A Diagnosis Of The Planet’s Vital Signs

A quick look at the news from around the world these days and one can put together enough pieces to build a picture of devastating floods, cyclones, wildfires, and other natural disasters engulfing the planet. Within the past month alone, at least five countries across continents have experienced large-scale destruction and losses due to floods. The impact of climate change coupled with a business-as-usual approach to things is being felt across the world through the worsening of ‘earth’s vital signs,’ according to a new paper.

Following a declaration of ‘climate emergency’ and a ‘warning of untold suffering’, a group of scientists has now published a paper that observed the changes that have occurred in the planetary vital signs since then. The findings suggest that despite a pandemic and several events around the world denoting the need for an urgent and collective action to combat a climate crisis, we have continued business-as-usual and can expect consequences for the same.

“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 William Ripple, professor of ecology in the OSU College of Forestry and one of the authors of the paper.

Road signal signpost drowning
Floods, fires, and rising temperatures have affected all parts of the world. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The vital signs that the paper observed as the indicators of planetary and climate health are as follows:

  • Melting Ice: Melting of ice sheets in the polar regions is occurring at a faster-than-ever pace. Snow and ice loss in the glaciers is 31% higher as compared to what it was over a decade and a half ago.
  • Greenhouse Gases: New year-to-date records were set by three significant greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The highest monthly global average concentration of carbon dioxide, at 416 ppm, was recorded in April 2021.
  • Oceans: Thermal stress (heat) as well as ocean acidification levels set new records, which is bound to have an impact on all that depends on marine resources.
  • Amazon Forest: 1.11 million hectares of the Amazon rainforest was destroyed in 2020. The deforestation and destruction rates were also the highest in 12 years.
  • Food: While per capita meat production saw a slight decline, the mass of livestock is now higher than the mass of humans and wild animals combined.
  • Climate Economics: While the pandemic resulted in a drop in the global GDP, numbers are now projected to hit a high. Approximately a 10% increase is projected in greenhouse gas emissions from 2018 to 2021.
  • Energy Use: Consumption of solar and wind power remains about 19x lower than fossil fuel consumption. While COVID-19 brought on a 59% drop in air travel passengers, it is expected to increase again in 2021.

Additionally, the paper took notice of the rising temperatures. Not only was 2020 the second hottest year on record, but all five of the hottest years have occurred since 2015. Thermal stress is also a reason for reduced coral resilience against ocean acidification.

Graph with earth's vital signs
Vital signs of the earth. Photo courtesy: OSU

These signs, the study explains, signal a need for more urgent action and transformational system changes that rise above politics. “As long as humanity’s pressure on the Earth system continues, attempted remedies will only redistribute the pressure. 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,” said Christopher Wolf, a postdoctoral scholar in the College of Forestry and one of the authors of the study.

Transformative climate action is also linked to social justice, where there is a need to provide for basic human needs and decreasing inequality. The authors further reiterate the call, previously made in their paper published in 2020, to change course in six areas:

  • A shift to renewable energy and the elimination of fossil fuels
  • Curbing short-lived air pollutants such as black carbon, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons
  • Restoring and maintaining biodiversity and enhancing carbon reservoirs
  • Increase in plant-based diet, reducing food waste, and better cropping practices
  • Shifting to ecological economics and a circular economy
  • Supporting education for females and reducing population through voluntary family planning

They also call for a three-pronged near-term policy approach that will include a globally implemented serious carbon price, a phase-out and eventual ban of fossil fuels, and strategic climate reserves to safeguard and restore natural carbon sinks and biodiversity.

“The carbon price needs to be linked to a socially just fund to finance climate mitigation and adaptation policies in the developing world. We need to quickly change how we’re doing things, and new climate policies should be part of COVID-19 recovery plans wherever possible. It’s time for us to join together as a global community with a shared sense of cooperation, urgency, and equity,” added Ripple.

The paper, which was published in the Bioscience journal, highlights that the speed of change is an essential factor and the sense of urgency needs to be shared by a global community.


Terra Love View All →

I am a simple writer who wishes to use her skill to create more awareness about the planet that offers us life.

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