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Can humanity avoid catastrophic global warming in 12 years?

The Earth is continuing to be filled with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but how much longer can it take this?

Almost every machine, factory or vehicle burns fossil fuels to operate. And all of these fossil fuels have this one thing in common: they release carbon dioxide. Every year, millions of tons of carbon dioxide is released into our atmosphere. Scientists have said that we only have twelve years until climate change is irreversible. But what does that mean? What do we do to fix it? And is it still true?  


When scientists say there’s 12 years left, it doesn’t mean the world will end in 12 years. This means that at the current rate of global warming, in 12 years we will reach 1.5 degrees of warming, beyond which we will be unable to avoid catastrophic effects. This calculation gained widespread publication in early 2018, when a United Nations panel report was released stating that in order to avoid catastrophe, countries would have to bring their carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, and carbon emissions would have to start dropping now, within these 12 years. Without immediate action, the warming would cause a chain reaction of effects that would lead to massive flooding, fires, mass migration, loss of habitat and loss of human life.


Canada’s stated plan is to reduce its carbon emissions 30% below 2005 levels, and net zero by 2050; however that plan faces certain challenges. Canada’s carbon emissions per capita are the third-highest in the world and our population is growing. As we speak, 20% of our electricity is generated using fossil fuels (mainly coal) and our overall emissions, now at 722 million metric tons, annually is rising. We are actually getting further from our goal.


If you think it’s challenging for Canadians to get on track, you should hear what we have to do on a global stage to fix this dire situation. Just last year, 37.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere, 2.7 percent higher than 2017, according to the World Resource Institute. The globe’s largest emitters are simply not doing enough. Countries like the USA, the second-largest carbon dioxide emitter, also continues to raise emission rates. The EU saw a 0.7 percent drop, but that is simply not enough to avert the 1.5 degree increase.  


In places like central Asia and China, it’s been even worse. Just in the first half of 2019, China saw a gas demand increase of 6%, and coal demand increased by 3%. As of 2017, China was the number one country for carbon dioxide emissions, at 27.2% of all global emissions. 

So how do we reach net zero? We must reduce things such as factories and vehicles “as close to zero as possible,” says author Kelly Levin from the World Resource Institute. This could take decades, including the fact that pretty much all cars are powered using gasoline, and electric cars are not accessible to places where there is poor electricity. And while Tesla and other car manufacturers represent an essential component in moving away from fossil fuels, more clean sources of electricity are still needed. 

It seems the world has waited much too long, and even the 12-year guideline may be overly optimistic. Prince Charles, pointing to important international meetings taking place until the end of 2020 had stated, “I am firmly of the view that the next 18 months will decide our ability to keep climate change to survivable levels and to restore nature.” Last years Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicts a 3-degree rise by 2100.  

And as we sit and wait for something to happen, the condition of our planet continues to worsen and is becoming closer to unfixable. And although “the world can’t be healed within the next few years,” says Founder of the Potsdam Climate Institute, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, “it may be fatally wounded by negligence until 2020.” 

Image Credit: Terra/Nasa

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