Cause and Effect | Hottest summer ever pushes our environment to the point of no return
Emperor penguins and global air quality face dire threats due to the climate crisis but commitments made at G20 hold out hope for reducing carbon emissions
The hottest June, July and August gave the world its hottest ever summer, and pushed the year down a grim path: 2023 is likely to end as the hottest year ever.
Yes, climate deniers would lament that the 1.5°C breached in August is just a blip (Well, scientists agree with the monthly temperature rise not being the same as the 1.5°C threshold we are trying to not breach); and that there are four months left where a freak winter could bring the annual average temperature down.
Scientists have pre-empted these arguments as well, and said that the amount of heat the oceans are absorbing now is likely to make this the hottest year ever.
“Looking at the additional heat we have in the ocean surface, the probability is that 2023 will end up being the warmest year on record,” Samantha Burgess, deputy director of EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, told AFP.
The word to focus on is “freak”.
The “freak” weather throughout the year, throughout the planet, has claimed thousands of lives, caused hundreds of billions worth of economic losses, and prompted a new cliched warning from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, that “climate breakdown has already begun”.
And begun it has.
Six reports, all in the last fortnight, have foretold what the future may hold if we don’t cut fossil fuel emissions.
Demise of a speciesPenguins have long been used in pop culture to evoke a certain cuteness as they are CGI-ed into balls of fluff waddling on ice. Remember Pingu? Or Madagascar?
Soon, however, they might end up just that. References in pop culture generate billions of dollars for production houses and merchandise brands, like dinosaurs.
According to scientists, up to 10,000 emperor penguin chicks are estimated to have been killed in the Antarctic, as the sea ice underneath the majestic creatures melted and broke apart before they could develop waterproof feathers necessary to swim in the freezing oceans. The birds most likely drowned or froze to death in late 2022 in the west of the continent in the central and eastern Bellingshausen Sea region.
Dr Peter Fretwell, from the British Antarctic Survey, told the BBC that the wipeout was a harbinger of things to come.
"Emperors depend on sea ice for their breeding cycle; it's the stable platform they use to bring up their young. But if that ice is not as extensive as it should be or breaks up faster, these birds are in trouble," he told BBC News.
Scientists predicted that more than 90% of the emperor penguin colonies will be all but extinct by the end of the century, as the continent's sea ice continues to dwindle.
The Antarctic sea ice reached its lowest September level of 16.834 million sq km on September 6 — the number is alarming because the region is in the dead of winter, a time when this ice usually builds back.
There’s more bad news in store for the birds of the world.
178 bird species in India are now classified as “high conservation priority”, and the sharpest decline in numbers is among species found in so-called open ecosystems or habitats, the State of Indian Birds Report 2023 said on August 25.
The air we breathe
There's still some time before the Air Quality Index becomes a trending topic of every dinner table conversation in Delhi-NCR. And so, the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) Annual Update 2023 published on August 29, might appear a bit alarmist.
But considering that air pollution is diminishing the life span of an average South Asian by 5.1 years, time is literally running out.
In India, this number rises to 5.3 years.
Zoom in on Delhi, the decked-up national capital that just hosted G20 leaders which is also the country’s most populous city, the life span of its residents is diminishing by 11.9 years due to air pollution.
If this isn’t scary enough, the Air Quality Life Expectancy report published on August 29 said that between 1998 and 2021, the average annual particulate pollution increased by 67.7%, further reducing the average life expectancy by 2.3 years.
And if this isn’t embarrassing enough for a country trying to become a $5 trillion economy by 2026; between 2013 and 2021, 59.1% of the world’s increase in pollution has come from India, the report said, flagging the human cost of development.
A not-so-natural invasionOver 37,000 alien species have been introduced in ecosystems worldwide due to human activities, a report by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services said. Of these, over 3,500 are harmful invasive alien species.
More often than not, these reports seem too isolated in their scope, the results too distant from our lives that the impact of their findings is shrugged off.
But, the Assessment Report on Invasive Alien Species and their Control found that alongside dramatic changes to biodiversity and ecosystems, the global economic cost of invasive alien species exceeded $423 billion annually in 2019, with costs having at least quadrupled every decade since 1970.
“Invasive alien species are a major threat to biodiversity and can cause irreversible damage to nature, including local and global species extinctions, and also threaten human wellbeing,” Professor Helen Roy, co-chair of the Assessment said in a statement.
An undeniable, unjust burdenBack to the high temperatures now.
Attribution analysis of temperatures in 180 countries found that the hottest summer in recorded history would have been almost impossible without the influence of carbon pollution.
Almost 98% of the entire human population, that’s 7.95 billion people, experienced temperatures that were made at least two times more likely by heat-trapping carbon pollution during this year’s boreal summer, an analysis by Climate Central said on September 7.
Between June and August, nearly 2.4 billion people in 41 countries were exposed to over 60 days with temperatures reaching five on the Climate Shift Index.
Climate Central’s CSI system quantifies the local influence of climate change on daily temperatures across the globe and estimates how much human-induced climate change shifted the odds of daily temperatures that people experience locally.
Countries with the lowest historical emissions experienced three to four times more June-August days with CSI level 3 or higher than G20 countries (the world’s largest economies), the analysis said.
This is evident from the State of the Climate in Africa Report 2022, released by the World Meteorological Organization on September 4.
The report said that there were 5,000 fatalities on the continent, of which 48% were associated with drought and 43% were associated with flooding. The report said the true toll was likely higher because of under-reporting.
To add perspective, per capita CO2 emissions in Africa in 2021 were 1.04 metric tons per person, compared with the global average of 4.69 metric tons per person.
Scientists are hopeful still.
On Saturday, the Delhi Declaration adopted at the G20 Summit expressed commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Note the need of $5.8-5.9 trillion in the pre-2030 period required for developing countries, in particular for their needs to implement their NDCs, as well as the need of $4 trillion per year for clean energy technologies by 2030 to reach net zero emissions by 2050,” the declaration said.
In his comments to BBC News, Fretwell said, "There is hope: we can cut our carbon emissions that are causing the warming.”
This hope, however, may yet prove counterintuitive as the use of “phasedown” and “scaling up” in the Delhi Declaration still gives wiggle room for large economies to continue investing in fossil fuels.