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Mind the (emissions) gap

Carbon emissions are still increasing as global policies fail to address climate change. Could systems thinking be the way forward?

A hand-painted sign that says Leave No Trace and has two illustrations of earth.

Leave No Trace (Peace in the Park)

Philippa Willitts

The world is currently falling very short of the commitments it has pledged to fulfil concerning the climate. Scientists have estimated that emissions need to fall by 45% by 2030, and then fall to net zero by 2050, as agreed in the Paris agreement, to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C.

The emissions gap tracker is used to show the commitments that have been made, and show how current policies are actually continuing to increase emissions.

A chart demonstrating a growing gap between emissions and targets

Emissions Gap graph

Climate Action Tracker

In theory, there are plenty of climate-based policies, targets and talks. Although slow, the conversation has begun, at national and global levels, and people are starting to listen to the science.

But what if this is not the problem? What if the problem is the substance, or the lack of substance, within these policies and initiatives?

Although goals for global net zero have been outlined, there is a lack of enforcement and pressure to fulfil commitments that have been made by nations during the annual Conference of the Parties (COPs).

The COP takes place each year and is an international meeting focusing on climate, which is "is an opportunity to negotiate new measures, and review Parties’ progress against the overall goal of the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] to limit climate change".

There is only so much carbon that the planet can take. As a metaphor, putting carbon into our atmosphere is like filling up a bucket, and once that bucket is full, climate damage will occur. The difference is it takes seconds to empty a bucket, but it will take up to a thousand years for the planet to remove the carbon we have been putting into its atmosphere.

We do not have that time, as by then, the population will be extinct from drought, flooding and disease.

We have marked the emissions cut off as 2050. By 2050, the effects of our carbon emissions are deemed irreversible, yet we continue to emit despite knowing this science.

However, the climate does not care about 2050. 2050 is simply a construct we have created.

Instead, too much carbon in the atmosphere is simply too much carbon in the atmosphere. Going net zero when we reach 2050 will not reverse the next 26 years of carbon emissions leading up to the big date we have set. So every day we do not act is another day of pumping out carbon, something we need to somehow find a way to reverse.

The world watched as Alok Sharma held his tears back during the closing statement at COP26 in Glasgow, dubbed by some as ‘the COP that failed the South’. He apologised for the watered down ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ that was eventually agreed after China and India, two of the world's biggest emitters, pushed back against policies in the final hours.

Over the years, the COPs have brought around plenty of policies and from the outside they seem successful, but dig a little deeper and they perhaps aren't doing as much as would appear at first glance. Many policies seem to be nothing but empty promises; just look at the Loss and Damage Fund.

The Loss and Damage Fund was designed to provide financial support to nations that have played little to no role in the climate disaster, but are facing the majority of the climate-related burdens created by the actions made by the emitting countries.

For example, Pakistan has seen $30bn in damages from severe flooding caused by climate change, but the country emits less than 1% of global emissions.

The Fund was supposed to bring about justice for nations like Pakistan, however so far only $700m dollars have been pledged. This is the equivalent of just 0.2% of the irreversible economic and non-economic losses developing countries are facing from global warming. As the COP is run on a voluntary basis there is little incentive for nations to do their part.

As a global collective, we are acting as if 2050 is worlds away, and a problem for tomorrow. The issue is, tomorrow never seems to come and action never seems to be taken.

Alternative strategies have been highlighted as more effective ways to tackle global warming, and systems thinking is one of those. The process of systems thinking is to look at global warming from a long-term perspective, and understand how things influence one another within a whole.

Systems thinking takes a step back and looks at the bigger picture of climate change, instead of taking a fragmented and individualistic approach, as we currently are. The concept encourages the world to address climate change as a collective, highlighting the core actions we need to take and laying out a clear pathway in which aims are to be achieved.

Systems thinking as an approach can be used to anticipate unintended consequences from actions taken concerning the planet. This includes understanding environmental burdens and benefits that come from both climate action and climate change, and taking responsibility for the damage we have already caused.

The hard evidence exists, shown clearly in these emission gap reports. Until the issue is treated like an emergency, and until there are repercussions for nations and corporations who do not take action quickly enough, it's difficult to see how this gap will be closed.

Learn more

There will be several talks around alternative climate change strategies at this year's Festival of Debate. The festival is hosted by Opus, the same social enterprise that publishes Now Then, including Tackling Climate Change Using Systems Thinking, which will explore this idea further. The talk will be online, taking place on Saturday 18 May, 1-2.30pm, and is free to attend.

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