For 10,000 years, human civilisation has grown and thrived because of Earth’s remarkable climate stability and rich biological diversity. In the last 50 years, human activity has severly undermined this resilience. Our patterns of economic growth, development, production and consumption are pushing the Earth’s life-support systems beyond their natural boundaries. The stability of these systems—our global commons on which we so fundamentally depend—is now at risk. The science is clear that we are now accelerating towards tipping points and that the consequences of inaction will be catastrophic for humanity. The time to act is running out1.
This is a Planetary Emergency. The definition of an emergency is a dangerous event requiring immediate action to reduce risk of potentially catastrophic results. The impacts of climate change and ecological destruction are more severe and are manifesting themselves earlier than many scientific predictions in previous decades had foreseen. The most authoritative global scientific assessments2 conclude that without major interventions, the risks will soon reach a critical stage. We need to stabilise the climate at 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, halt the loss of biodiversity, slow polar ice sheet melt and glacier retreat, protect critical biomes and store more carbon in soils, forests and oceans. This is how we will guarantee the long-term health and well-being of both people and planet. To do that, however, our response to this complex emergency must reflect the intricate links between life on our planet and the systems that regulate it. It must address the convergence of crises and tipping points which have created this Planetary Emergency. We have no more time for incremental, siloed policy action.
2020 is a “Super Year” for international policy action. It is the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. It is the first opportunity for nations to increase climate ambition and meet 2050 net-zero goals. A new treaty on the oceans will be agreed. Biodiversity targets will be announced. And 2020 will mark the beginning of the decade to scale action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This decade must be a turning point, the moment when the world bends the curve, averts the impending disaster and opts instead to embark on the fastest economic transformation in our history. Declaring a Planetary Emergency provides a new compass for nations and injects the essential urgency into decision-making. It will ensure that all action from 2020 will be taken in light of its impact on the stability of Earth’s life-support systems, and be underpinned by the social and economic transformations needed to secure the long-term health and well-being of people and planet. While our efforts should be global, our responses must be local. They should be tailored to local needs, resources and cultures to ensure they have maximum impact and work to everyone’s advantage.
A Decade of Action: Emerging from Emergency
The existential risk is real. Yet, the opportunities to not just avert disaster but to rebuild, improve and regenerate are readily available. History has shown that humanity is remarkably resilient. We are well adapted to respond to disaster through cooperation and innovation. But the potential consequences we face this time are different—we have a narrow window to act now to reduce risk or avoid catastrophe. We don’t know how to reconstruct the cryosphere, the hydrological cycle, the rainforests, coral reefs and all other life-support systems on Earth. Once the emergency fully manifests itself, it will simply be too late to reverse the breakdown. As well as halting climate change and protecting nature, these efforts will improve health, livelihoods and equity and create more liveable and sustainable cities and rural communities.
Our proposed commitments and underpinning action are of the scale needed to respond to the emergency facing people and planet. Our aim is to protect the Global Commons through 10 clear commitments, and ensure they are met by immediately implementing a set of transformational policy and market levers. This is our insurance policy to emerge from emergency and guarantee a just transition for all.
We invite nations to discuss the case for a Planetary Emergency Plan. We propose such a plan be founded on the urgent need to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, to reach carbon-neutrality by 2050, while halting biodiversity loss and protecting essential Global Commons. Such an initiative is consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and improve quality of life. We can emerge from emergency to a world which benefits all species, within planetary boundaries and leaving no one behind. This is the world we envisage, and the world to which we must all aspire.
The Rationale for Emergency Action
The science is clear: the climate and biodiversity are fully integrated and interdependent. Every year since the Industrial Revolution, land-based and ocean ecosystems have absorbed close to half of all emissions from fossil-fuel burning. Without nature’s ability to absorb and store our GHG emissions, we would have already exceeded 2°C of warming, with potentially disastrous consequences. Breaching this threshold of warming could push the planet towards irreversible and catastrophic biosphere feedbacks6.
When climate change alters a chink in the planetary system, it can set off a chain of negative feedback loops. Increasing droughts, for instance, are reducing the ability of tropical forests to store carbon, making them more prone to fires, releasing yet more GHG emissions. The significant loss of the Cryosphere has reduced the albedo capacity of key Earth systems to reflect heat away from the planet. The higher the temperature, the more permafrost thaws, with greater emissions of both CO2 and methane, leading to even greater warming and triggering further negative feedback loops.
At least one million species risk disappearance, many within decades7. Food chains could disintegrate and vital ecosystems collapse. Species diversity and ecosystems integrity play a fundamental role in regulating the climate, water cycles, carbon sequestration and food production.
The increase in costly, extreme weather events around the world is symptomatic of the increasing instability of our climate system. Accelerating sea-level rise from polar ice sheets threatens millions in more intense storms. Loss of mountain glaciers and snowpack threaten reliable water supplies for billions, from the Indian sub-continent to the American West. Fundamental changes to the environment threaten to undermine the progress we have made in health and life expectancy. More heat stress, for example, reduces labour productivity and causes more deaths, particularly in mid- and low-latitude regions. Fires from intentional burning in agriculture spread to neighbouring farms and forests, damaging soil carbon capacity and productivity. Declining crop yields in tropical and sub-tropical regions will increase undernutrition for many millions, stunting children’s growth. Land-use changes, pollution and temperature rise are causing more infectious and mosquito-borne diseases.
Current economic assessments of planetary changes are deeply concerning and global economic and societal risks of accelerated planetary pressure are unimaginable. Yet we know that the costs of action are far less than the cost of inaction. The tools we need to respond boldly to the Planetary Emergency are readily available, and they will reap significant societal and economic benefits. The IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C (SR 1.5) tells us that remaining at or below 1.5°C remains physically, technically and economically within our reach if we act at sufficient speed. Over the next 10 years, we can steer our development path onto one which benefits all humanity and allows economies in transition to leapfrog and immediately seize the opportunities from a low-carbon, well-being economy.
Authors & Contributors
- Sandrine Dixson-Declève (The Club
- Owen Gaffney (The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Researh, Stockholm Resilience Centre)
- Johan Rockström (The Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research)
- Anders Wijkman (The Club of Rome)
- James Lloyd (Nature4Climate)
- George Biesmans (The Club of Rome)
- Contributors and Partners:
- Amy Leurs (Future Earth)
- Andy Haines (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)
- Bernadette Fischler (WWF-UK)
- Chad Frischmann (Project Drawdown)
- Chandran Nair (The Club of Rome)
- Claude Martin (The Club of Rome)
- Daniel Klingenfeld (The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research)
- Gail Whiteman (Lancaster University, Arctic Basecamp at Davos)
- Herbert Girardet (The Club of Rome)
- Hunter Lovins (The Club of Rome)
- Ian T. Dunlop (The Club of Rome)
- Jinfeng Zhou (The Club of Rome)
- John D. Liu (Ecosystem Restoration Camps; Commonland Foundation)
- John Fullerton (The Club of Rome)
- John Schellnhuber (The Club of Rome)
- Juliana Gärtner (The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research)
- Kaddu Sebunya (The Club of Rome)
- Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir (The Club of Rome)
- Luc Bas (IUCN)
- Maja Göpel (The Club of Rome)
- Mamphela Ramphele (The Club of Rome)
- Mark Wright (WWF-UK)
- Matthis Wackernagel (The Club of Rome)
- Nebojsa Nakicenovic (IIASA)
- Pam Pearson (International Cryosphere Climate Initiative)
- Peter Johnston (The Club of Rome)
- Petra Kuenkel (The Club of Rome)
- Sara Stefanini (Mission 2020)
- Sharon Johnson (The NewNow, NAMATI)
- IPCC Special Report on Global Warming 1.5°C (2018), IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019) and IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019)
- https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet PIIS0140-6736(15)60901-1.pdf
- https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/09/safeguarding carbon-stored-indigenous-and-community-lands-essential-meeting-climate