If ever there was a year that pressed the pause button for the entire world, it was 2020. It was the year that threw us a giant curveball and will always be synonymous with the coronavirus pandemic that shocked the system, which, at the time of writing, claimed almost 2 million, and has caused the largest global recession on record.
At the start of 2020 fighting climate change was top of our agenda. Standing alongside terrorism, racial inequality and social injustice, it was a disaster no longer just waiting to happen. It was, and is, happening and it can’t be ignored any longer.
But by March 2020, as countries started to lock down and bury their dead, saving the planet had slipped down the priority list. When faced with survival or suffering and a painful death, we went into survival mode. And now many environmentalists believe that diverting our attention away from climate change, on top of a century of environment failings, we’ve made the next ten years our absolute last chance decade.
“We are at last chance o’clock,” says Simon West, chair of trustees of the Word Forest Organisation, a UK-based charity that plants trees, builds classrooms, enables education and empowers women in Africa. “It’s difficult to say exactly how close we are to disaster. We all got here by 1 billion of us doing the wrong thing. If 1 billion of us do the right thing, we can resolve it in the next ten years. If governments and the population had the will, we could do it in five years.”
There are a lot of ifs. By taking our eye off the climate change ball, have we missed the chance to rectify the mistakes of the last 100 years? In the past six years, we experienced increasingly hotter summers on record according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with 2020 exceeding pre-industrial levels by 1.2°C (34.7°F) and 2021 predicted to be even hotter. Last June, an astonishing 34°C (93.2°F) was recorded in Russia, about 20 to 25 degrees higher than normal, and Saudi Arabia recorded the world’s highest temperature of 50°C (122°F). Wildfire infernos raged along the Arctic Circle in 2019 and 2020, which blanketed vast areas of Siberia with pollution smoke that emitted a record 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide.
“What happens in the Arctic does not stay there” informs Gail Whiteman, Director of the Pentland Centre for Sustainability at Lancaster University told the World Economic Forum in Davos 2020. “The Arctic is a barometer of global risk. What’s at stake in the Arctic is the future of humanity itself.”Whiteman explains that our planet is an interconnected system, and the loss of Arctic ice imperils humans and other species, and have ripple effects with faster global warming, rising sea levels, and possibly more extreme natural disasters. Rising temperatures in the Arctic are also causing frozen ground, called permafrost, to thaw in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. A warming Arctic disrupts the jet stream, “a river of fast-moving wind high over our heads” that basically controls and creates all the weather that we experience including record-breaking freezing temperatures and “bomb cyclones”. The seas are already rising and melt rates are accelerating, and that poses a serious threat to anyone living on the coast.
If greenhouse gas emissions don’t decline dramatically in the coming years, the melting rate could quadruple in the lifetime of babies born this year. Only last month, at the virtual climate summit organised by the UK, France and the United Nations on the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that every country needs to declare a climate emergency. Some 45 countries have put forward climate plans for 2030, but, warned Guteres, these are not enough to prevent dangerous warming this century.
But rather than being a distraction, Simon West firmly believes Covid-19 has taught us invaluable lessons, not just about ourselves but about nature. “The pandemic has improved our focus,” he says. “A lot of people have woken up to the idea that we are not invulnerable. We have to do something better for the planet. We have had the chance to mull over the impact of climate change and there has been a lot of talk in green circles about building back better.”
Jo Roberts, CEO at The Wilderness Foundation, a British charity that brings vulnerable young people and adults into contact with nature, and part of Wilderness Foundation Global, cannot stress enough how important it is to care for and respect our natural world.
“The pandemic has taken people’s attention away from the climate crisis,” she says. “I argue that we should upturn Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and put the environment on the bottom as a basic need, rather than having it as an actualisation need. The way we’ve treated nature has been so abysmal. Nature has an extraordinary ability for rehabilitation, but we must look after it.”
So where do we go from here? The general consensus from environmentalists, like West and Roberts, is we must restore, rewild and regenerate our forests. If we look after nature, they say, nature will look after us.
But Roberts says we need a clear conceivable target to motivate us to effect change. She cites a plan of being zero carbon by 2050 as being too far into the future to motivate change.
“We have an extremely difficult future if we don’t take action, but there is something magical about every citizen being part of the solution,” says Roberts. “There has been a lot of research on the link between a healthy biodiversity and climate. If we can catch children early and teach them to fall in love with the natural world, see it through fresh eyes and connect with it through their heart, they will care because we always look after the things we love.”
For West, who focuses on a tree-planting scheme in Kenya, giving forests the room and priority they need is key, along with looking after the locals who plant and cultivate them. That way, they’re not forced to chop down the trees and sell charcoal, or turn to prostitution to earn money.
“If you plant a tree in the UK, in five years it will absorb less than a tenth of a tonne of Co2. In the tropics, somewhere like Kenya, in that same time it will absorb a quarter of a ton of Co2. It’s a massive difference. The ground is fertile and things grow up to ten times faster in the tropics,” he explains.
But can reforestation alone save us from climate disaster? Surely it can’t be that simple.
Tim Webb, secretary of the UK Urban Ecology Forum, agrees that time is tight. “We haven’t acted as quickly as we could have and much more needs to be done,” he says. “We saw how emissions reduced during the first lockdowns from March. While we can’t lock down the world permanently, we can look into getting more affordable electric cars, flying less or off-setting our carbon if we have to fly, eating less meat and wasting less food.”
According to a 2020 December report from the Global Carbon project, last year saw carbon emissions drop by 2.4 billion tonnes, with France and Britain – which had stringent lockdowns – seeing the biggest declines.
Webb continues: “We can leave the car at home and walk, use pedal bikes, e-scooters, skateboards and have Zoom meetings from our homes. The pandemic showed us how to adapt. Our homes could become mini power stations, with solar panels and local wind turbines.”
But what about big businesses, what can they do?
“They must make sure that at every stage of what they’re doing, there is no deforestation,” emphasises West. “Instead of cradle-to-grave thinking, businesses must adopt a cradle-to-cradle policy.”
By way of example, West quotes a company in the Isle of Wight in the UK, where T shirts are made from cotton produced ethically in India. The T-shirts contain a QR code which can be scanned when the T-shirt is worn out. Rather than being discarded and ending up in landfill, it can be returned and made into another T-shirt.
“Big businesses are made of little people,” stresses West. “They’re individual people and each one can have a say. They might get ridiculed or laughed at but we can all resolve this crisis by doing the right thing. The climate crisis is an upwards slope. If we can get it pointing downwards, it’s enough for now. How fast it comes down is another question, but we can make a huge difference in a decade. True, we’re going to lose a whole lot of jobs but we’re going to create more by moving towards a greener society.
David Attenborough recently launched a film at 93 years – A Life on Our Planet – his personal witness statement on climate change and his vision of the future. The story is about how we made climate change our greatest mistake and how if we act NOW, we can yet put it right. He urged individuals to stop waste of any kind, to stop wasting power, stop wasting food, stop wasting plastic; and to celebrate this precious world and cherish it. To world leaders, he warned, “This is the last chance. This is not only a long-term problem, it is the biggest problem humanity has ever faced. 1.5°C (34.7°F) above pre-industrial level is the absolute ‘red line in the sand’ when a series of one-way doors start to close.”
2021 will be the crunch year for tackling climate change. Carbon Brief’s analysis for the IPCC’s 2021-2022 Assessment Report revealed that our world will likely exceed 1.5°C (34.7°F) between 2026 and 2042 (central estimate 2030 and 2032). Events are occurring to amplify warming. 2026 is in less than 5 years.
Sir Jonathon Porritt, author of Hope in Hell – A Decade to Confront the Climate Emergency, tells us that changing our lifestyles is no longer enough. We have gone over the dreaded tipping points and massive global action is needed if we are to keep the global temperature from spiking to 1.5°C (34.7°F) above pre- industrial levels and higher this decade. He believes getting it right in 2021 means that 2030 will be relatively hopeful for a stable future.
NOW is the time to activate the activist inside each and every one of us. If we can persuade governments to give it their all, if we can activate ourselves and everyone to shift to a low carbon lifestyle plus support movements that demand the 10 trillion dollar recovery budget be allocated to do the right thing for biodiversity and social and environmental justice, we might just salvage our planet for our children and grandchildren.
The alternative, is chilling.
“If we get it wrong”, Porritt warns, “the consequences for humankind are almost unspeakable.”