Even Richer Nations Face Climate ‘Danger Zone,’ Scientists Say

With prospects of containing global warming slipping away, a team of scientists urged policymakers to redouble their efforts to rein in pollution, saying human activity risks turning even rich nations into a “danger zone.”

The researchers led by Stockholm University identified four ecosystems where boundaries have been crossed, throwing the stability of the environment into disarray. The findings were published in the journal Science and will be presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos next week.

“Human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth system into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries,” said Will Steffen, a professor at Stockholm University and the study’s lead author.

The conclusions act as a reminder to envoys from some 190 nations that will start working at United Nations talks in Geneva next month on a long-term goal for protecting the climate. The current goal calls for policy makers to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, a level that still would be the quickest shift since the last ice age ended about 10,000 year ago.

With fossil-fuel emissions at record levels and no global agreement in place to reduce them, temperatures are on track to rise 3.6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, according to the International Energy Agency. The study in Science suggests that the 2-degree target isn’t ambitious enough, and any warming beyond 1.5 degrees may be dangerous.

Risks Everywhere

“Reaching this target contains significant risks for societies everywhere,” said Johan Rockstrom, a co-author of the report. “Two degrees must be seen not only as a necessity but also a minimum global climate target.”

The UN talks, which brought to life the Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon emissions in industrialized nations, now are focused on drawing up an agreement to be signed in Paris in December that would apply pollution limits in all nations.

While 2 degrees is the goal set out in those talks, the envoys are talking about other targets, raising concerns that the overall ambition on temperature will be downgraded as it becomes clear that it’s impossible to reach. One option suggested: zero fossil-fuel emissions by 2100, or reduce them 50 percent by 2050.

Sea Levels

Regardless of what target is chosen, researchers gathered by the UN say that human activity is destabilizing the climate and will melt glaciers, raise sea levels and trigger more violent storms in the decades to come.

The findings in Science mark an improvement on the quantification of where risks to the Earth come from. They identified three other boundaries that have been breached, including the loss of biodiversity and species extinction; changes in land use such as deforestation; and the altered bio- geochemical cycles, the way using phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers in farming has shifted the way ecosystems work.

The concept of boundaries for the planet was developed by scholars around the world identifies nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment.

The science shows that these nine processes and systems regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth’s overall environment through the interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere and life that societies depend upon.

Micro Plastics

The remaining five boundaries: stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, freshwater use, microscopic particles in the atmosphere and introduction of novel entities such as nano-materials and micro plastics, have not yet been breached, they said.

If a threshold is passed, then all human efforts to cut emissions or bring back species “may not reverse or even slow the trends of Earth system degradation, with potentially catastrophic consequences,” Steffen said.

Scientists from research groups in nine countries contributed to the report. They include academics at Australian National University in Canberra, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, McGill University in Canada, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research in Germany and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in LaJolla, California.