April 18, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

In the wake of COP 27, "we have reached an inflection point where the chasm between action and inaction can set the planet on divergent paths," writes Jaclyn Estrin. At her round table, international governments are not the sole agents responsible for fighting climate change.

By Jaclyn Estrin (23rd November 2022)

The legend of King Arthur tells the story of a king who met with his knights at a round table. The absence of a typical head of the table signified that there was no leader. Rather, there was an implicit agreement that, when each individual took up a seat at the Round Table, it was with equal status to those sitting beside him.

I like to picture the global sustainability space as the Arthurian Round Table. Climate change is one of the most significant and complex challenges of our time, and it isn’t one party’s responsibility to own the solution. It is important that every seat at the Round Table is filled, that no voice is louder than another, and that each has an equally vital role in tackling climate change.

A version of this round table meets annually at the Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. COP brings together international government representatives, the press, and non-governmental organizations. The twenty-seventh Conference of Parties, or COP 27, concluded in the early hours of Sunday 20th November after two weeks of meetings and climate negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Each year, environmental advocates hope and demand that the results of the climate change conference end in an agreement for concrete international measures to limit global warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius increase (compared to a pre-industrial planetary temperature), a goal first adopted through the Paris Agreement during COP 21 in 2015. Scientists have indicated that capping warming levels to a 1.5 degree Celsius limit will prevent the planet from surpassing an environmental tipping point, after which extreme weather events and climate disasters could become more frequent, catastrophic, and irreversible. Imagine the inundation of coastal communities, an ice-free Arctic, intense hurricanes, bone-dry riverbeds, agricultural devastation, and frequent forest fires that tear through communities and light up the night sky. To prevent this, greenhouse gas emission reduction measures must be implemented rapidly and on a global scale.

However, COP 27 ended without a fossil fuel phase-out plan or strict agreement to reduce emissions. Instead, the language of the climate deal’s revised draft decision, published on the 20th of November, places “low emissions” energy next to renewables as a key source of energy for the future. This is being reported as a notable loophole, which could encourage the continued use of fossil fuels, albeit in lower volumes, that would still add to planetary warming.

Even the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, acknowledged the disappointment in the lack of actionable next steps. In a video message at the end of COP 27, Guterres said, “Our planet is still in the emergency room. We need to drastically reduce emissions now – and this is an issue this COP did not address.”

This year’s COP did result in one important step forward: the establishment of a “loss and damage” fund to compensate the nations who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts, yet only minimally contribute to the climate crisis. While this is a historic commitment towards justice, as UN Secretary-General Guterres lamented, “it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island nation off the map or turns an entire African country to desert.” In other words, there is still more work to be done.

There is no time to stand by and hope that another year, another COP, may produce more favorable results. We need to accelerate action against climate change, not apply the brakes.

This is where the Round Table of Sustainability comes into play. While it is essential for international governments to do their part in combating climate change, they are not the only ones who hold this responsibility. It’s time for businesses, local governments, the media, scientists, and individuals to take their seats at the Round Table and answer the call to action to drive continued progress in the development of a more sustainable world. Businesses can more aggressively pursue their sustainability goals, aligning emissions reduction targets to the 1.5-degree Celsius warming cap. The media can regularly communicate the effects of a warming planet to inform a narrative that evokes a greater understanding of climate science, while providing a voice to the environment and to the vulnerable populations disproportionately impacted by climate change. Individuals can put pressure on businesses and governments to act and take action themselves through sustainable lifestyle choices.

Poet Dylan Thomas famously wrote:

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

We have reached an inflection point where the chasm between action and inaction can set the planet on divergent paths, one in which resilient communities are established and one in which catastrophic weather events alter the very makeup of our world. Now is not the time to wait for future conversations. Now is the time to act.