Code Red for Humanity – 1

The Green Lung and the Blue Lung

The Green Lung and the Blue Lung Source: Shutterstock modified by author

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment was completed eight years ago in 2013. This resulted in the Paris Agreement (signed in December 2015), with objectives to limit global warming to below 2°C by 2050 (and ideally keep this rise to below 1.5°C).

On 9th August this year (2021), the IPCC released their Sixth Assessment Report. It is both a stocktake and report card. This report identifies where we are today, how we have performed in terms of limiting climate change and what this means for the future. The UN Secretary- General António Guterres rated our performance as ‘Code Red for Humanity’.  We have failed.

It’s just a rise of 1.1°C

The Sixth Assessment Report confirmed that our planet has already heated up by 1.1°C. We know not if this is a mild fever or a moderate one. Yet, we have committed to let this fever persist and to limit its rise to 2°C by 2050.

Media releases on the issue of global warming are often accompanied by dire visual warnings of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, intense bushfires, cyclones, floods and drought. Although these events are more ferocious each year, we have also become desensitised to their more frequent occurrences. Perhaps we find comfort that these extreme weather events have all happened in the past. Further, 2050 is thirty years away. Climate change graphs extend to the year 2100 and beyond. Our generation will be long gone by then.

Calving of the Ice caps Source: Shutterstock:

In terms of carbon dioxide levels, we are currently at around 415.5 ppm. A year ago (Nov 2020), we were at 413 ppm. Offering thoughts and prayers, we continue our ascent up the Keeling Curve at 2.5 ppm each year or 0.1°C every 4.5 years. The media and politicians promote the wonders of renewable energy. Surely, science will find the answers in time and we will prevail. If that is the case, why is a temperature rise of less than 1°C over the next thirty years and an annual carbon dioxide increase of just 2.5 ppm, cause for such alarm?

The Blue Lung and the Green Lung

Our planet has two lungs, the blue lung  (the oceans) and the green lung (the forests). The algae, marine flora and terrestrial vegetation, all convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. This has kept the concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere in check over the entire geological epoch of Holcene (the last 11,600 plus years). Since the industrial revolution from around 1800 onwards, emissions from anthropogenic sources have caused carbon dioxide levels to progressively rise.

In 2019, global emissions had risen to an estimated 42 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The oceans removed about 30% of these carbon dioxide emissions and the forests removed another 26 %. The blue lung and the green lung together mitigated approximately 56% of all carbon dioxide emissions. In 2019, the combined lung capacity of our planet was 23.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum.

Carbon balance 2019- Copyright: Luke Gracias

Impact of Covid – 19

In 2020, due to the impact of COVID -19, greenhouse gas emissions dropped by about 7% to 39 billion tonnes. Although lower, it was still above the existing planet lung capacity of 23.5 billion tonnes and so levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere continued to build up. To our dismay, we now found that air pollutants (aerosols which cause smog and haze) masked the warming that would otherwise have been caused by greenhouse gases trapping heat. The reduction of masking from pollution combined with greenhouse emissions in excess of our planet’s lung capacity meant our planet continued to heat up.

The 2015 Paris Commitments to 2030 

If we meet all the Paris 2015 commitments (which many nations are struggling to honour), our carbon dioxide emissions will be at 52 to 58 billion tonnes per annum in the year 2030. [1] This is ten to 16 billion tonnes per annum more than 42 billion tonnes emitted in 2019. 

Deforestation and Hotter, Acidic Oceans

Today, we have about 3.7 billion hectares of remaining forests on Earth. We have already removed 17% of our green lung capacity. By 2030, our world population will have increased from 7.6 billion to 8.3 billion. We can only accommodate 700 million more people on our planet, by further deforestation of about 500 – 700 million more hectares.

As the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has increased, the oceans have thus far increased their absorption too. The oceans have consistently removed about 30% of our carbon dioxide emissions. Each year, more and more carbon dioxide has dissolved in our oceans and converted to carbonic acid. It has come at a price. The pH of our oceans has already dropped from 8.2 to 8.1. pH is a logarithmic scale, a drop of 0.1 represents a 30% increase in the acidity levels. 

Chemistry teaches us that the solubility of gases decreases in hotter and more acidic oceans. Thus far the temperature has increased by 1.1°C and the pH decreased by 0.1. If the oceans get more acidic, we can only expect, that at some stage, the concentration of carbonic acid in the oceans will rise sufficiently to hamper gas absorption. Temperature rise also deters gas absorption. We are reducing the capacity of the green lung and throttling the blue lung too.

In 2019, we emitted 42 billion tonnes and our forests and oceans had the capacity to remove 23.5 billion tonnes. In 2030, we plan to emit about 52- 58 billion tonnes. We are expecting the oceans and forests to remove more and more carbon dioxide whilst dismantling their ability to do so. You do the math.

COP 26

The other important gas dissolved in our oceans is oxygen. The Sixth Assessment Report found that the dissolved oxygen levels in the oceans has already begun to fall. This is the only available oxygen to all fish and marine life. The blood oxygen content of our planet is dropping.

In early November this year (2021), more that 100 heads of nations met in Glasgow at COP 26. COP refers to the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This is the main forum which decides the world’s climate change commitments. It was the 26th such conference. In February 2022, we expect to see the roll out of more urgent calls to decarbonise and more stringent legislation on carbon dioxide emissions. 

What new rules would you see fit to remedy this situation? 

No Shadow without Light

Social media has taught us that people will believe what they want to believe. People find facts to justify their narrative. I hope you can prove the facts which justify my narrative are fiction. Nothing more than another conspiracy theory. Right or wrong, please discuss it with your networks for controversy drives debate. Awareness, the catalyst to change, is spread by discussion.

No Shadow without Light – Historical fiction on the environmental challenges we face today

My novel ‘No Shadow Without Light’ is written allegorically as a historical fiction thriller to share an environmental message. I plan to put a few blog posts and pod casts out along these lines. Would this be of interest? 


[1] Global warming of 1.5 C, Special IPCC Report 2019, p18 

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