Attenborough warns of 'moment of crisis'
Publish date: 21 January 2020
Issue Number: 638
Diary: Legalbrief Environmental
Category: Climate Change
The moment of crisis has come in efforts to tackle climate change, Sir David Attenborough has warned. A BBC News report notes that, according to the renowned naturalist and broadcaster, ‘we have been putting things off for year after year’. ‘As I speak, south east Australia is on fire. Why? Because the temperatures of the Earth are increasing,’ he said. Attenborough's comments came in a BBC News interview to launch a year of special coverage on the subject of climate change. He highlighted the fact that while climate scientists are becoming clearer about the need for a rapid response, the pace of international negotiations is grindingly slow. The most recent talks – in Madrid last month –were branded a disappointment by the UN Secretary-General, the British Government and others. Decisions on key issues were put off and several countries, including Australia and Brazil, were accused of trying to dodge their commitments. ‘This is not just having a nice little debate, arguments and then coming away with a compromise. This is an urgent problem that has to be solved and, what's more, we know how to do it – that's the paradoxical thing, that we're refusing to take steps that we know have to be taken,’ he said. And, as Attenborough put it: ‘Every year that passes makes those steps more and more difficult to achieve.’ This year is seen as a vital opportunity to turn the tide on climate change. The UK is hosting what's billed as a crucial UN summit, known as COP26, in Glasgow in November. Ahead of that gathering, governments worldwide are coming under pressure to toughen their targets for cutting emissions. That's because their current pledges do not go nearly far enough. Assuming they are delivered as promised (and there's no guarantee of that), there could still be a rise in the global average temperature of more than 3°C by the end of the century, compared to pre-industrial levels.
While most political attention will be on climate change, 2020 is also seen as potentially important for halting the damage human activity is having on ecosystems. Attenborough has a blunt explanation for why this matters: ‘We actually depend upon the natural world for every breath of air we take and every mouthful of food that we eat.’ World leaders are being invited to the Chinese city of Kunming for a major conference on how to safeguard nature. A landmark report last year warned that as many as one million species of animals, insects and plants are threatened with extinction in the coming decades. A more recent study found that the growth of cities, the clearing of forests for farming and the soaring demand for fish had significantly altered nearly three-quarters of the land and more than two-thirds of the oceans. The gathering in Kunming takes place in October, a month before the UN climate summit in Glasgow, confirming this year as crucial for our relations with the planet.
Thirty percent of Earth's surface across land and sea should become protected areas by 2030 to ensure the viability of ecosystems essential to human wellbeing, according to a UN plan released last week. A TimesLIVE report notes that the draft proposal to halt the degradation of nature and the gathering pace of species loss will be vetted by nearly 200 countries gathering in October for a make-or-break biodiversity summit, the 15th since 1994. Up to now, UN targets to safeguard or restore ecosystems have failed for lack of political backing, implementation and enforcement. In 2019, the first UN ‘state of Nature’ report in two decades found that one m i l l i o n species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction, with human interference the key driver. Even in recent decades, Homo sapiens have crowded, eaten, poached and poisoned many species to the brink of oblivion, and pushed others over the edge. Global warming has also begun to take a toll, with far worse impacts on the not-so-distant horizon, experts say. The so-called 'zero draft' report calls for carving out at least 30% of land and sea areas, with at least 10% under strict protection, to conserve biodiversity hot spots. Conservationists hope the October meeting in Kunming will be a ‘Paris moment’ for biodiversity which has received far less attention – and money – than global warming. ‘The zero draft represents a solid step towards a master plan for halting global biodiversity loss in this new decade,’ said Li Shuo of Greenpeace East Asia. But the proposal is ‘thin on the relevant enabling conditions, such as an implementation mechanism and resource mobilisation’.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has urged business leaders to step into the void left by governments in tackling climate change. A Cape Times report notes that for the first time, the world’s business elite has placed issues related to the environment in all top five spots on its list of concerns about the next decade, according to WEF’s annual Global Risks Report. However, WEF risked accusations of hypocrisy ahead of its annual meeting in Davos this week, where some of the rich and famous will arrive at the Swiss ski resort by private jet. WEF president Borge Brende said: ‘The political landscape is polarised, sea levels are rising and climate fires are burning. This is when world leaders must work with all sectors of society to repair and reinvigorate our systems of co-operation, not just for short-term benefit but for tackling our deep-rooted risks.’ The top five concerns are: extreme weather events with major damage to property and loss of lives; failure by businesses and governments to mitigate climate change; human-made environmental damage, such as oil spills and radioactive contamination; major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; and major natural disasters, such as earthquakes, and tsunamis.
Microsoft has said it will remove more carbon from the environment than it emits within 10 years and challenged other rich companies to do the same. According to a report in The Daily Telegraph, the tech company said by 2030 it would be ‘carbon negative’, meaning that the $1.3trn giant’s activities would reduce, rather than merely offset, the carbon it puts into the atmosphere. It added that by 2050 it plans to have removed from the environment all the carbon it has emitted since the company was founded 45 years ago. Microsoft is a major electricity consumer due to the power-hungry data centres that run both its own services and its cloud computing division Azure, in which smaller companies rent space on computer servers to run applications. Amazon, Microsoft's chief rival in cloud computing, has said it would be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2040, meaning its emissions are offset by funding reductions elsewhere. Microsoft’s president Brad Smith said: ‘While it is imperative that we continue to avoid emissions, and these investments remain important, we see an acute need to begin removing carbon from the atmosphere. While the world will need to reach net zero, those of us who can afford to move faster and go further should do so.’
The past decade has been the hottest on record, the UN said last week, warning that the higher temperatures were expected to fuel numerous extreme weather events in 2020 and beyond. According to a report in The Citizen, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), which based its findings on analysis of leading international datasets, said it also confirmed data released by the European Union’s climate monitor last week showing that last year was the second hottest on record, after 2016. ‘The year 2020 has started out where 2019 left off – with high-impact weather and climate-related events,’ WMO Chief Petteri Taalas said, pointing in particular to the devastating bushfires in Australia. ‘Unfortunately, we expect to see much extreme weather throughout 2020 and the coming decades, fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,’ he said. Taalas said that since modern records began in 1850, the average global temperature had risen by around 1.1°C, and warned of significant warming in the future. WMO also pointed to a new study published two weeks ago in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences with data showing that ocean heat content was at a record high in 2019. Since more than 90% excess heat is stored within the world’s oceans, their heat content is a good way to quantify the rate of global warming, WMO said.