Global warming: is time running out?

By Published November 1, 2021

The world is under unprecedented pressure to avert climate change catastrophe. The 2015 Paris Agreement committed nations to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius - 1.5 degrees preferably - through sweeping emissions cuts. But since that landmark deal, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, along with the frequency and intensity of climate-fuelled disasters. Much hinges on the outcome of the 12-day United Nations climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow from October 31, 2021. It has been billed as the last, best chance for humanity.

Economic impact of climate change

Climate change could cripple economies, both rich and poor. A report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in September said the number of climate-driven disasters, like floods and heatwaves, had increased fivefold over the past 50 years, costing US$3.64 trillion in total losses. Climate change could wipe up to 18 per cent off global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050 if global temperatures rise by 3.2 degrees this century from pre-industrial levels, according to the world’s largest reinsurer, Swiss Re Institute.

Cost of natural disaster losses worldwide

Climate-fuelled disasters in 2021

Impact on global GDP

How rising temperatures could hit GDP: four scenarios by 2050.

Causes of climate change

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, absorb infrared radiation and trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, which leads to global warming. Many greenhouse gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, such as nitrous oxide (N2O). Others are the result of human activities, like burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transport. The top three greenhouse gas emitters are the United States, China and the European Union. Energy production accounts for more than 70 per cent of emissions.

Annual global carbon dioxide emissions

Evidence of climate change

Human activity has helped push global temperatures up by 1.1 degrees since 1880, the year accurate record keeping began. That might seem small, but it’s an unusually large amount in less than 150 years, scientists say. Climate experts have warned that temperatures could increase by 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial levels in the next two decades — and as much as 2.7 degrees this century — which could potentially be catastrophic for Earth. Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster: their glaciers contain enough water to raise the oceans by several metres.

Impact on China

China burns half the coal consumed worldwide for most of its electricity needs. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and the most carbon intensive. Burning it affects air quality and raises temperatures, both seen as contributors to extreme weather events. Average temperatures in mainland China rose by 0.24 degrees every decade from 1951 to 2019, higher than the global average. The number of days with heavy rainfall, when more than 50mm fell over 24 hours, rose at the rate of 3.8 per cent every 10 years from 1961 to 2019. Flooding damages property and infrastructure, and impacts agricultural and industrial production.

Droughts and flooding in major Chinese cities 1760-2018

China’s fight against climate change

China, which contributes about 30 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions output, aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060. This means adding no more emissions to the atmosphere than what’s being removed. Doing so will put pressure on China’s energy-intensive sectors, as it requires phasing out fossil fuels for clean, renewable energy.

China’s energy mix

Edited by Andrew London
Additional research by Eric Ng and Han Huang
Cover illustration by Adolfo Arranz
Creative Director Darren Long

Sources: Statista, Emergency Response Coordination Centre, The Week, Swiss Re Institute, Our World in Data, BP, NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, National Snow and Ice Data Center, The Ministry of Water Resources of the People’s Republic of China, Bernstein, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, China Meteorological Administration, Nasa

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