have however slightly slowed down CO2 emissions. It has also enhanced energy efficiency, slowed deforestation rates, and accelerated the use of renewable energy. In addition, scores of governments are adopting additional commitments to address climate change.

President Biden's climate envoy, John Kerry, has been tireless in his efforts to persuade other countries to raise their ambitions on climate change. The United States, for example, has recently passed a historic legislation aimed at addressing climate change and clean energy- part of an effort within a broad based of U.S. Dollar 369 billion. Consumers will get incentives under the bill to purchase new and second-hand electric cars, to warm their homes with heat pumps and even to cook their food using electric induction. Electricity generators will get ten years of tax credits to supply more wind and solar power, which will lead to more renewable energy being supplied to the market. This will displace emissions-heavy gas and coal. Taken together with measures to penalize methane leaks and $20bn to cut emissions in agriculture, the whole package will likely cut US emissions by 40% below 2005 levels.

This has led Joseph Chamie, a consulting demographer, previously associated with the United Nations Population Division to observe that “ it is time for governments, especially the major contributors to global warming, to implement bold actions to address the climate change emergency.”

Dire environmental consequences are happening in Africa and measures and initiatives are being attempted in this regard by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) within the theme ‘Only One Earth’. Communities around the globe have observed World Environment Day on June 5, by putting environmental concerns in the spotlight. This effort is now considered as the UN’s primary platform to promote action for the protection of the environment by raising awareness on issues such as human overpopulation, marine pollution, global warming, wildlife crime and sustainable consumption. Celebrated annually by more than 150 countries worldwide, the day is a global platform for environmental outreach, to also showcase initiatives at the country and global level in the promotion of environmental health.

Climate analysts Jasper Kimemia and Wanjiru have in this context warned correctly that it is the poor and vulnerable that will have to bear the brunt of ongoing environmental decline and unless correctly handled such a matrix can only lead to developing countries not being able to reduce poverty and inequalities.

 Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance