Managing Growing Climate Risk 50 Years after the First Global Conference on the Environment

This year marks the 50th anniversary since the first global conference on the environment was held in 1972 in Stockholm. It has also been 30 years since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992. Is it because of a failure of multilateralism, or because society simply chasing the unattainable, that climate projections have only gotten worse year after year?

In its latest State of the Global Climate 2021 report released in May 2022, the World Meteorological Organization claimed that greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification all set new records in 2021. This was despite a short-lived emission cut at the start of the pandemic in early 2020 when lockdowns brought human activities to a standstill.

Emissions need to drop consistently at a rate of 7.6 percent per year between 2020 and 2030 for the world to be on track towards the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.

The gloomy implications of global warming on various aspects of life, such as food, health, water, ecosystems, biodiversity, and disaster events, have been widely studied and communicated. Climate impacts on businesses and the military have likewise been assessed and reported. The message is consistent: unless climate change is mitigated, the world is likely to see a doomsday scenario sooner than later.

Low-carbon energy transition is the cornerstone of climate mitigation efforts. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimated that USD22.5 trillion of investment is needed between 2016 and 2050 in the power sector to make a global energy transformation happen.

Many countries have pledged net-zero goals in the last three years. Last year, investments in renewable energy dominated the new power generation capacity and accounted for about 70 per cent share of a total of USD530 billion spent. This may sound encouraging as it signals a shift in preferences towards clean energy. However, despite last year’s larger worldwide spending on clean technologies and efficiency, renewable investment still needs to more than triple in the 2020s to make the 1.5°C goal possible.

What this represents is the reality that ongoing mitigation efforts are good but insufficient. The rallying cry has been consistent: the world needs to be more ambitious in terms of the speed and scale of low-carbon transition.

Given the current emission mitigation pathway, it is hardly surprising that the Working Group III of the IPCC’s AR6 Report, which was released in April this year, announced that the world is likely to miss the 1.5°C target after all.

Two questions then arise. Why have the current mitigation responses to a time-sensitive temperature goal been largely ineffective? If simply providing climate scenarios is insufficient to deal with climate change, then what more can the international community do to minimise climate-related impacts?

In addition to strengthening on-going climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, governments need to focus more closely on varied dynamics at the community level in responding to such initiatives. Increased sensitivity to the various norms, values and preferences that different communities have in perceiving the environment and its challenges, and their sense about uncertainties and the future, can play a key role in not only reducing resistance and tension within and across different communities, but also getting all communities onboard climate-related efforts. A more inclusive approach can potentially lead to better results while preserving the cohesiveness of social fabric that is increasingly threatened by differing views on climate change.

This is where the global community stands 50 years after it came together to discuss the environment for the first time. The global community has had its successes as seen in slowed net forest loss rates over the past decade; in increased enthusiasm about low-carbon energy initiatives; and in stronger environmental awareness in society, among others. But it has also had its challenges as exemplified in the current geopolitical tensions involving Russia and the West, which have important repercussions on the energy sector and climate mitigation efforts. Other types of distractions may occur in the future, and successes and challenges on environment-related agenda will continue to oscillate as the world faces different types of adversities. Where the global community will be in the next 50 years in the fight against the changing climate thus remains to be seen.