Life as we know it is in trouble. Global risks related to climate change keep climbing: extreme weather, sea level rise, supply chain disruption, food and water insecurity, heat stress in urban areas, disease.
The World Meteorological Organization and the UK Met Office have announced that if we stay on current trends, there is a 48% chance that the Earth’s annual-average temperature exceed +1.5C of warming, compared with pre-industrial levels, sometime between now and 2026.
Science clearly shows that the +1.5C limit is not a random number — it’s the point beyond which these kinds of impacts cause risk of irreversible damage. The loss of Arctic ice, unstoppable glacier melt, and abrupt permafrost thaw are all examples of the kind of tipping points we need to avoid to ensure a safe space for humanity and Earth’s ecosystems.
To remain within the +1.5C trajectory, global emissions need to get to net-zero by 2050 – meaning that the emissions we add to the atmosphere is no more than the amount we remove. Emissions need to halve by 2030. Limiting warming involves rapid, deep and immediate greenhouse gas emission reductions in all sectors.
Coal is the most polluting way of producing energy. Governments should ensure a full phase out of coal-power by 2030 in advanced economies, and globally by 2040.
The European Union should introduce measures to accelerate energy efficiency, the green energy transition, sustainable investment through incentives, training and employment opportunities.
All companies should develop a roadmap for climate action through initiatives like SOS 1.5, a collaboration between WMB and WBCSD focused on providing pathways for companies to decarbonize.
It will require coordinated action to push forward the emission mitigation options highlighted by the IPCC: demand management, energy and materials efficiency, circular material flows, as well as abatement technologies and transformational changes in production processes.
The emerging technology of carbon capture and storage can help hard-to-abate sectors achieve net-zero, but should be used with caution. Its ability to capture significant quantities of carbon is still unproven and faces significant technological and practical barriers – for example, it is often land intensive. It should not be used as a replacement for mitigation and businesses should not over-rely on it as a mechanism to achieve net-zero.
Business and government should work together to reduce the damage done by commercial shipping in the Arctic, in support of the Arctic Black Carbon impacting on Climate and Air Pollution (ABC-iCAP) initiative.
Black carbon – black soot particles produced in ship engine exhaust – settles on polar ice and snow, reducing the ability of ice and snow to reflect light, leading to it melting faster.
Businesses who run, or benefit from, commercial shipping routes through the Arctic should immediately stop heavy fuel use.
The International Maritime Organisation should pursue stricter regulation to ban heavy fuel use in the Arctic. Exemptions and allowances in its current proposals for a ban are estimated to reduce black carbon by just 5%, where a full ban on heavy fuel oil could reduce black carbon emissions by 30% in the Arctic according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.
Agriculture, deforestation and other land uses account for 23% of net global greenhouse gas emissions. Nature – soil, oceans, forests and vegetation – can either capture carbon or emit it, meaning that how we manage the natural world can have a major impact on our progress toward net zero.
Analysis published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development modelled the impact of policies on greenhouse gas emissions. It found that a comprehensive policy strategy including taxes on emissions from agriculture and land use, disincentivising deforestation, and subsidies to encourage carbon sequestration could reduce net emissions from this sector by between 89% and 129% depending on the carbon price used.
Agriculture, forestry and other land use mitigation options, when sustainably implemented, can deliver large-scale GHG emission reductions and enhanced removals, but cannot fully compensate for delayed action in other sectors.
Governments, investors and businesses should implement the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. G20 governments should recognise the disproportionate financial power of their countries, and follow recommendations from the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero to set a target for net-zero transition plans by 2024 for public and private enterprises, including financial institutions.
Businesses and governments should work towards putting a price on carbon, which allows companies to incorporate the externalities of their emissions accurately. Businesses can begin by using an internal carbon price to support their transition plans. Governments should introduce policies, regulatory approaches and incentives that price the externalities of carbon emissions in line with the science.
Companies, investors and financial institutions should invest in key technologies, especially in developing countries. Many countries have high potential for a rapid transition which could see them leapfrog others to deploy modern, low-emission technologies which are falling rapidly in price. These countries require private investment to stay aligned with the Paris Agreement.
Climate change impacts are already here, and climate change in the Arctic is unleashing a domino effect of risks on the rest of the world. Adapting to these changes must occur in parallel with efforts to accelerate the pace of emissions reduction to mitigate climate change.
Many developing countries already know which adaptation measures they need to put in place – but they lack the finances to do it. This is a critical piece of the solution to ensure that the world can cope with the cascade of risks unleashed by climate change generally and a warming Arctic specifically.
The extreme weather and sea-level rise caused by a warming Arctic causes death, injury, and severe economic disruption. Addressing this risk requires national and regional plans and early warning systems to help vulnerable communities protect themselves, along with the policy-making and finances to realise them. For example:
The risk multiplier effect of the Arctic means that climate change is already causing food and water insecurity. Adapting food systems to this reality is essential.
The IPCC recommends several solutions: “Supply-side options include increased soil organic matter and erosion control, improved cropland, livestock, grazing land management, and genetic improvements for tolerance to heat and drought. Diversification in the food system (e.g., implementation of integrated production systems, broad-based genetic resources, and heterogeneous diets) is a key strategy to reduce risks.
“Demand-side adaptation, such as adoption of healthy and sustainable diets, in conjunction with reduction in food loss and waste, can contribute to adaptation through reduction in additional land area needed for food production and associated food system vulnerabilities.”
The world’s richest nations should follow through on their climate finance promise, originally made in 2009, to pay US$100bn a year to developing countries. This should also be accompanied by support like technology transfer and in-country capacity building.
A UK House of Commons briefing highlights this target has been missed every year since 2013.
Research in northeastern Russia found that areas with herds of large Arctic herbivores like reindeer, horses and bison have a soil temperature about 2 degrees colder compared to herd-free areas. It’s thought that herds thin snow cover and increase its density, allowing heat to escape from the soil and preserve vital thermafrost. This means that strategically resettling herds like these could help preserve the Arctic’s permafrost.
Protecting forests and peatland can also limit permafrost disruption. Peat insulates permafrost by trapping air pockets above it, while vegetation shades the ground from direct sun, slowing thaw. A modeling study found that the areas most likely to suffer from permafrost degradation are those with mineral-based soil and no vegetation.
The Arctic is enormous, covering the equivalent area of the United States, Canada and China combined. But we observe this vast area with a very limited number of sensors and observation systems that are deployed and maintained on the ice (sea ice, glaciers), on land, and in the sea (buoys, moorings) by various research teams every year.
Sensors in the Arctic play a critical role in monitoring the atmosphere, land, sea ice and ocean by collecting and broadcasting their observations. They are also used to validate and create new satellite-derived data products that are also critical for continuous monitoring of the Arctic region.
Arctic Basecamp and collaborators are aiming to develop a global trust fund for sensors to address this funding shortage and significantly increase our observations for several key metrics, such as air and sea-surface temperature, atmospheric pressure, sea surface salinity, etc.
This would create an observation network of marine- and land-based sensors strategically located within communities, and uniformly distributed throughout the Arctic. It would be a major step towards properly monitoring, recording, and preparing for Arctic hazards and their global impacts.
People living in the Arctic are hit first and worst by climate change. Supporting their adaptation helps develop adaptation models we can apply elsewhere: if we can get it right here, we can get it right elsewhere.
Despite this, analysis by the Arctic Resilience Action Framework found “investment from the private sector in resilience building appears to be a weak link.”
For example, SmartICE is a social enterprise initiative that helps northern communities adapt to the reality that sea ice is becoming less predictable as the Arctic warms, increasing the risk of vital ice travel. SmartICE combines Indigenous knowledge, sensor technology and satellite imagery to generate up-to-date information about areas where travelling across the ice is too hazardous. That information is shared via mobile apps, maps in public places and local radio to help northern communities navigate sea ice and preserve traditional travel and hunting.
“SmartICE partners with Arctic Indigenous communities to empower them to monitor the ice that not only acts as their harvesting platform and travel highway but is central to their culture and identity. By helping to document and share their indigenous knowledge of ice travel safety, while also putting into their hands the sensors that monitors the ice, SmartICE is demonstrating to Davos that traditional knowledge and novel technology can work hand-in-hand for a climate change solution.” Dr. Trevor Bell, SmartICE Co-Founder.
It is true that we have to halve emissions by 2030. The risk of irreversible loss of Arctic summer sea ice above 1.5C is high.
The world won’t end on 1 January 2031 but the world could be a very different, and inhospitable, place for our future generations if we pass this safe threshold.
We all need to play our part and make change happen.
The following gauges show up-to-date data regarding key indicators in the Arctic. These indicators clearly point to the crisis at hand.