There’s less time than we thought to combat climate change

New research suggest that the world has less time to meet its global warming targets than originally believed and that “emissions targets may need to be refined”.

A slew of treatise have been signed to slow down what scientists warn is a rapid escalation in global temperatures with catastrophic consenquences, especially for Africa. However research by the UK’s university of Reading suggests the situation could be worse than anyone thought.

Last year was the hottest year ever recorded. It capped off a sequence of three consecutive, record-breaking, hot years. Nine of the 10 hottest years ever recorded have come since the turn of this century. Humanity is now living through the hottest period in over a hundred-thousand years.

Critically, last year was also 1°C warmer than before the Industrial Revolution kicked off. Nearly 200 countries are parties to the Paris Agreement, which requires of them to do everything that they can to ensure that number does not reach 2°C.

That 2°C is catastrophic for much of Africa, where average global temperature increases are doubled. South Africa is already over 1°C hotter than it was a century ago, while countries such as Swaziland have already experienced warming in excess of 2°C. That’s why the agreement, ratified in Paris in 2015, says countries should really aim for 1.5°C.

But there is a peculiar fault in all of these goals and records; they are all calculated based on when the Industrial Revolution kicked off. But nobody has established the date where carbon emissions from the Industrial Revolution actually started affecting the global temperature.

This means that when research says the world today is 1°C hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution, that date is the subject of guesswork.

The date range commonly used to compare temperatures is the average temperature between 1850 and 1900. That means the world now is 1°C hotter than it was a century ago. This date range was chosen by groups such as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, because data on temperatures before that is often seen as unreliable.

Now, Reading University’s research has thrown that calculation out of the window. The peer-reviewed work, published by the American Meteorological Society, has given a firm date for what defines pre-industrial: 1720 to 1800.

The research says: “Ideally, a pre-industrial period should represent the mean climate state just before human activities started to demonstrably change the climate through combustion of fossil fuels.”

The new date-range ties into the start of the industrial and agricultural revolution, which kicked off when James Watt patented the steam engine in 1769.

From then on, the world economy grew thanks to the burning of fossil fuels. That energy allowed fertiliser to be created, driving a massive revolution in agriculture, which saw forests cut down and carbon in soil released by ploughs. Trapped in the atmosphere, that carbon has been the main reason for the accelerating global warming of today.

That acceleration is the reason a slew of climate agreements have been signed between countries, and why nearly 200 signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

But this new research shows that the world is worse off than was previously thought. The authors say: “By the second half of the 19th century – the period currently used as a starting point – there had likely already been some temperature rise.”

The new start date means the world hit the mark of being 1°C hotter in 2015, a year earlier than previously thought. It also means that governments now have a decade less to act to ensure that temperatures stay below that 2°C mark.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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