During a time when the Earth’s ecosystems are becoming increasingly “pushed beyond their ability to adapt,” according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, it is clear a coordinated and comprehensive response is necessary to avoid environmental calamity.
After the IPCC’s previous warning of catastrophic effects from exceeding 1.5 °C global warming, developing countries, which are most vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change, warn of disaster and the desperate need for significant adaptation financing. Meanwhile, the wealthiest nations are struggling to wean themselves off fossil fuels despite making their own climate neutrality pledges.
It is crucial that world leaders shift toward environmental protection, incorporating innovative climate-conscious goals to lessen the global collective carbon footprint and promote sustainable change. For the private sector, key areas for vital improvements include: understanding perceptions concerning climate action, combating pollution, championing plant-based nutrition, proliferating renewable energy initiatives and projects, incentivizing clean transportation, water conservation, and more.
Through a data-driven analysis of how communities are being impacted by human-caused climate change, governments and large companies can create actionable insights to enact necessary change.
Leading Contributors to the Environmental Crisis
Since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere has grown exponentially, trapping heat and warming the Earth.
Although fossil fuel-funded marketing campaigns have popularized the phrase “personal carbon footprint,” data proves the fossil fuels and transportation industries are leading contributors of climate change, meaning those most responsible for the crisis can have the greatest impact in limiting warming to 1.5 °C.
A 2017 analysis from Carbon Majors Database, a comprehensive dataset of historic greenhouse gas emissions, finds:
- 100 active fossil fuels companies are responsible for 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
- More than half (51%) of these emissions since the Industrial Revolution (1751) are traced back to those 100 companies.
- Fossil fuel companies have released more emissions in the past 28 years than in the 237 years before 1988.
- More than half of global emissions since 1988 are traced back to 25 corporate and state companies.
Regarding the transportation industry:
- Transportation contributes to about one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions.
- In the United States, emissions from the transportation sector account for about 29%, making it the largest contributor of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
- Spain released 236.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, the transportation sector contributing to nearly 40% of it.
With energy (electricity, heat, and transport) supplementing the staggering majority (73.2%) of the global carbon emission footprint, other contributors include sectors such as agriculture and forestry (18.4%), industrial processes (5.2%), and waste (3.2%).
Scientists estimate many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially those pertaining to the ocean, ice sheets, and global sea level, according to a 2021 IPCC report.
It is clear a coordinated and comprehensive response is necessary to avoid environmental calamity.
Impacts of Climate Change
In the most recent IPCC report published in February, 270 researchers in 67 countries warn that natural and human systems are becoming increasingly “pushed beyond their ability to adapt.”
Branded "a dire warning about the consequences of inaction” by IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee, the report calls attention to the worst impacts of climate change faced by the world today such as increases in frequency and intensity of extreme weather, irreversible loss of marine ecosystems, reduced food and water security, human physical and mental health, and more.
Other data also points to these observable climate change consequences:
- In 2020, global sea levels set a record high: 91.3 mm (3.6 inches) above 1993 levels.
- In the past 40 years, the Earth’s temperature has risen 0.32 °F (0.18° C) per decade since 1981, a drastic increase from its former rise by 0.14 °F (0.08° C) per decade since 1880.
- A study from The Lancet, a peer-reviewed general medical journal, deems extreme heat and cold “a global health risk factor,” linked to 1.7 million deaths worldwide due to 17 causes (cardiorespirator, metabolic disease, suicide, and injury).
- It is likely the world will see an increase in Category 4 and 5 hurricanes due to global warming, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a U.S. agency monitoring oceanic and atmospheric conditions.
- One of the leading causes of death, air pollution is attributed to 11.65% of all global fatalities.
While no one will be spared by the worsening crisis, the communities least to blame are the ones who are most vulnerable to climate impacts, the most recent IPCC report continues.
Between 2010 and 2020, droughts, flooding, and extreme weather killed 15 times as many people in vulnerable areas—namely Africa, which contributes to less than 3% of emissions— than in wealthier regions.
Around half of all historical carbon dioxide emissions are generated by about 23 wealthy, developed countries, while more than 150 countries are responsible for the other half, according to the Global Carbon Project's fossil CO2 emissions dataset.
Solutions for Environmental Protection
The fate of current and future populations strongly hinges on what world leaders and large corporations do in the coming decades.
According to the aforementioned 2021 IPCC report, the Earth exceeding a 1.5 °C warming in the near future (by 2100) would cause “unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.” For perspective, the planet has already warmed by 1.2 °C compared to pre-industrial levels, making the 1.5 °C target perilously within reach.
As a response to these recent findings, developing nations are taking action, according to NPR. Seeking to prevent severe worldwide climate disruptions that could exacerbate hunger, conflict, and drought, India is pledging to be carbon neutral by 2070, and more than 100 countries are pushing to cut methane emissions.
The United Nations (UN) continues striving for its “shared blueprint” for global peace and prosperity via its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a number of which are related to environmental protection.
To promote climate resiliency, the IPCC encourages all aspects of governments, civil society, and the private sector to make inclusive development decisions, prioritizing risk reduction, equity, and justice. By fostering cooperation on all levels within communities, education, science, media, businesses, international relations, and through partnership with marginalized groups, more integrated and multi-sectoral solutions can be a possibility, stresses the report.
Here are key areas in which the private sector can improve environmental protections globally:
Renewable Energy & Projects
Energy is far and away the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Transitioning from carbon-heavy forms of energy to renewables is crucial to reducing the worst impacts of climate change and improving people’s health and well-being. In September 2021, the UN General Assembly held its first-ever, energy-focused meeting in four decades, and announced $400 billion in new clean energy funding and development. According to the United Nations: “The new commitments would result in large increases in the installed capacity of renewable energy and significant improvements in energy efficiency around the world—leading to hundreds of new renewable energy facilities and the creation of millions of new green jobs.” In addition to the funding mechanism, large utility companies also made commitments to decarbonize and invest in renewables.
Along with harming the planet, pollution is a major contributor to various health problems, including respiratory and heart disease. In what was characterized as a hugely consequential, multilateral environmental agreement—perhaps second to only the Paris Agreement—the United Nations in February 2022 passed a resolution to enhance sustainable solutions around pollution. Among them: an effort to end plastic pollution; creation of a “comprehensive and ambitious science policy panel” for chemicals and waste, with the ultimate goal of preventing pollution; and investing in nature-based solutions to support critical ecosystems.
The fate of current and future populations strongly hinges on what world leaders and large corporations do in the coming decades.
Considering the disproportionate impact transportation has on the environment, there’s perhaps no way to prevent warming of up to 1.5°C than by decarbonizing the industry altogether—meaning everything that travels by road, air, and sea. The world is already making progress in moving away from internal combustion engines—the standard for most vehicles on the road today—in favor of electric vehicles (EVs). While there’s been encouraging signs in recent years surrounding the EV market, its benefits to the environment were canceled out by a rise in SUV sales, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The Paris-based organization, which was created as a result of the 1970s oil crisis, found that some of the greatest gains were made in China and Europe, with the former tripling sales in 2021. Europe’s EV growth in 2021 was also impressive, with sales increasing by nearly 70%. This hardly tells the whole story, however, as these markets are largely responsible for most of the consumer EV market today.
As the IEA notes: “Despite impressive growth in major markets, the sales of electric cars are not advancing at the same pace globally. China, Europe, and the United States account for roughly two-thirds of the overall car market but around 90% of electric car sales. In most other markets, electric cars account for less than 2% of overall sales, and in large developing economies such as Brazil, India and Indonesia, the share is still below 1% without any significant increase over the past year.”
When the IPCC released its sobering report on the devastating impacts of 1.5 °C warming, it identified several key areas for mitigation, including a shift in diet and a reduction in food waste. According to Carbon Brief, a U.K.-based site dedicated to climate science, a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions originates from food production. While a global shift toward a plant-based diet would lessen greenhouse gas emissions, the reduction wouldn’t be as significant as a wholesale movement toward veganism, according to researchers. Still, a plant-based diet does have its appeal, as evidenced by the number of people making the switch in recent years. According to a poll conducted by retail analytics firm Ipsos Retail Performance, there’s nearly 10 million more Americans following a plant-based diet now compared to 15 years ago—notable for a society with a particularly high affinity for meat consumption. Understanding why people are changing eating habits can have a huge impact on whether global sustainability goals are met.
Another UN Sustainability Goal, water conservation, will play an important role in combating climate change. The United Nations predicts that the planet will experience a 40% reduction in fresh water resources by 2030—a startling figure. In 2020 it announced a new plan to accelerate conservation efforts, which United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said was “badly off track.”
“Water globally is threatened by the twin threats of increasing demand and withdrawals and the degradation of water sources and associated ecosystems due to climate change, pollution and other threats,” he explained at the time. “The water and sanitation crisis demands a holistic, systemic and multilateral response.”
In its report to CEOs, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), referred to freshwater crises as “one of the main threats to the global economy,” with inadequate access to water and sanitation costing the world $323 billion each year. The WBCSD is among the organizations calling on the private sector to improve water efficiency. Its seven-step toolkit acts as a framework for ethically minded water consumption and encourages corporations to create innovative solutions to reduce wasteful practices around the world.
On a local level, individuals can also contribute, whether through lessening their individual and collective usage of fossil fuels, conserving water, shopping sustainably, eating plant-based diets, and using as much renewable energy as possible.
Without unanimous action, today’s climate crisis will continue to exacerbate.
More than ever, it is necessary that world leaders take appropriate action and use sophisticated technology to leverage real-time environmental data to align strategies that foster social development and sustainability while there is still time.
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