Our societies need to be transformed rapidly – there is no other way to avoid the worst effects of climate change after “woefully inadequate” international efforts to cut carbon emissions left “no credible pathway to 1.5C in place”.
That is the conclusion of The Closing Window, a report by the UN Environment Programme weighing the cuts needed to protect the planet against the promises made by governments. The “ratchet” mechanism devised at COP21 in Paris in 2015 was supposed to see countries tighten their commitments to the environment year on year in order to cut emissions in half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050, when those pledges to action should have seen temperatures peak at 1.8C.
But on its current trajectory, UNEP says, the world is heading for a disastrous rise in global temperature of 2.5C above pre-industrial levels – well above what was agreed at Paris, which was to limit the rise to well below 2C, and preferably to 1.5C. Now there is no time for tinkering around the edges – only significant societal change will do.
“This report tells us in cold scientific terms what nature has been telling us all year through deadly floods, storms and raging fires: we have to stop filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and stop doing it fast,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director. “We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.”
She added: “It is a tall, and some would say impossible, order to reform the global economy and almost halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but we must try. Every fraction of a degree matters: to vulnerable communities, to ecosystems, and to every one of us.”
One sure-fire way to curb emissions would be to move to a plant-based diet. The report explains that more than half (54 per cent) of greenhouse gases produced by agriculture between 2018 and 2020 was down to meat and livestock farming, with beef production 50-100 times more harmful for the environment than growing plant-based proteins such as lentils and beans.
Drawing attention to the fact that meat-eating has quadrupled since the 1960s, it also highlights the fact that production is projected to increase by more than 60 per cent between 2010 and 2050, driven particularly by changing diets in low and middle-income countries.
There are positive changes too, however. In Slovenia, Uruguay and Ecuador between 2010 and 2019, for example, meat consumption actually fell even though the economies were growing. In Europe and North America, plant-based diets continue to grow in popularity, with non-meat eaters now accounting for 5 to 10 per cent of the total population. Globally, meanwhile, consumption of meat substitutes has rocketed threefold, and dairy substitutes doubled, between 2013 and 2020.
Andersen said: “I’m not preaching one diet over another, but we need to be mindful that if we all want steak every night for dinner, it won’t compute.”
António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said: “Emissions remain at dangerous and record highs and are still rising. We must close the emissions gap before climate catastrophe closes in on us all.”