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Climate Change

Going Beyond The Energy Sector To Fight The Climate Crisis

by Dr. Isabel Studer
September 21, 2021

The climate crisis is here. We have the tools to fight off its worst outcomes if we are up to the task. What are these tools, and how quickly can we deploy them?

The climate crisis is no longer for a distant future. The intense wildfires, fierce hurricanes, record heat temperatures in the Pacific Northwest in the United States and Canada, and the powerful flooding in Germany and China paint an apocalyptic panorama predicted for decades by climate scientists.

In fact, in the latest report from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, the international science community has sounded the alarm one more time, making it loud and clear that we need to act fast or face the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Specifically, the panel's assessment, which is based on improved methodologies of thousands of scientists around the world to achieve higher scientific certainty, also warns that, unless we achieve immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in carbon emissions, "limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach." Quite simply, that is very, very bad. 

In other words, to achieve the Paris Agreement's goal of avoiding an increase of 1.5º C in the planet's temperature, we must cut global carbon emissions in half by 2030. The bulk of that effort would demand a profound transformation of the energy sector, as three-quarters of the world's carbon emissions come from energy production and consumption of fossil fuels. Moving away from fossil fuels while adopting renewable energies like solar, wind, water sources, and biofuels is critical to address the climate emergency. The best part is that we can do this. 

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However, energy is omnipresent in our lives, making it very difficult to transform this sector in the short term which is essential to combating the climate crisis.  Even with a consistent effort to curb energy demand, it would take decades to find the emission savings we need today. It is clear that we don't have that amount of time, so we will have to achieve carbon emission reductions from other sources, particularly in the land sector. Adopting regenerative agricultural systems and nature-based solutions, such as the conservation and restoration of forests, wetlands, and mangroves, could contribute to about a third of the emissions reduction needed to avoid the increase of 1.5 º C in the planet's temperature. These nature-based solutions are an essential weapon in fighting the climate crisis. 

Embracing nature-based solutions will also have additional benefits. These solutions can stop the accelerated loss of biodiversity, as close to one million species are at risk of extinction. They could ensure water resources and soils' availability and quality, increase agricultural productivity, and improve health due to better air quality. These solutions can also prevent zoonotic illnesses like COVID-19 and, therefore, future pandemics.

Not surprisingly, today, many experts are in favor of protecting 30 percent of land and water resources around the planet, but such a goal would require a $140 billion annual investment. This amount may seem enormous, but it only represents about a third of existing government combined subsidies for the food sector, the extraction of energy and minerals, and large infrastructure projects, all of which have contributed to the collapse of biodiversity around the world. 

Biodiversity is also essential and more efficient than infrastructure solutions to increase resiliency and reduce climate vulnerability. So, removing such subsidies and repurposing them to fund the restoration and preservation of biodiversity should become another priority in the climate agenda. One more thing, without biodiversity, the human species will cease to exist meaning this nature-based solution is very high stakes. 

A mother teaching her child how to plant a tree in Ethiopia; Eyoel Kahssay on Unsplash

A mother teaching her child how to plant a tree in Ethiopia;

Eyoel Kahssay on Unsplash

Food systems also pose a great opportunity to reduce carbon emissions. Cattle ranching is the source of more than two-thirds of such emissions in agriculture. According to McKinsey & Co, if the emissions derived from meat production were accounted as a country's total emissions, they would be the second-largest emitter in the world. Therefore, it would be impossible to achieve the goal of avoiding a 1.5º C planetary temperature increase without a change in our everyday diets. Yet, current projections show the opposite: an increase between 15 percent and 20 percent of meat consumption by 2050 due to a rising middle class around the world. 

Dovetailing a changing diet, the reduction of food waste is also a critical area for climate action, as today, it represents a third of global food production. Think about that, we waste one-third of the food we produce. When we waste food, we also waste the energy to grow, harvest, and transport food products. Food waste that goes to a landfill then produces methane, a greenhouse even more potent than carbon dioxide. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that, in the US alone, the production of lost or wasted food generates the equivalent of 32.6 million cars' worth of carbon emissions. A plant-based diet and reducing our food waste are effective and immediate ways to help us fight the climate emergency. They must be included in any meaningful plan to reverse the trends of the climate crisis. 

At COP 26 in Glasgow, countries will have to show higher levels of ambition to fighting the climate crisis. Therefore, embarking on a longer-term plan for drastic emissions reductions in the energy sector is a critical outcome from the meeting. If the world commits to embracing nature-based solutions there is an opportunity for all countries to show their renewed ambition to achieve the 1.5º C goal while increasing resiliency and reducing climate vulnerability in the near term. We have the technology, the science to guide policy decisions and the rising global awareness of climate risks. Yet it remains to be seen if we have the resolve to stave off the worst of the climate impacts for the present and future generations. I hope we are up to the task as the alternative is a dark future for humanity.

Dr. Isabel Studer is the newly appointed Alianza University of California-Mexico director, Isabel has a unique career in government, academia and civil society. She was Director for Strategic Partnerships in Latin America and Executive Director for Mexico and Central America at The Nature Conservancy. Senior Fellow at the Arsht Rockefeller Resilience Center of The Atlantic Council, she is currently President of the Board of the Mexican Climate Initiative and of Sostenibilidad Global. A Fulbright and Ford Scholar, Isabel earned her Ph.D. and M.A. at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and her BA degree in international relations from El Colegio de México.


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