In September this year, 200 health journals published the same Editorial, highlighting the health impacts of climate change and calling for stronger action from countries at the UN General Assembly ahead of COP26 (Glasgow, UK). Now, as the conference comes to an end, have world leaders heeded their call?
The Editorial, authored by a collection of Editor-in-Chiefs and senior management from 18 journals, begins with several key observations about the impact of global heating on health. Chief among these are the 50% increase in heat-related mortalities in the over 65s seen in the last 20 years and the decline in global crop yield potential between 1.8–5.6% since 1981 (1).
This combination of increased mortality and decreased crop yield disproportionately impact the most at-risk demographics, such as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, and the poorest communities and countries. These are often the same countries that have played the smallest roles in the development of climate change.
The authors follow these observations with new targets for the governments of leading global economies to reduce climate change and its impact on the health of global populations. Their plea includes a call for wealthier countries to reduce their emissions faster, beyond the levels agreed for 2030 in the Paris Climate Agreement and to reach net zero before 2050 (1).
The plight of biodiversity, and its perception by many world leaders as a second-string aspect of climate change, is also made clear in the editorial, which notes that all global targets aiming to protect biodiversity by 2020 were unanimously missed (1).
The proposed solutions from the authors are numerous and ambitious; they prompt governments to intervene in the redesigning of transport systems, food production, financial markets and healthcare in order to deliver these goals. Ultimately, the Editorial calls for unprecedented funding from wealthy nations, both within their own economies and in the support of developing nations experiencing the inflated impacts of the climate crisis.
So, with things in Glasgow drawing to a close, how have world leaders addressed each aspect of these requests, and to what extent have the COP26 outcomes risen to the challenge set to them by this coalition of journals?
An essential result to come out of this meeting includes the addition of several states to the Global Methane Pledge, initially formed in September 2021. This pledge requires signatories to cut their methane emissions 30% by 2030. Methane is often overlooked as a pollutant due to its comparatively rapid clearance from the atmosphere, yet the gas has a warming potential 28-times greater than that of CO2(2).
The pledge now includes over 50% of the top methane emitting countries. What’s more, the goal seems relatively realistic; a UN report recently revealed that a 20% decrease in methane emissions could be realized with ‘low-cost mitigation measures,’ while changing trends in the shift from omnivorous to plant-based diets could provide a further 15% reduction. The target seems so achievable that Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (Brussels, Belgium) described targeting methane emissions as ‘low hanging fruit’ for tackling climate change(2).
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Forty-five countries have pledged to invest in sustainable farming practices and to take ‘urgent action.’ While methane produced by livestock often draws most of the attention on farming’s contribution to the climate crisis (most methane emissions are actually released by the oil and gas sectors, rather than agriculture (2)) the vast amount of land required for the production of crops to feed livestock is often overlooked (3). This huge land requirement and the resulting deforestation, coupled with traditional farming practices that strip soil of nutrients and biodiversity, create a huge carbon imbalance.
However, this pledge makes no reference to limiting the production of livestock, to the consternation of charities such as Compassion in World Farming (Godalming, England). The organization’s report, Breaking the taboo: why diets must change to tackle climate emergency, released just before this pledge, indicates that there is no way to limit global warming to 1.5oC without limiting the production of livestock. Instead, the US$4 billion pledge focuses on the development of more resilient crops and solutions to restore soil health (3).
India has pledged to derive half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 but has committed to reaching net zero by 2070 (2). Meanwhile, China has committed to reaching net zero by 2060, as has Saudi Arabia, although the Gulf state will not include the emissions released by oil that it exports in its calculations of net zero and has stated that it will not reach these targets by decreasing its sale of oil.
All of these pledges are beyond the UN recommendation of reaching net zero by 2050; however, a University of Melbourne (Australia) study offers a ray of hope: according to the study, if delivered, India’s pledge could bring total global warming down below 2oC for the first time.
In another key area that many had hoped India could help to dramatically improve, over 40 countries have now agreed to move away from burning coal to generate energy. Unfortunately, India, alongside other key coal users such as the USA, China and Australia, has not joined the pact (4). It must be recognized that India is still developing, and much of the country’s economy relies on coal, particularly as a sector that provides jobs for some of India’s most impoverished communities.
With China, India and the USA making up over 70% of the world share of coal consumption, this pledge is unlikely to make much of an impact on the amount of carbon released due to the burning of coal, which accounted for 37% of the world’s electricity production in 2019 (4).
New methane targets go some way towards creating a new frontier on which to fight emissions, and therefore partly answer the call for more stringent emissions targets. However, the list of critical countries that have failed to commit to net zero by 2050 or to divorce their energy production from a reliance on coal is unlikely to assuage the Editorial’s authors on this demand.
Coal outcomes from COP26 do; however, hold one good news story. South Africa have been granted US$8.5 billion from the USA and the EU to help facilitate the country’s transition away from coal dependence. This is the first time such a deal has been proposed and is an encouraging indication of wealthy nations’ attitudes towards their responsibility to assist developing nations to hit climate targets.
This is supported by the UK’s pledge to commit £290 million of new funding to countries across Asia and the pacific to help them prepare for the effects of climate change, in addition to the UK government’s commitment to double its international climate finance by 2026 to £11.6 billion.
COP26 has also made an effort to secure support from the private sector with 450 companies, controlling a total of US$130 trillion in assets, signing on to 2050 net zero targets (9). However, as these targets have yet to be defined, it is difficult to put much stock into these promises at this stage
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The Glasgow Breakthroughs
Perhaps the most significant and exciting financial commitment for the shared benefit of the world is a new initiative named The Glasgow Breakthroughs (10). The EU and 40 other nations, including China, India and the USA have signed up to deliver cheaper, more accessible and attractive clean technology solutions in “…each emitting sector globally before 2030.”
To do this, the participating nations have signed up to assist in the development of technologies in at least one of four key sectors: power, road transport, steel and hydrogen.
Some governments are optimistic about the economic opportunities of such a proposal, with the COP26 site claiming that these initiatives could create “20 million new jobs globally and add over US$16 trillion across both emerging and advanced economies.”
However, faith in the timely delivery of all this extra finance may be limited. In 2009, it was agreed that by 2020, US$100 billion would be received by the developing world from the public and private sectors of the world’s wealthiest nations in climate finance. As it stands, this target is not due to be met until 2023.
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A total of 137 countries have committed to ending deforestation and to begin regrowing forests by 2030, a vital move in protecting some of the world’s most important and fragile carbon sinks. This pledge centres around six goals:
- To protect forests and other terrestrial ecosystems, and accelerate their regrowth
- To facilitate trade and development practices that discourage deforestation and promote sustainable development, production and consumption
- To make sustainable agriculture beneficial for rural communities and to build resilience into these communities, while recognising the rights of Indigenous peoples
- To develop sustainable agricultural practices and incentivise them to the benefit of both the environment and food security
- To guarantee and increase financial commitments to sustainable agriculture, forest management conservation and restoration, while supporting Indigenous peoples and local communities
- To foster economies that support forests, biodiversity, sustainable land use and climate goals
While similar previous plans to end deforestation have failed, this pledge brings with it significantly more funding and participation.
Columbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama have grouped together to form The Eastern Tropical Marine Corridor initiative. Under this initiative, each nation will expand its protected waters, until they connect with each other, leading to a protected area of 500,000 km2.
This agreement was modeled on the precedent set by Seychelles in 2016 when 5% of its national debt was written off in return for the country protecting 30% of its waters. This debt-swap style arrangement was replicated with these participating countries to fund part of the initiative (2).
Over 100 countries have also agreed to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030, helping to protect another of the world’s largest carbons sinks.
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What’s in the draft: COP26 outcomes?
The draft text for the COP26 statement, is the first to call out fossil fuels and encourage their phasing out in the entirety of COP’s history. The fact that this inclusion is being seen as a landmark perhaps highlights the scale of the challenge presented to activists and scientists in changing the perceptions of world leaders.
The most significant aspect of this draft is the requirement for countries to present their plans for reaching the goals they have signed up to by the end of 2022, adding a new layer of accountability and practicality to these agreements. Under the previous conditions of COP, countries would only have needed to provide this information by 2025, by which time, the 2030 targets would be a mere 5 years away.
Whilst there are plenty of encouraging signs, the numerous pledges of COP26 will suffer the skepticism induced by what has come before: encouraging promises followed by missed targets. Furthermore, at the time of writing, the Climate Action Tracker indicates that the actions of COP26 will decrease emissions enough to limit global warming to between 1.7 and 2.6oC, a range significantly higher than the initially targeted 1.5oC (13). One can only hope that this time, the writing on the wall is clear enough to bind countries to their pledges.
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