3 things we learned about the state of the planet this month

The climate crisis supercharged, and planetary boundaries breached

This month, we learned a number of disturbing facts about the state of the planet from leading international researchers.

Taken together, three newly published reports reiterate and back up what we already know about the increasing damage we’re inflicting on the world’s natural landscapes. They also emphasize the urgent need to take action to cut emissions and rethink the way we currently live – while we still can.

Golden hour in Indonesia
All indicators suggest the planet is warming at an unprecedented rate. Bayu Syaits, Unsplash

The Earth is getting hotter – and worse is still to come

Heat records on land and sea have been broken repeatedly, and that trend is set to continue, according to the 33rd annual State of the Climate report from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

With input from more than 570 scientists in 60 countries, the report “is like an annual physical of the Earth system,” says Derek Arndt, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, and collates data from monitoring instruments on land, water, ice and space.

The report highlighted several pieces of alarming data: for one, the Earth’s greenhouse gas concentrations hit record highs last year. Carbon dioxide levels reached 417.1 parts per million – 2.4 parts per million higher than in 2021, and 50 percent higher than pre-industrial levels. Methane and nitrous oxide levels also broke new records.

Meanwhile, the world’s oceans, which store more than 90 percent of the excess energy we’ve released through greenhouse gas emissions, were also the hottest on record. Around 58 percent of the ocean surface experienced at least one marine heatwave last year.

On land, annual surface temperatures were 0.25 to 0.30 degrees Celsius higher than the 1991–2020 average. Europe experienced its hottest summer ever, causing Alpine glaciers to melt at an unprecedented rate. In Asia, record-breaking summer heat caused a major drought in China’s Yangtze River basin, affecting more than 38 million people.

The Arctic also continues to warm more quickly than the rest of the planet, causing sea ice to continue to decline. The region is also becoming wetter: 2022 was its third-rainiest year since 1950.

Even more worryingly, NOAA’s data is from last year, when La Niña brought some cooling relief to the planet. This year, El Niño is back in play – leaving little doubt that 2023 will break land and sea temperature records yet again.

Extinction Rebellion
World leaders are facing growing demands for real climate action. Nick Fewings, Unsplash

Promises have been made. It’s time to live up to them

While world leaders say they are taking climate change and biodiversity loss seriously, they’re doing woefully little to address them in reality.

That’s the conclusion of the first ‘global stocktake’ from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – an assessment of humanity’s progress so far to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

“Governments need to support systems transformations, mainstream climate resilience, and low-emissions [greenhouse gas] development,” the report says. Right now, emission levels are still at least 20 billion tons too high to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, as targeted in the Paris Agreement.

The necessary changes will cause disruption to current practices, but they offer important opportunities, too, including the creation of green jobs, greener supply chains and a more diversified economy. “Global job creation resulting from just energy transitions will potentially be 3.5 times greater than job losses by 2030,” the authors say.

Both action and policies need to be more ambitious, according to the report, and that can be achieved by including communities, Indigenous Peoples, and the private and public sectors in decision making.

In many ways, the stocktake echoes the findings of this year’s Synthesis Report from the International Panel on Climate Change, but it is more explicit about the urgent need to eliminate the use of fossil fuels.

“Achieving net zero CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions requires systems transformations across all sectors and contexts,” it states, “including scaling up renewable energy while phasing out all unabated fossil fuels, ending deforestation, reducing non-CO2 emissions and implementing both supply and demand side measures.”

Seabird with garbage
Biodiversity loss and pollution are now at dangerous levels. Tim Mossholder, Unsplash

We are overstretching the Earth

Humans have damaged the Earth’s systems so much that our planet is now “well outside the safe operating space for humanity,” according to a new study on nine planetary boundaries critical to our planet’s health.

Six out of the nine boundaries have now been surpassed: climate change, biosphere integrity, land system change, biogeochemical flows, freshwater use and chemical pollution. Two more – air pollution and ocean acidification – are closed to being breached.

Building on a concept originally outlined in 2009, this latest study provides “extremely useful guidance on how we are exploiting the planet beyond what it can support, on a broad front of nine boundary variables – not only climate change,” says Christopher Martius, a senior scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF, who was not involved in the study.

Among the damage assessed was the havoc wreaked by massive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen from crop fertilizers, used mostly by big agribusiness. These chemicals are flowing into ecosystems, causing algal blooms and ocean dead zones.

Another boundary considered the Earth’s genetic diversity and functional integrity. The former looked at the current rate of species extinction, which, the report states, “is estimated to be at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating.”

Researchers also considered levels of primary production, or photosynthesis, to estimate the functional integrity of ecosystems. Through deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices, humans have co-opted about 30 percent of primary production for food, compared to just two percent before the Industrial Revolution.

Forest loss – a key aspect of land system change – is another indicator that’s flashing red. Given their crucial role in moderating climate, scientists say we must keep 75 percent of the world’s forests intact, but deforestation has left only 60 percent. Nevertheless, the researchers describe land system change as “one of the most powerful means that humanity has at its disposal to combat climate change.”

As the NOAA and UNFCCC studies suggest, we are also well over the Earth’s boundary for climate change, which is set at 350 parts per million. This could have worrying implications for some of the other boundaries, Martius says.

“The link between climate change and biosphere integrity is a dangerous, mutually fortifying combination,” he explains, “reminding us that ultimately, all these boundary variables are connected, and addressing them in isolation will not be productive.”

For Martius, the most important takeaway from the boundaries concept is that we are altering the state of the planet to an extent that our ancestors have never known. In other words, we are disrupting the Holocene – “the relatively stable period of the last 10,000 years, which is the period in which humanity thrived, enjoying stable climate and predictable rainfall.”

“Climate skeptics often claim that the climate has always changed,” Martius adds. “This is true, yet not relevant, as for us, the conditions of the Holocene are the bar we need to reach. The boundaries concept informs us where we stand and what would be needed to bring ourselves back to a safe operating space below those boundaries.”

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