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In the wake of several studies which state that the world is now headed towards irreversible climate change, the Waker Institute for Climate Change Research at the University of Reading, UK has conducted what is purported to be the first study to quantify the impact that immediate efforts to slow global warming might have. The study, published in Nature Climate Change finds that if a stringent policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were adhered to then there would be “a 50% chance of remaining below a 2 °C temperature rise target,” which would in turn “reduce impacts by 20–65% by 2100 relative to a ‘business-as-usual’ pathway which reaches 4 °C, and can delay impacts by several decades.”
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The specifics of the study’s findings are quite stark. If emissions are stringently curbed and greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2016 before reducing at 5% a year to 2050—and if global temperature rise remains below 2 °C, then between “about 100-161 million people would avoid a higher risk of river flooding,” along with millions of others who could be spared hardship from diminished crop productivity and water shortages. If we wait until 2016 to impose restrictions on emissions, and see a peak in emissions in 2030, the number who would escape flooding risks drops to between 52-120 million.
This 2 °C target has been a hot topic of conversation since the UN Climate Change talks in Doha last year. The talks, which ended with a deflating lack of resolution to reduce carbon emissions, had largely focused on efforts by negotiators to meet a goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 °C. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) predicted at the time that if emissions are not curbed, then global carbon emissions will increase to around 58 gigatons by 2020. To meet the 2 °C target, emissions would have to be cut to 44 gigatons during that time.
Whichever scenario—the 2016 peak in emissions, or the 2030 peak—the effects of global warming are already being felt throughout the world, and the hazards and hardships that temperature rise brings will invariably impact a vast number of people. But the Walker Institute’s study underscores the importance of immediate action—unlike that which was seen at COP 18 in Doha. Professor Nigel Arnell, Director of the Walker Institute explains: “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions won’t avoid the impacts of climate change altogether of course, but our research shows it will buy time to make things like buildings, transport systems and agriculture more resilient to climate change.”