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Planetary boundaries

Leaders urge action as new science shows Earth systems are at tipping point
The house on the rock on river Drina in Bajina Basta, Serbia

The Greenland ice sheet is warming four times faster than the planet as a whole, triggering a domino effect of interconnected disasters that threaten the viability of Earth’s life-support systems on which human civilisation depends.

This warning was delivered to participants at a session on the ‘Earth’s New Normal’ at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.

Taking ‘colossal risks’

Ground-breaking scientific research reveals four critical Earth systems are at risk in a 1.5ºC warmer world.

This rapidly approaching reality is likely to trigger the irreversible collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which together represent 10 metres of sea-level rise.

Melting ice is already stalling the Atlantic jet stream and causing forest fires in the Amazon rainforest – another critical Earth system approaching its own tipping point from carbon sink to source.

‘We are taking colossal risks with the future of civilisation on Earth, we are degrading the life support systems that we all depend on, we are actually pushing the entire Earth system to a point of destabilisation, pushing Earth outside of the state that has supported civilisation since we left the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago.’

JOHAN ROCKSTRÖM
Lead researcher and director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

A safe planetary boundary

For the first time, scientists have defined the planetary limits required to secure a safe and just corridor for people and planet, where ‘just’ means protecting people from harm and ensuring their access to basic needs.

Science indicates that ‘1.5 degrees Celsius is a physical limit, it is not a political target’, Rockström said.

Yet every month we use 1% of the remaining carbon budget for this ‘safe boundary’ 1.5ºC, while the ‘just boundary’ of one degree warming is already behind us.

We have also breached the safe and just boundaries for nature, biodiversity, water and nutrients.
 

‘If we do the minimum at this pivotable moment in our history, then we and our children – even if we are rich – will live in the danger zone. But if we – business people, governments, citizens, cities – take action today, then we and our children will have a future worth looking forward to.’

JOYEETA GUPTA
Lead researcher and Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South, University of Amsterdam

’Decarbonised capitalism’

Responding to the scientific data, Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego, President of Colombia, said the profit-driven logic of global capitalism, powered by fossil fuels, has ‘resulted in a kind of global anarchy’.

He called for a new kind of ‘decarbonised capitalism…which should state explicitly that the only way to stop the climate crisis is to put an end to fossil fuel consumption – this means capital linked to coal, oil and gas should lose its value.’

‘Chief Seattle taught us that all things are connected – what we do to Earth we do to ourselves. Do not look at decisions as a cost of business, look at decisions as human existence and our relatives’ existence for generations to come.’
 
FAWN SHARP
President, National Congress of American Indians

’We have to act’

There is some good news, said Al Gore, chairman and co-founder of Generation Investment Management.

The Inflation Reduction Act in the US has provided $369 billion of climate tax credits that will trigger much larger investment in the green transition.

Elections in Australia and Brazil have changed those countries’ climate policies.
 
He cautioned: ‘The crisis is still getting worse faster than we are deploying solutions – emissions are still going up.’

Gore made an impassioned plea for a far greater level of urgency: ‘Climate refugees are predicted to reach 1 billion this century, he said, adding: ‘we would lose our capacity for self-governance on this world – we have to act.’

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