We Only Have Three Years To Prevent Climate Catastrophe, But There Is Hope

Climate change can be limited, we just need to up our game and get on with decarbonizing our economy. Mimadeo/Shutterstock

If global carbon emissions don’t start to decline within the next three years, the planet will be on track for dangerous levels of climate change and the goals set for the Paris climate agreement will be unattainable. In a letter published in Nature, experts including the former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, have set out what needs to be achieved by 2020 to safeguard the planet, and how there is still hope we can beat it.

They write that even with an increase in global temperature by 1°C (1.8°F), sea ice is melting, coral is dying, and ecosystems are collapsing. While we have stopped carbon emissions from rising any further, they have plateaued while atmospheric temperatures have continued to rise, and it is now crunch time.


But it is not all doom and gloom. While the news that we may only have three years to get this under control might sound devastating in the current political climate, there are good signs that the mood has shifted. The authors say that there are procedures and policy that can be put into place to limit this warming, it just has to be done sooner rather than later.

“These goals may be idealistic at best, unrealistic at worst,” write the authors. “However, we are in the age of exponential transformation and think that such a focus will unleash ingenuity.” They go on to list where the world needs to be by 2020 to make the goal of avoiding damaging and dangerous climate change achievable.

They state that renewables will need to account for at least 30 percent of the world’s electricity supply, an increase of just 6.4 percent on 2015 levels. Building and infrastructure will need to be fully decarbonized by 2050, and heavy industry will need to increase efficiencies and cut emissions.

Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief, helped spearhead the Paris agreement. UNclimatechange/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Transport is a major issue and possibly one of the most difficult to tackle. Electric vehicles will need to make up at least 15 percent of new car sales worldwide, a steep increase from the current 1 percent. Plans will need to be put in place to further cut emissions from public transport too, as well as a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from planes per kilometer traveled.


Land use changes will need to be altered with a shift instead to reforestation projects. If land use changes and deforestation can be completely halted within a decade, and reforestation initiated by 2030, then it will help cut all emissions to zero while simultaneously protecting water security and biodiversity.

When it comes to financing, governments need to step up, as most of the money mobilized for climate action will actually come from the private sector. This may all sound like a lot be to be done, and as they say, could well be idealistic, but if the emissions are not curtailed then we are going to be the ones that suffer.

The letter goes on to say how these goals can be achieved, starting with basing policies and actions based on robust scientific evidence. Scientists need to ways to communicate their ideas better, and politicians need to listen. Next, existing solutions need to be scaled up, and quickly. Nations need to adopt plans to get 100 percent of electricity from renewables.

Finally, we need to encourage optimism. This may all sound disheartening and pointless, but there are solutions, there are success stories, and these need to be shared and celebrated.


“We must remember that impossible is not a fact, it’s an attitude…," the authors conclude. "There will always be those who hide their heads in the sand and ignore the global risks of climate change. But there are many more of us committed to overcoming this inertia. Let us stay optimistic and act boldly together.”


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