Scientists gathered at the Planet Under Pressure Conference in London warn that failure to drastically slash greenhouse gas emissions this decade could push the planet past certain thresholds that would keep climate change manageable, according to a Reuters report. If carbon emissions continue to rise, the overall global temperature could increase by a full six degrees celsius by the end of the century. That might seem negligible, but such changes would render certain parts of earth uninhabitable.
The Critical Decade
Executive Director of the Australian National University Climate Change Institute, Will Steffen says that this is the “critical decade.”
“We are on the cusp of some big changes,” said Steffen, according to Reuters. “We can … cap temperature rise at two degrees, or cross the threshold beyond which the system shifts to a much hotter state.”
While reducing greenhouse gas emissions now could stem the worst temperature rise, Steffen is convinced that melting ice sheets, which act as giant refrigerators for the planet, have already passed the tipping point.
“The West Antarctic ice sheet has shrunk over the last decade and the Greenland ice sheet has lost around 200 cubic km (48 cubic miles) a year since the 1990s.” Reuters writes.
Our Carbon Sink is Shrinking
And just as our refrigerators are melting away, our carbon sink – the Amazon Forest – is quickly growing dryer and smaller, and ten years of carbon emissions absorption has already been lost. The combined loss of these two crucial phenomenon and the release of carbon locked in the Siberian permafrost, will completely alter life as we know it.
The northern latitudes have experienced some of the most drastic changes in climate, Steffen notes. As this happens, billions of tonnes of carbon locked in the permafrost could gush into the atmosphere. Already giant plumes of gurgling methane have been observed, and it could get worse.
At present the fossil fuel industry releases circa 10 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Depending on how quickly the permafrost melts, we could see 30-63 billion tonnes of carbon released every year, and that number could increase to as much as 380 billion tonnes by 2100.
No Turning Back
The main message seems to be that once we hit a certain point in climate change, there will be no turning back.
Meanwhile, a binding agreement that forces countries the biggest polluters (such as China and the United States) to curb their national emissions won’t go into force until 2020. By then, it will be too late.
Image credit: Planet on Fire from Shutterstock
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