20 May 2021

Mitigation, adaptation and regenerative co-evolution of the climate crisis

Dr. Jennifer M Gidley
20 May 2021

Mitigation, adaptation and regenerative co-evolution of the climate crisis

Dr. Jennifer M Gidley

Abstract

This paper explores the current scientific research on climate change, including mitigation, adaptation, and regenerative co-evolution. It looks at where we need to go to turn things around. The paper also discusses the recent US-led Climate Summit and to what extent it will help. It includes some vital regenerative innovations and initiatives, with promising examples.

 The rising awareness of the climate crisis

It is now widely accepted among scientific and other research circles that the complex issue of anthropogenic [1] climate change endangers our entire civilizational futures as it tracks a path to radical, rapid, and potentially irreversible changes in the global ecosystem in the relatively near-term future –within a century. Climate scientists agree about several critical impacts:

  • That a warming planet increases the risk for large numbers of the global population;
  • That we must keep the warming below 2 degrees Celsius, to avoid catastrophe;
  • That global warming results from the industrialized human lifestyle;
  • That runaway climate change is potentially irreversible.

I accept the science that argues this change is anthropogenic. I am deeply concerned that the changes projected will increase the risk for large swathes of the global population. This is potentially irreversible unless humanity takes drastic, immediate action. In the foreseeable future, the rapid melting of polar glaciers and sea ice will significantly raise sea levels, inundating many small island states, low-lying countries, and large coastal megacities. This will drive mass migration on a scale not seen for 10,000 years.

Almost 30 years ago, there was already sufficient concern at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) [2] was agreed on and signed. In this agreement, it was formally acknowledged by 36 signatory countries that anthropogenic climate change was already well underway.

In 2008, the IPCC [3] Chair, Rajendra K. Pachauri, deplored the lack of adequate attention and action that has occurred despite the 1992 agreement, noting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions had increased by a startling 70 percent between 1970 and 2004. [4] Then seven years ago, the 5th IPCC Assessment Report (2014) stated: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” [5]

The United Nations Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (2015) reported that floods, storms, and other extreme weather events have killed 606,000 people since 1995. Oxfam reported in 2020 that extreme weather has displaced 20 million people per year in the last decade:

“Climate-fuelled disasters were the number one driver of internal displacement over the last decade – forcing an estimated 20 million people a year from their homes… [80 percent] live in Asia, home to over a third of the world’s poorest people.” [6]

The UN World Meteorological Organization told us in November 2020 that Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs) continued to break records every year, in spite of a small reduction in 2020 related to Covid shutdowns. “Since 1990, there has been a 45 percent increase in total radiative forcing – the warming effect on the climate – by long-lived greenhouse gases, with CO2 accounting for four-fifths of this.” [7]

However, despite the weight of scientific evidence, the politics of climate change is not so clear. Some political and business circles still deny that climate change is happening, while others accept climate is changing but claim it is part of natural cycles. In the domain of big oil and coal, there are even more sinister issues. The publication in 2015 of an email from oil giant Exxon Mobil’s in-house climate expert, Lenny Bernstein, revealed that Exxon both knew about climate change as early as 1981 and spent millions funding “climate change deniers” for almost thirty years. [8]

Mitigation and adaptation

There are two main strands of work being undertaken in the broad area of climate futures: climate mitigation, which is essentially a global issue, and climate adaptation, which is largely a local issue. I will first look at some key components of mitigation, focusing on the two main approaches: reducing greenhouse emissions and carbon capture. Then I will look at two kinds of adaptation: passive adaptation and active co-adaptation. The latter refers to co-evolutionary community adaptation through social learning, which enables small-scale, bottom-up mitigation through restorative and regenerative practices.

Mitigation: From emissions reduction to carbon capture

Climate change mitigation involves research, design, and implementation of strategies that will slow, and preferably reverse, the current unsustainable climate trends, particularly global warming. The seriousness with which mitigation needs to be tackled on a global scale can be summed up in the following statement from IPCC 2014.

“Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence).” [9]

The single most powerful strategy for mitigation is the global reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across various sectors—energy, transport, building, industry, agriculture, forestry, and waste. While much of the effort to reduce GHG emissions focuses on industrial and household emissions, a UNDP Report noted how changing land-use patterns in the developing world “drives carbon flows into the atmosphere [with] tropical deforestation as a major source of rising carbon emissions [especially] in the Brazilian Amazon–the largest area of tropical forests in the world.” [10]

The latest mitigation thinking is that reducing GHGs is vital, but not enough to prevent the worst-case scenarios of the climate crisis. We also need to focus on carbon capture or carbon sequestration. Besides reducing deforestation, we need to plant billions of more trees. A great example is the Great Green Wall of Africa project. [11] Other newly emerging means of carbon capture include regenerative agriculture and restorative and regenerative ocean farming involving growing kelp, seagrasses, and mangroves. They provide the means to connect global mitigation strategies with local and regional co-adaptation strategies. We will discuss these below under regenerative co-evolution.

Adaptation: From passive adaptation to active co-evolution

In contrast to mitigation, which must be tackled on a cooperative global scale because of the global nature of anthropogenic climate change, adaptation relates more to the local and regional effects of this global challenge.

The IPCC argues there are limits to the effectiveness of adaptation, especially with greater magnitudes and rates of climate change. [12] Even if the best possible scenarios for reducing and stabilizing GHGs, as recommended by the UNFCCC, were achieved, projected climate change events would still require significant adaptation.

It is widely believed by many climate scientists today that neither mitigation, at the levels currently operating, nor passive adaptation, which is “fitting into”[13] predetermined conditions, will be enough to prevent some of the most dire environmental and human catastrophes in the coming decades. What we need to do is to co-adapt or co-evolve, meaning to “make suitable,” whereby a more active two-way interaction is possible. [14]

This active adaptation or co-creation evokes human agency. We humans are the ones who created this catastrophe. We are the only ones who can lead us out of it.

Why we need regenerative co-evolution in climate futures 

Until the important Paris Agreement [15] was signed in 2016, most nations were not prepared to commit to anything like the targets that have been recommended. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Paris Agreement is encapsulated in the following statement.

“The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

The gap between the ambition of the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5 and the actual commitments made by nations so far points to a trajectory of temperature increases in the range of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which would be catastrophic. As summarized by Jill Duggan, Executive Director of the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) Europe, in her comments after the 2021 US-Lead Climate Summit:

“Temperature increases of around 3 degrees … may not sound like much, but these small average temperature increases will be truly catastrophic—causing widespread droughts, flooding, mass migrations, water shortages, species loss, and the proliferation of invasive species.”

Not to mention the demise of the vast ocean, already at a tipping-point, in terms of heating, acidification, loss of species, and bleaching to the death of coral reefs. We need to urgently switch from old energy systems using GHG-emitting fossil fuels to renewable energies and dramatically increase carbon capture strategies to prevent the most catastrophic effects of global warming.

We need to take a much longer-term view of our environmental and ecological systems, tipping towards ecosystem collapse. We need to re-invent, re-create, and regenerate all our ecological systems, so they are not extractive or even merely sustainable, but restorative and regenerative both on land and in the ocean.

2021 Climate Summit: Is this a turning point?

The US-government-led Climate Summit in April 2021, under President Biden, is the first chance to bring the US back to the Climate Table after four years of US denialism. The Summit, which brought together 40 world leaders, made some impressive advances. These talks must translate to action, not just from the US but all nations.

Most significantly, President Biden has committed the US to cut its Greenhouse Gas Emissions in half by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. Canada, Japan, and the UK also raised their targets, with the UK promising a 78 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2035; Japan aiming for a 46 percent cut by 2030, and Canada proposing a 40-45 percent cut from 2005 levels by 2030. The European Union also pledged to cut emissions by 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030. All of these pledged to reach “net Zero” emissions by 2050. These are significant moves if implemented. There were also some disappointments at the Summit.

As an Australian, I am disappointed and embarrassed by the Australian Prime Minister’s lack of demonstrated commitment to either raising targets or to reducing coal production. However, with some of Australia’s largest coal customers in Asia, such as China, Japan, and South Korea, moving away from coal, Australia will have nowhere to go if it does not soon reduce its coal production in line with other nations. Furthermore, China, the world’s largest carbon emitter; India, the world’s third-largest carbon emitter; and Russia, the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter, all made vague promises but offered no new pledges or specific targets.

On the positive side though, numerous restorative and regenerative initiatives have emerged in the lead-up to the Summit. Here are a few significant examples.

 Regeneration on the land

Global warming, especially the warming of the land, threatens the urban, mostly coastal, lifestyles that many of us enjoy. Out of control wildfires plague all continents. In terms of food production, global warming has several detrimental impacts: temperature increases leading to heat stress, water scarcity, changing weather patterns, and rising sea levels that lead to contamination of irrigation water. Good fertile agricultural land is also being lost as a result of rapid urbanization. [16] So, our food and water security are already at risk, even without global warming and sea-level rise.

The regenerative agriculture movement in Australia and elsewhere is a very important step in securing future food supplies in climate-vulnerable countries. As an arid country, which has for some time imported 90 percent of its food, the UAE has been a significant contributor in pro-actively improving its food security through hydroponics and vertical farming. It has also committed to innovative food production, including introducing new agricultural technologies.

A recent example is of an Abu Dhabi AgTech start-up securing a $100 million investment from a Kuwaiti business to expand its sustainable greenhouses across UAE and Saudi Arabia. It is not surprising that US Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, called on the UAE to partner with the US, the UK, Australia and other countries, to champion agricultural innovation as part of Climate Action.

The Agricultural Innovation Mission for Climate was launched at the Climate Summit. AIM for Climate will involve significant investment in agricultural innovation and Research and Development to reduce emissions in the agriculture sector (currently at 24 percent of all greenhouse emissions), increase food and water security, and create new economic opportunities, including employment.

The UAE has already created a dedicated open-source “Food Research Platform” to promote best-practice scientific research on food and food-producing systems. Significantly, AIM for Climate will not just benefit well-resourced nations but will share its research and technology to help farmers in developing nations cope with the effects of climate change.

Other initiatives announced at the Climate Summit by the US Energy Secretary include the $1 billion LEAF Coalition (Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance), building on work by the EDF and involving the UK, the US, and Norway, along with nine leading companies. Secondly, the US will partner with Canada, Norway, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to create the NET Zero Producers Forum. And thirdly, the US will partner with Denmark to “zero out emissions in the global shipping industry.” The International Windship Association (IWSA) [17] is doing vital work in this direction and would be a significant partner in zeroing emissions within global shipping. This point leads us to what is being done to regenerate the ocean.

Regeneration in the ocean

The ocean has already absorbed about 90 percent of the excess heat from global warming since the middle of the last century and is reaching a saturation point. Increasing ocean temperatures affect all marine species and ecosystems. The high levels of CO2 being emitted are absorbed into the ocean, causing acidification, which leads to coral bleaching and loss of breeding grounds for marine fish and mammals. ocean heating causes thermal expansion, greater storm surges, and hurricanes, and ultimately significant sea-level rise, inundating coastlines as we are already seeing and threatening the ocean food supply for humans.

The US Energy Secretary announced at the Summit they would be focusing on developing new technologies for carbon capture, energy storage and industrial fuels. Ironically, some of the best carbon capture technologies are provided by Nature for free. In addition to rainforests, ocean or marine forests and meadows are highly significant.

One of the best examples of carbon capture on earth is found in the ocean in what is called “Blue Carbon.” In a 2021 UNESCO report assessing its 50 marine World Heritage Sites, it is noted that everyone knows that forests capture and store carbon. What is less well known is that the forests of the ocean and rivers – seagrass meadows, mangrove forests, and tidal salt marshes – capture and store carbon “30 times faster than forest.” [18]

Unlike land forests, according to Oscar Serrano, an Australian Blue Carbon expert, and a lead author of the UNESCO Report, these forests of the ocean “work to furnish beaches and elevate the shoreline and seafloor, and thus not only store carbon but physically counteract sea-level rise.” Australia holds around 40 percent of these UNESCO World Heritage Blue Carbon reserves, with Australian blue carbon ecosystems sequestering 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year (the equivalent of the emissions from 4 million cars). The Blue Carbon Lab, Deakin University Australia, is partnering with the James Michel Foundation in Seychelles, helping the country to remain a “net carbon sink.” [19] Other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) could follow their lead.

Another great hero of carbon capture is giant seaweed or kelp. It is extremely efficient in soaking up carbon. It grows extremely fast – up to a meter a day – can be used in a wide range of products, from food, to bio-fuels, to industrial products and cosmetics, and unlike forests on land, it is not subject to wildfires. An advocate of the benefits of farming giant kelp and other types of seaweed is Bren Smith, author of Eat Like a Fish [20] and founder of the GreenWave movement of regenerative ocean farmers. [21]

Seaweed has long been part of the human food supply but went out of fashion in recent decades when fast food became so readily available. Other activist groups involved in carbon capture methodologies, such as Climate Clean-up [22] based in the Netherlands, and Project Drawdown [23] based in the US, have researched and promoted the value of giant kelp and other sea vegetables in both carbon capture for climate and also to supplement food supply as climate crisis continues to bite home on traditional agriculture and seafood.

 Concluding reflections

 In this paper, I hope to have made it clear that mitigation and adaptation alone are nowhere near enough to prevent the catastrophic projected impacts. These projected impacts include melting of polar ice caps and thermal expansion causing sea-level rise; increasing super-storms and wildfires; food shortages from loss of arable land to drought, floods and contamination; and the demise of the ocean through heating, acidification, coral bleaching, and the loss of breeding grounds for marine fish and mammals.

While drastic mitigation measures must be taken urgently to reduce GHGs to net zero emissions by 2050, passive adaptation alone will leave tens of millions displaced each year, particularly in poorer regions. As the outcome of the Climate Summit has indicated, nations and corporations must work together relentlessly to reduce emissions to net-zero.

But we must also build adaptive capacity. Most importantly, we need to fast-track carbon capture solutions, such as regenerative agriculture, and restorative, and regenerative ocean farming. If humanity as a whole can pull together in these ways, without further delay, to co-evolve our future, we will slowly, but surely, begin to regenerate land and ocean.

 

References:

[1] Anthropogenic means: caused by our industrialized human lifestyle over the last century.

[2] The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international legally binding instrument signed in 1992 by 36 countries. http://enrin.grida.no/htmls/tadjik/vitalgraphics/eng/html/unfccc.htm

[3] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the leading international body for assessing climate change. Established by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988, it provides a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007 Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, R.K. Pachauri and A. Reisinger, Editors. 2007, IPCC: Geneva, Switzerland. p. 104.

[5] IPCC 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer, Editors. (2014, IPCC: Geneva, Switzerland, p.1).

[6] “Forced from Home: Climate-Fuelled Displacement”. (Oxfam International, December 2020).

https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/forced-home-climate-fuelled-displacement

[7] From the World Meteorological Organization media report (November 2020, Geneva). https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/carbon-dioxide-levels-continue-record-levels-despite-covid-19-lockdown

[8] Goldenberg, S. Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, the email says – but it funded deniers for 27 more years. The Guardian, 2015.

[9] See Note 5. IPCC 2014, p. 17.

[10] Volpi, G., Climate Mitigation, Deforestation and Human Development in Brazil, in Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world (2007, UNDP, p. 2).

[11] https://www.greatgreenwall.org/about-great-green-wall

[12] See Note 5. IPCC 2014, p. 19.

[13] Ison, R., N. Roling, and D. Watson, Challenges to science and society in the sustainable management and use of water: Investigating the role of social learning. Environmental Science and Policy, 2007. 10(6): p. 499-511.

[14] See Note 13. (Ison et al., 2007)

[15] The Paris Agreement is an agreement within the UNFCCC, on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance, created during the Paris COP21 (December 2015) and signed in early 2016.

[16] See Gidley, Jennifer, M. (2021) “Grand Global Futures Challenges and Innovative Policy Opportunities.” published by TRENDS Research & Advisory. https://trendsresearch.org/insight/grand-global-futures-challenges-and-innovative-policy-opportunities/

[17] IWSA facilitates and promotes wind propulsion for commercial shipping worldwide and brings together all parties to develop a wind-ship sector to shape industry and government attitudes and policies. http://wind-ship.org/en/grid-homepage/

[18] Duarte, C., M, et al., Custodians of the Globe’s Blue Carbon Assets. 2021, UNESCO: Paris, France.

[19] Blue Carbon Lab – Seychelles Blue Carbon Project. https://www.bluecarbonlab.org/seychelles-blue-carbon/?sf143549003=1

[20] Smith, B., Eat like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman turned Restorative Ocean Farmer. 2019, Sydney, Australia: Murdoch Books.

[21] https://www.greenwave.org/

[22] https://climatecleanup.org/

[23] https://drawdown.org/

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