At some point, the consequences of an action become unavoidable and irreversible (cigarette smoking is analogous in this respect). A July report released by the ClimateWorks Foundation details an alarming future if carbon dioxide emissions are not quelled to acceptable levels. There is no time to squander – implementing and enforcing policies within the next decade is mandatory, to avoid a significantly more treacherous battle down the line. Without immediate and large-scale action, the atmosphere will reach a point of no return.
Stacking CO2 Concentrations
Carbon dioxide does not dissipate quickly and conveniently after being emitted. CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, or even longer; in order to reverse the trend effectively, a massive reduction is required so that a natural balance can be achieved once more. Emissions far exceed the actual capacity of natural carbon absorbers, and thus the imbalance grows more lopsided by the minute (and consequently more difficult to backtrack).
If all CO2 emissions ceased tomorrow, the adverse effects would still impact the earth thousands of years later. The plausibility and logistical considerations of such a dramatic reduction is worrisome, but a window of approximately 10 years remains. Policymakers and organizations must assess the situation objectively and with genuine regard for long-term safety.
The takeaway: stabilization can only be achieved with very low emissions. “Very low” is not a relative term, either, and is not marked in incremental victories. It necessitates a massive reduction in CO2 emissions to levels not seen in many decades.
Vanishing Carbon Sinks
The ClimateWorks report emphasizes the role of natural carbon sinks in absorption. However, these mechanisms – mainly oceans and plants – are either disappearing or are overloaded. Plants are destroyed from deforestation and habitat degradations; oceans are reaching their limits of CO2 (marine life are also threatened due to more acidity in the water).
Columbia University researchers found that oceans absorb more than 8 billion metric tons of human-produced carbon dioxide each year. Two convergent, and disadvantageous, factors come into play: as the water temperature rises (another consequence of higher greenhouse gas emissions), the oceans possess a more limited capacity to sequester carbon dioxide; additionally, as the water becomes more acidic, it reduces the amount of CO2 able to be absorbed.
Future Ecosystems and Species
Higher temperatures and a generally warmer climate can permanently change how ecosystems are constructed, and intrude on the delicate balance within them. Once these consequences occur, there is no opportunity for reversal.
A lag, called “thermal inertia,” dictates that immediate and precipitous alterations are not the key concern: long-term impacts that will manifest themselves centuries afterward can wreak havoc on species and ecosystems. A longer delay equals a more dangerous future. An estimated 35 percent of known species will become extinct due to ecosystem alteration.
Atmospheric Balance of Methane
As warming continues, areas of the world once layered in permafrost are experiencing dramatic melting events. Not only is this detrimental to sea levels and weather patterns, but significant concentrations of methane are found beneath slush and ice, at the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
If enough methane escapes into the atmosphere – and even a fractional amount qualifies – the effects may be catastrophic. In history, there have been two instances of methane release. One disrupted the climate for the following 100,000 years and killed many species. The other nearly eliminated all life on the planet.
The current situation is not as dire, but the potential deleterious impact of high methane concentrations warrants serious consideration.
Confronting the problem immediately yields tremendous savings. Research conducted by the Stern Review in the United Kingdom revealed that implementing policies now to reduce CO2 emissions and alleviate long-term impacts would only cost 1 percent of GDP (gross domestic product). Inaction consequently will require 20 percent of GDP (some studies predict a higher percentage) to adapt and make mandatory changes.
In order to achieve quick results, per the first option, efficient infrastructure should be prioritized. Houses, factories, and entire cities can realistically build structures that are less demanding and significantly more energy efficient.
Immediacy and Urgency
Squandering this small window of time would be inexcusable. High concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide will cause irreparable damage to the earth, and a substantial reduction is necessary to sidestep such an unenviable future. Many nations and corporations have the technological means to become less reliant on fossil fuels and increase efficiency, and many policymakers and political officials are cognizant of the significance. All entities involved need to collaborate to secure a sustainable future, and it needs to be done as soon as possible.
Photo credit: dfg.ca.gov/climatechange/