End of the world as we know it is just ahead

Delegates to Cop 22 climate summit in Morocco warned that mass extinction of wildlife species is just a matter of time.

Mangroves at Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi – an environment rich in wildlife and part of the nation’s heritage. Liz Claus / The National
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ABU DHABI // Mass extinction of species, how to boost economic growth without harming the planet and the effects of mass agriculture are all issues to be addressed at the Cop 22 summit.

The meeting in Morocco, which began this week, follows last year’s Paris Agreement, where 196 countries committed to reducing global warming to less than 2°C.

One of the major discussion points is that the Earth is heading towards a sixth mass extinction – the worst spate of species dying off since the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

According to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report, the extinction could result in a 67 per cent decline in wild vertebrate populations by 2020.

Scientists are beginning to understand how humans rely on the biodiversity of species, and the more wildlife that becomes extinct could threaten human development.

That development, according to the report, is beginning to take its toll and a need for a “great transition,” towards an ecologically sustainable future, is at hand.

The report states that the world has moved from the Holocene era, which began about 12,000 years ago as the human populations expanded, to the Anthropocene era, when for the first time a single species – humans – has a greater effect on the Earth more than natural processes.

“During the Anthropocene [era], our climate has changed more rapidly, oceans are acidifying and entire biomes are disappearing – all at a rate measurable during a single human lifetime,” the report said.

The results of global warming are beginning to affect modern society and alter the lives of millions.

The report said there is a correlation between natural disasters, social and economic pressures and food and water insecurity with an increasingly strained environment.

Conflicts over water security increased by four-fold increase in the last decade and, according to the Pacific Institute environment think tank, are expected to be one of the major causes of global conflict in the next 20 years.

The Living Planet Index, which monitors biodiversity abundance levels based on 3,700 species, showed a decline of 56 per cent since 1970. The loss of life is mostly attributed to habitat loss, over-exploitation and climate change, a subject addressed in Morocco.

Tanzeed Alam, climate and energy director at the Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wildlife Fund, hoped Cop 22 would address this and other issues.

“Through Cop 22, we hope to see the UAE ramp up its level of ambition and encourage others from the region to come to the table, as current global pledges are insufficient to limit warming to 1.5 degrees,” he said.

“We also want to see a more coordinated approach to make ambitious targets and measures more effective action.”

Another way to measure human pressures on the planet is by measuring the human ecological footprint.

It has been estimated that the current demand requires the capabilities of 1.6 our earths to sustain the strain placed on resources.

The footprint of higher income countries far outweighs that of lower-to-middle income countries, another topic to be addressed at Cop 22.

The Living Planet Report suggested that using GDP as a measure of well-being and the pursuit of economic growth on an already burdened planet without regard to ecological effects is no longer viable.

The consequence of global warming resulting from decades of pursuit of growth in western countries was harming the planet, especially for developing countries, which have fewer means to cope with these changes.

Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, chairman of the Least Developed Countries group, an intergovernmental body of the 48 countries most at risk from climate change, said he hoped Cop 22 would work to enact “fair and ambitious action”.

“We must build upon the foundations set in Paris to construct robust rules to support the agreement’s implementation,” he said.

During Cop 21, Mr Mpanu-Mpanu and the G77, a United Nations coalition of developing nations, were fighting the issue of burden-sharing, where they said that the responsibility falls mostly on developed nations.

Their argument that developed nations are more responsible for the damage to the planet, as the US, China and the European Union countries account for more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the Global Footprint Network, consumption patterns in high-income countries result in disproportional demands on Earth’s renewable resources, often at the expense of elsewhere in the world.

Cop 22 will try to deal with this issue but also make sure developing nations do not commit the same mistakes western countries made during the industrial revolution when they were oblivious to the effects of climate change.

“Historically, we have a burden to help the poorest countries plan for that transition,” said Jonathan Porritt, founder and director of Forum for the Future, a non-profit sustainable business organisation.

“That means we’re going to [need] billions of dollars to make what for some of them is going to be a painful transition.

“The more we argue about this, the more we sound mean-minded, and I often get quite angry about that.”

The changes to the environment are also leading to disasters that take lives, such as the super-typhoons that killed thousands in Philippines and the 2013 Pakistan floods that affected 20 million people.

Aside from natural disasters, the World Health Organisation predicted that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

Mr Porritt was optimistic that resolutions could be found at Cop 22 to stave off these developments.

“Having witnessed many international treaties for 40 years, what has happened with Paris and the follow-up is astonishing. The speed with which countries have moved to ratify is unprecedented. It demonstrates the level of political leadership,” he said.

He said Cop 22 was interesting because it would also look at agriculture as a source of emissions, as well as industry.

“Up now insufficient attention has been paid to land – agriculture, forestry, protection of critical ecosystems,” he said.

“If you look at the total picture for climate change, these land-based issues are even more important than some of the energy-related issues,” he said. “Yet we continue to farm such that billions of CO2 is being released. In Marrakech, there is a lot more focused on this issue.”

Food production is one of the primary causes of climate change and biodiversity loss, as our consumption habits have shaped the unsustainable nature of agricultural practices around the world.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, agriculture occupies about 34 per cent of the total land area on the planet and roughly half of the habitable surface. Of this space, approximately a third is used to produce animal feed and another 50 per cent is used for pasture for animals.

Almost 80 per cent of agriculture land is directly allocated to the production of animal protein, yet animal and dairy products only provide about 17 per cent of calories consumed by humans.

This process accounts for 25 to 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and, with the developing world growing richer and more populated, demand for animal protein is only growing.

As such, Cop 22 will address this issue. Consumption patterns of humans have been shaped by this demand, as mass production grows the price of meat goes down. Hence, governments are being urged to consider limiting consumption habits of their populations.

Other issues of habitat loss will be discussed, with the aim of creating law-abiding associations between countries that they must share responsibility for the decline of global biodiversity.

With Cop 22 having begun and with the Paris Agreement in full effect, its time to see just how willing countries are to protect the environment, not as a favour, but as a fundamental need for the continuation of human life.