World Environment Day: Tackling climate change requires systems thinking and collective action

Bn-51-MIcAAa__PYesterday’s World Environment Day, the United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the environment, focused on tackling climate change. This year’s theme is Raise your voice, not the sea level. First established in 1972, every year on 5th June countries around the world host seminars, events and environmental projects from cleaning up Kosovo to solar electric roofs in Barbados to plastic purges on the beaches of Sri Lanka. And there are the WED challenges.

This year is also the UN International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and part of the activities of WED were to raise awareness about the challenges SIDS face, their vulnerability to climate change and sea level rise and the urgent need to help protect the islands.

The message of WED is that our individual actions will aggregate into collective action with the power to transform, in this case mitigating climate change and its impacts. A draft of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change” recently released, supports this message stating that “effective mitigation will not be achieved if individual agents advance their own interests independently”. Emissions in one area, sector or emitted by one person have broader impacts for others. Greenhouse gas emissions largely produced in developed countries and emerging economies are putting small island states at risk, a problem requiring collective action.

The IPCC report states that without additional mitigation, global mean surface temperature increases by 2100 will be between 3.7 °C and 4.8 °C compared to pre-industrial levels (the range is 2.5 °C to 7.8 °C when including climate uncertainty). Agriculture, forestry and other land uses (AFOLU) contribute 24% of total direct GHG emissions, second only to electricity and heat production which accounts for 25% (followed by Industry at 21% and transport at 14%).

In order to increase the chances of maintaining global average temperature increases at below 2°C, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 need to be around 450ppm in 2100. Scenarios achieving this target all have reduced GHG emissions, by 40% to 70%, by the middle of the century and emissions near zero GtCO2 eq or below in 2100. Such scenarios represent significant opportunities for improving air quality, energy security, human health and ecosystem resilience but many trade-offs and co-benefits have not been identified or quantified and climate policies will need to be assessed both on their potential to help mitigate climate change and by their effects on sustainable development, poverty eradication and equity.

Achieving significant GHG emissions mitigation depends on the availability and adoption of carbon dioxide removal technologies, large-scale afforestation, reductions in consumption and biomass energy with carbon capture and storage.As time goes on our ability and options to mitigate climate change to keep within relatively safe global temperature distributions, and to do so cost-effectively, decline. And current policy, such as the Cancún Pledges are insufficient to motivate the levels of mitigation necessary – they are likely to keep temperature change below 3°C relative to preindustrial levels but not 2°C.

The AFOLU sector is predicted to see Non-CO2 GHG agricultural emissions increase, but net CO2 emissions decline over time, the report pointing out the opportunity for AFOLU to become a carbon sink. Opportunities for cost-effective mitigation in agriculture include improving cropland management, grazing land management and the restoration of organic soils. Bioenergy, while recognised as an opportunity for mitigation, is caveated with the need to ensure practices are sustainable and bioenergy systems efficient. Across the agricultural and forestry sectors addressing adaptation and mitigation together within policy, as opposed to separately, is recommended to enhance effectiveness and reduce trade-offs.

Both WED and the IPCC recommend an integrated, collaborative effort to improving the environment and mitigating climate change. Not only are we more able to make sensible decisions about mitigating GHG emissions if we understand the system as a whole, but we are more likely to turn these decisions into reality if we work as a whole.

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