#ThisIsACrisis: 7 harsh realities of the global climate crisis

As humanity's negative impacts on the planet continue to grow, a new landmark report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is warning that the time period we have left to avert an "age of environmental breakdown" is growing rapidly smaller. Here, edie rounds up seven of the report's key findings.

#ThisIsACrisis: 7 harsh realities of the global climate crisis

edie rounds up the key facts outlined in the IPPR's 'this is a crisis' report

If you’ve been on Twitter this week, chances are that you’ll have seen messages bearing the hashtag #ThisIsACrisis, which typically warn that policymakers across the globe have – to date – failed to grasp the scale of the multiple environmental and social sustainability crises facing the world.

The hashtag was borne by the IPPR after the launch of its landmark report of the same title, which was published on Tuesday (12 February). The report argues that a combination of issues such as global warming, soil degradation, unsustainable land use and biodiversity loss are creating a “new domain of risk”.

According to the 44-page document, which draws on dozens of scientific studies and statements from thought leaders, this new “highly complex and destabilised” domain is putting key social and economic systems around the world “at risk of collapse”

Specifically, it warns that global environmental issues will soon lead to a systemic financial collapse across the globe, which could be worse than that of 2008 and further widen the gap between the world’s richest and poorest people.

“In the extreme, environmental breakdown could trigger a catastrophic breakdown of human systems, driving a rapid process of ‘runaway collapse’ in which economic, social and political shocks cascade through the globally linked system,” the report warns.

“Across the world, our negative impact on the environment extends ‘beyond’ climate change to encompass most other natural systems, driving a complex, dynamic process of environmental change that has reached severe levels.

“This new risk domain affects virtually all areas of policy and politics, and it is doubtful that societies around the world are adequately prepared to manage this risk.”

The report highlights the scale of the multiple environmental crises which have reached a “tipping point” in more detail, citing facts which lay bare the most pressing challenges faced by humanity on both a local and global level.

Here, edie rounds up seven of the report’s key facts and stats, which prove that the sustainability challenges being faced worldwide are now far more wide-reaching than climate change. 

1) Extreme weather events are happening much more frequently

The main body of the report begins with the citing of a number of shocking statistics around the global increase in natural disasters and extreme weather events which are increasingly being linked to human activity.

The IPPR claims that the number of floods experienced across the globe every year has increased by a factor of 15 since 1950s, with the figure standing at a factor of 20 for extreme temperature events and seven for wildfires.

These trends are already generating direct, negative impacts on local societies and economies. Across the world, the report states, extreme weather events were responsible for $326bn of economic losses during 2017 – a figure almost three times higher than in 2016.

As well as being detrimental to financial systems, extreme weather events are increasingly disrupting local infrastructure and causing sickness, poverty and death, the report states. It cites floods as the worst event for mortality and droughts as the most dangerous driver of ill health.

2) Emissions are speeding up the global temperature increase

Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in its landmark report that a global temperature increase of 1.5C was likely to be surpassed by 2030 without “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes” in all aspects of society. Any increase beyond this point, the Panel concluded, would significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

The IPPR report highlights this conclusion in its examination of global warming, adding that the 20 warmest years since records began in 1850 have been in the past 22 years.

It re-iterates prior scientific research which has proven that Earth is already more than 1C warmer than pre-industrial times, while warning that rising carbon emissions have “locked us in” to a further temperature increase in the coming months and years.

Specifically, the report states that the world has already “crossed the boundary” for the maximum atmospheric concentration of CO2 under which “dangerous destabilisation” is guaranteed to be avoided. The limit is a CO2 concentration of 350 parts per million (ppm), while current levels are stagnating at around 405 ppm.

3) Biodiversity is under threat

Warming and extreme weather events, coupled by factors including deforestation and increased chemical use across the agricultural sector, are spurring the extinction of up to 58,000 species every year, the IPPR claims.

According to the report, extinction rates for flora and fauna are now up to 1,000 times higher than the ‘background rate’ – a level which has been “unseen since the time of the dinosaurs”.

A key conclusion is that extinction rates have been particularly high for insects, with some populations having shrunk by more than 60% since the 1970s. This finding comes in the same week that a separate study revealed that insects – which are vital for pollination and, therefore, food system security – could vanish within the next century.

 4) Human activity is degrading soil

In addition to insect loss, the report highlights human-caused soil degradation and erosion as a key threat to global food systems. It claims that, globally, topsoil is now being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished by natural processes, with three-quarters of all arable land having been degraded to some extent.

Deforestation is cited as a key cause of this problem, with other factors including poor farming practices and rapid land use changes also highlighted.

While referring to rainforests and farms across nations in the southern hemisphere, the report also lays bare the scale of the problem at a local level, claiming that 2.2 million tonnes of topsoil are lost in the UK every year.

The problem is particularly pronounced in East Anglia, where 85% of fertile topsoil has been lost since 1850. The remainder is likely to be lost within 60 years.

5) Human activity is also acidifying oceans

Drawing on recent research which found that global warming has heated the oceans by the equivalent of one atomic bomb explosion per second for the past 150 years, the IPPR report cites rising carbon emissions as a key cause of marine degradation.

It states that oceans absorb around one-quarter of all manmade CO2 emissions every year, and that this absorption has increased the average acidity of ocean water by 26% since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Damage in this field is likely to become greater and happen faster if policymakers and corporates continue on a “business as usual” trajectory, the report concludes. In the worst-case scenario, it claims, ocean acidity could increase by 170% by 2100 against an 1850 baseline, creating a habitat which is “unliveable” for coral.

This finding comes shortly after a separate study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that global warming is likely to change the colour of oceans by 2050, as plankton populations fluctuate and ecosystems change.  

6) The plastic tide is yet to turn

Looking back since that episode of Blue Planet 2 launched in late 2017, it is clear that businesses, consumers and governments alike have ignited a worldwide revolt against single-use plastics.

But action to tackle the global plastics pollution problem – which is now resulting in 12 million tonnes of plastic entering oceans and waterways every year – has not been fast enough to avoid a “tipping point”, the IPPR claims.

The report states that global plastics production has increased from two megatonnes in 1950 to 407 megatonnes in 2017, with only 9% of all virgin plastics produced to date having been successfully recycled.

It specifically highlights a steep rise in plastic production and pollution levels since the start of the 21st century. A key statistic is that, of all the virgin plastic produced since 1950, half has been created in the past 13 years.

Our increasing dependence on plastic, the IPPR claims, has left no natural habitat uncontaminated. The report highlights the fact that all ocean habitats studied by researchers to date, from British coastlines to the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, have been found to contain either micro or macro plastic pollution.

7) Food systems are not future-proof

Of the numerous issues highlighted by the IPPR, the majority are forecast to have “drastic” impacts on the global food system in the coming decades.

The paper warns of the vulnerability of food systems that rely on just five animal and 12 plant species to provide 75% of the world’s nutrition. This lack of diversity, the IPPR claims, weakens resilience to the growing risks of climate disruption, soil deterioration, pollution and pollinator loss.

The think tank additionally forecasts that these risks will lead to an average decrease in crop yields of 10% by 2050 – the date at which the global population is predicted to surpass 10 billion for the first time. In some regions and for some commodities, this decrease could reach 50%.

Sarah George

Comments (3)

  1. Ken Pollock says:

    I trust that readers of edie are too intelligent and well informed to regard this stuff from IPPR as worthy of note. Most of what they say is wrong or at least questionable.
    1. Extreme weather events are not getting more frequent
    2. What is the "dangerous destabilisation" to be caused by CO2 levels? They claim that the levels are "stagnating" at 405 ppm. Pretty serious effect for a 16% increase over the ideal of 350 ppm, and about one third the optimum level for plant growth
    3. Does anyone believe that 58,000 species are becoming extinct every year?
    4. The soil has been treated the same way for generations. East Anglian soil is disappearing because it is peat – and that oxidises when disturbed. Has done for generations.
    5. Ocean acidification much mentioned. It used to be pH8.3. Now it is pH8.2. That is still very alkaline. Neutral is 7.0 and it is a logarithmic scale. The word is totally inappropriate, and only used to scare the ignorant.
    6. Plastics are universal and essential. We just need to dispose of them properly – ideally by incineration, to liberate heat and electricity.
    7. Crop yields have been increasing continually for decades. We eat better now than ever. What is wrong with people eating a lot of maize, wheat and rice? Note that NASA says the planet is getting greener, as we grow more forests and crops.
    This IPPR report is a political statement referring to Jeremy Grantham’s asset management company’s report and not scientific papers.
    Read Paul Homewood for a comprehensive debunking of the whole scare story…

  2. Ellie Callard says:

    Ken, I trust that you have scientific or peer-reviewed articles to base your critique off. No the IPPR is not a scientific report, however it does reference a large number of peer-reviewed articles which I can only assume you also have to back up your statements. I don’t think Paul Homewood (the retired accountant with no biographical information on his blog) quite ticks the box here. Surely we are too intelligent and well-informed to regard your comment as worthy of note (without any credible sources).

  3. Ken Pollock says:

    Alice C, I respect your criticism, but these comments are hardly the place to give such references. I mentioned Paul Homewood as his "Not a lot of people know that" website explores the full data behind these alarmist statements. I have found them convincing without knowing anything of Mr Homewood himself. He relies on published data that often goes back to 1760 or so. "Since records began" might just mean the satellite records of no more than 40 years!
    For what it’s worth, I have four degrees in agricultural engineering, including a PhD in agricultural pollution, and retain a very sceptical frame of mind – especially when viewing the sort of stuff Grantham puts out.
    I have no axe to grind. Others often want to change the basis of our society. Hence their enthusiasm for EVs or hydrogen as a fuel, without any appreciation of the source of the energy needed, or an understanding of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which I used to teach!

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