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Cities Must Become Carbon Sinks

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record last year. The planet hasn’t had this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in more than 3 million years.

The U.S., China and the European Union are responsible for the majority of global carbon emissions. Given the long life of CO2, high global temperatures will persist for several decades after carbon emissions reach net zero. This means more weather extremes and more forced migrations of communities and cities.

“We are way off track,” said Petteri Taalas of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). “At the current rate of increase in GHG concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5C to 2C. Rising levels of GHGs have major negative repercussions for our daily lives and wellbeing, and for the future of our children and grandchildren. It is hoped COP26 will see a dramatic increase in commitments.”

Negotiators seek to end GHG emissions by 2050, which they hope will help the planet avert the worst climate impacts. Stopping emissions will stabilize the planet eventually, but not immediately.

Burning coal, oil and gas is the biggest source of CO2, which causes 66 percent of global warming.

CO2 emissions fell by about 5 percent in 2020 due to COVID restrictions, compared to 2019, but the pandemic slowdown had little impact on the atmospheric levels of GHG.

The WMO also warned that global warming is damaging the ability of the natural world to absorb carbon emissions. Deforestation has decimated the greenbelts of the world. The Amazon basin once absorbed tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Thanks to the fires and droughts associated with expanding agriculture, this critical ecosystem—and others around the world—is vanishing.

The climate report comes ahead of next week’s international climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP, which is seeks to cut GHG emissions. One way to pay for climate action is to redirect more than $400 billion in public subsidies that governments give to fossil fuel companies every year. Subsidies must be cut. Unfortunately, they are increasing.

The Biden administration released several reports about climate change and national security, warning that a warming world will challenge global stability. The documents, issued by the departments of Homeland Security and Defense as well as the National Security Council and director of national intelligence, mark the first time that the nation’s security agencies collectively described the climate risks that they face.

The reports include warnings from the intelligence community about how climate change can work on numerous levels to sap the strength of a nation. For example, countries like Iraq and Algeria could be hit by lost revenue from fossil fuels, even as their region faces worsening heat and drought. The Pentagon warned that food shortages could lead to unrest, along with fights between countries over water.

The Department of Homeland Security, which includes the U.S. Coast Guard, warned that as ice melts in Arctic Ocean, competition will increase for fish, minerals and other resources. Another report warned that tens of millions of people are likely to be displaced by 2050 because of climate change, including as many as 143 million people in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

The national security warnings came on the same day that top financial regulators for the first time warned that climate change was “an emerging threat” to the American economy and the world economy. 

The suggestion that climate change is a national security threat isn’t new. But taken together, the reports signal a new stage in U.S. policy that places climate change at the center of the country’s security planning. The intelligence community made three predictions:

  • Global tensions will rise as countries argue about how to accelerate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Climate change will exacerbate cross-border flash points and amplify strategic competition in the Arctic; and
  • The effects of climate change will be felt most acutely in developing countries that are least equipped to adapt.

China and India will largely determine how quickly global temperatures rise, the report stated. It predicts that most nations will not meet their pledges to the Paris Agreement.

“Given current government policies and trends in technology development, we judge that collectively countries are unlikely to meet the Paris goals,” the report said. “High-emitting countries would have to make rapid progress toward decarbonizing their energy systems by transitioning away from fossil fuels within the next decade, whereas developing countries would need to rely on low-carbon energy sources for their economic development.”

The intelligence report identified several countries as being particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and challenged to cope with its effects. That list includes Afghanistan, Guatemala, Haiti, Iraq, India, North Korea and Pakistan.

“From extreme weather events to record heat, our work force is on the front lines of the climate emergency every day,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security.

The National Security Council released its own report, which analyzed how climate change is already forcing people to leave their homes. One forecast suggests that climate change could lead to almost three percent of the populations of Latin America, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa moving within their countries by 2050 — more than 143 million people.

The race to respond to climate change could benefit some countries, particularly those that are leaders in renewable-energy technologies or the raw materials needed to produce them. China controls much of the world’s processing capacity for cobalt, lithium and other minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries, as well as rare earth minerals used in wind turbines and electric vehicles. Other countries, such as Norway and the United Kingdom, have an advantage in meeting the growing demand to remove carbon dioxide from the air, because those nations have put a price on carbon, which promotes alternative energy.

Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets in the battle against global warming, but cutting subsidies to oil and coal companies is a critical first step to level the playing field and return to a free market economy, which can promote efficiency. The second critical strategy is to halt deforestation and promote reforestation and urban forestry immediately. Hopefully, COP26 will succeed on both of these fronts.

Read the full story about COP26 and climate action.

Greener Cities and climate action

Greener Cities is a division of Crossbow Communications. Greener Cities is a resource for sustainable and resilient cities and communities around the world.

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Author: Gary Chandler

Gary Chandler is a sustainability strategist, author and advocate. Follow him on Twitter @Gary_Chandler