Blacklock: Gaps in climate action are a danger to our health

Blacklock: Gaps in climate action are a danger to our health

The 2020s are the make-or-break decade for decarbonization

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At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the bulk of the world’s nations came together and agreed to prevent “dangerous” interference with the Earth’s climate systems. It took another13 years to agree on a definition of dangerous. In 2005, that looked like anything more than 2 degrees C of global heating. The definition has since been revised; it’s become apparent that 2 degrees C of temperature rise is significantly more dangerous than 1.5 degrees C, and even that isn’t looking so safe anymore.

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Now “safety” is the opposite of dangerous, and if you’ve been reading my recent columns, you will recall that I’ve focused in on how we might apply the research regarding patient safety in hospitals to the task of improving the prospects for human safety on Planet Earth.

Safety is not exactly the same thing as health, but as way too many people have learned through traumatic life experiences, it’s difficult to be healthy if you are physically or emotionally unsafe. The last time I was in the UK, London subways featured signs reminding travellers to “Mind the Gap”, that is, the gap between the platform and the train. Gaps can be dangerous, and we’ve got some very serious gaps to mind when it comes to climate change.

The first dangerous gap we face is between what science requires and what the world’s nations are currently pledging to contribute to the decarbonization process. Such pledges are referred to as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs.

Physics and math are uncompromising disciplines. You really can’t bargain with them. Science dictates what’s required to prevent the planet’s overall temperature from rising into the dangerous range. There are direct connections between our emissions of greenhouse gases, the levels of those gases in the atmosphere, and the amount of heating we provoke. We know what’s required to limit temperature rise, and it involves a rapid and virtually complete decarbonization of the global economy. Based on pledges that arose from COP26 last November, we might just manage to keep warming below 2 degrees C.

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However, there’s a second gap to consider. It’s easy enough for governments to make pledges, but quite another thing to contend with the powerful vested interests of the fossil fuel industry and other stakeholders, not to mention the whims of voters. Based on the actual policies being implemented by governments around the world to date, we are headed into much more dangerous territory: at least 2.7 degrees C, and possibly as much as 3.6 degrees C of heating. The impacts on human health and safety will be catastrophic.

Canada is a small country, population-wise, and we’re responsible for about 1.5 per cent of global emissions. Some would see this as an excuse for inaction. However, we’re near the top of the charts when it comes to per capita emissions, at 15.2 tonnes per person per year, thanks to our relatively affluent lifestyles and our fossil fuel industry. (Compare with USA: 14.4; China: 7.1; UK: 5.1 tonnes.)

Last fall, Canada updated its NDC, pledging to reduce our country’s emissions by 40-45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050. Laudable goals, no doubt, and rated as “almost sufficient” by Climate Action Tracker (CAT).

However, in terms of actual policies and actions, our country is helping push the world towards an extremely dangerous 4 degrees C of warming. That gets us a rating of “highly insufficient”, and puts us in the company of China, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

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By way of comparison, the USA gets a merely “insufficient” rating and the UK scores an “almost sufficient”, for policies and actions put in place to date.

The 2020s are the make-or-break decade for decarbonization. The choices we make over the next eight years will determine the stability of Earth’s climate systems. It’s our own health and safety that are at stake. Our governments need to hear from us.

Dr. Elaine Blacklock (aka @KidsClimateDoc) is a Sudbury pediatrician, science writer and active member of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). Dr. Blacklock is currently immersed in writing a book about climate change and our health.

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