In 2019, a team of researchers issued a dire warning declaring a climate emergency that was signed by 11,000 scientists. Thousands more have signed on since then and the original team have now updated their findings in a new study that reports things have only gotten worse.
In a paper published in Bioscience on Tuesday, the researchers measured 31 variables or “planetary vital signs”—such as greenhouse gas emissions, the state of the Amazon rainforest, and other environmental changes—and found that 18 of them have reached all-time records. The study’s co-authors warn of the “untold suffering” that a prolonged climate emergency could bring on.
The study reports harrowing statistics about the state of the environment. Glaciers are losing 31 percent more snow than they did 15 years ago. Ocean acidification is at record highs, which could further compromise coral reefs that protect against tropical storms. All five of the warmest years on record have occurred since 2015, with 2020 being the second warmest.
“I'm just shocked at how fast and severe it is already,” lead author William J. Ripple of Oregon State University told Motherboard. “We really are in a terrible emergency at this point.”
According to the researchers’ findings, 1.11 million hectares of the Amazon has been destroyed. The Amazon rainforest has turned into a massive carbon source in recent years and has released more carbon dioxide than the U.K. or Australia due to human activities such as deforestation and logging.
The pandemic proved that small-scale policy changes are no longer effective. The stay-at-home orders of the pandemic brought on a considerable decrease in energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, but all of these variables are expected to increase again in 2021 as things open back up.
“A major lesson from COVID-19 is that even colossally decreased transportation and consumption are not nearly enough and that, instead, transformational system changes are required, and they must rise above politics,” the study says.
This study is just the first update to an earlier publication, posted online in 2019, in which Ripple and his colleagues originally declared a climate emergency. Their declaration was co-signed by 11,000 scientists from 153 countries at the time. Since then, nearly 3,000 more scientists have signed the declaration and 1,990 jurisdictions across the world have officially declared or acknowledged the climate emergency.
The co-authors suggest six concurrent ways we can address the overexploitation of the planet, many of which center on reducing inequality and overconsumption. They echo commonplace suggestions such as shifting to renewable energy and plant-based diets, but they also suggest limiting overconsumption by the wealthy by switching to a circular ecological economy where the price of goods and services reflect their environmental impact.
The study also points to carbon pricing as one key way greenhouse gas emissions can be curbed. Carbon pricing is a way to shift the burden of greenhouse gas emissions to its source rather than the public by tying its value to a price. The price is intended to help businesses measure the environmental cost of their operations.
Researchers expect that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions covered by carbon pricing will increase from 14.4 percent to 23.2 percent. The study notes that this increase is due in part to China’s proposed carbon pricing scheme, but the country is still building new coal plants and emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire developed world.
The average price of carbon dioxide reached $15.49 per ton in 2020, but Ripple notes that this is still too low to effectively deter businesses or countries. “If we get serious about carbon pricing, we need to get a price that actually is serious enough to deter the burning of fossil fuels,” he told Motherboard.
Ripple told Motherboard that he believes these changes are feasible, but they need to happen fast. He pointed out that 2021 has already seen catastrophic flooding in Germany and record-high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.
The scientists expect to continue updating their findings on an annual or biannual basis.