A record breaking summer – in all the wrong ways
Not only did temperatures peak in the summer of 2018 but we also witnessed the earliest ever Earth Overshoot Day – falling on 1 August, this is the date each year at which point humanity has used up more of the planet’s resources than the planet will be able to renew
Only time will tell whether the record-breaking temperatures we enjoyed during the summer of 2018 will become as fabled as the now infamous summer of ’76. Statistically speaking, it should be remembered as significant, as it was the hottest on record for England and the joint hottest for the UK.
Michael le Page, New Scientist climate change reporter, highlighted on BBC Radio 2 that, while the higher temperatures might have been enjoyable to many in the UK, they were uncomfortable for people who found it difficult to sleep or keep cool and, “for some people, it’s more than an inconvenience; probably about 1,000 deaths of elderly and vulnerable people could be attributed to hot periods like this… We’ve really got to get serious about preparing for a change in climate.”
Professor John Appleby, chief economist of the Nuffield Trust health think tank, concurs. He explains the wider impact that the heat wave had on services, indicating that “July 2018 was the most pressured summer month for A&E departments in recent history, showing that there’s no doubt this summer’s heatwave has caused severe strain on the NHS”, with heart failure, kidney problems and dehydration also linked to higher temperatures.
The impact of a warmer climate was felt right across the northern hemisphere. According to the Guardian, the heatwave was responsible for new temperature records being set across a number of continents, and “heat stroke or forest fires have killed at least 119 in Japan, 29 in South Korea, 91 in Greece and nine in California. There have even been freak blazes in Lapland and elsewhere in the Arctic circle”.
Yet, in much of the UK at least, there seems to be a societal laissez faire attitude towards the issue; a laid back acceptance that government will work it all out and a solution will be found in time for any long-term irrevocable damage to be avoided.
It is remiss, and irresponsible, to simply assume that this will be the case.
In a recent ‘long-read’ for the New York Times Magazine, Nathaniel Rich gave a stark warning. Bearing in mind that the world has warmed up more than one degree since the Industrial Revolution, the Paris climate agreement was intended to limit warming to two degrees. However, the Paris climate agreement is not only nonbinding and unenforceable but, even if it was globally enforced and the agreed goals met, the odds of limiting warming to just two degrees are still stacked against us, at just 20 to one.
Rich described what the impact would be on the planet if we do succeed in limiting warming to two degrees – a feat that is thought to be our best-case scenario: we will have to “negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf”. Climate scientist James Hansen refers to this two-degree ‘success’ as “a prescription for long-term disaster”.
Rich went on to explain that three, four or five degrees of warming are far more realistic eventualities, all of which are likely to lead to much more short-term disaster: “forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities… Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable… The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization”. This is corroborated by the United Nations, which warned at the end of 2017 that the world is now on course for three-degree warming, which “will ultimately redraw the map of the world”.
Sadly, rising temperatures and the knock-on effects – on food production, on political and civil instability as natural resources are lost and habitats become uninhabitable, and on dangers posed to life and livelihoods from extreme weather – are not the only consequence of damaging human behaviour.
Another alarming headline from August was that Earth Overshoot Day – the date each year at which point humanity has used up more of the planet’s resources than the planet is able to renew in the entire year – fell on 1 August this year, which is the earliest day it has ever fallen on. At our current rate of consumption we use 1.7 earths each year, from overfishing and overharvesting forests, and in emitting more carbon dioxide than can be absorbed. It’s chilling to note that, if all countries behaved in the same way as the UK, Earth Overshoot Day would happen much earlier, on 8 May. And the UK is not the worst offending country.
There has also, quite rightly, been a renewed outcry about plastic in 2018. The New York Times reported in January that “Ever since China announced last year that it no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump,” recycling about half of the globe’s plastics and paper products, Western nations have been puzzling over what to do [with the recycling they would usually export]… The answer, to date, in Britain at least, is nothing… Experts say the immediate response to the crisis may well be to turn to incineration or landfills — both harmful to the environment.”
What’s more, there has been a particular focus on the increasing levels of plastic in the oceans and its impact on sea-life. Thanks in large part to Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, in which a turtle was shown tangled in a plastic sack, and whales were shown to be suffering from chemical contamination of plastics in the ocean, society has seemed to be more conscious of the issue. But, according to the World Economic Forum, oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish by 2050 and, over time, plastics break down into dangerous microplastics that can absorb toxic substances and travel up the food chain.
Undoubtedly, there are plenty more areas in which humans are damaging the planet; the concerns outlined above are probably just a few of the most well-known. But, thankfully, “we don’t have to give up”, as Lonneke Holierhoek, chief operating officer at The Ocean Cleanup, urges. The Ocean Cleanup has, for five years, been developing a 600 metre floating clean-up system to collect five tonnes of plastic per month from the ocean – it will be launched next week in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Holierhoek explains: “Generally, the large problems of the world are quite often more complicated than it looks [and] this problem is not as simple as ‘Let’s just clean it up in the ocean and the problem goes away.’ There needs to be changes. We have contributed to this problem since the 1950s, as humanity. What is out there is out there. If no one goes and gets it, it will stay out there.”
The ultimate goal of the project, which was founded by Boyan Slat at the age of just 18, is to clean up 50 percent of the patch in five years, with 90 percent reduction by 2040. That Slat came up with this idea and had the skills and passion to pursue his goal at such a young age is really impressive and, once again, the role of education in equipping all young people to identify and solve problems in this way is going to be paramount for the future of the world. All generations to date have failed to solve these pressing problems – so our hope lies in tomorrow’s consumers, workers, parents, voters and leaders – which is why we are delighted to be partnering with Planetari, a new educational platform to provide 100 million children in five years with the knowledge and skills they will need to become innovators, entrepreneurs and global citizens who protect the planet and ensure the wellbeing of all its inhabitants.
The Ocean Cleanup and Plantari are not alone in their efforts to provide solutions. There are many individuals and organisations working to solve these pressing problems. Will Smith’s ‘ethical’ brand Just Water recently launched in the UK – the premise of the water being that bottles are comprised of 82 percent renewable resources (mostly paper from sustainably-managed forests), and the water is more sustainably and responsibly sourced from local communities. Skipping Rocks Lab, founded by three London-based design students, similarly addresses concerns around packaging and aims to ‘make packaging disappear’. The team’s first creation – an ‘edible water bottle’ named ‘Ooho!’ and made of tasteless seaweed – is hoped to replace plastic bottles.
There seems to be no end to other innovative yet simple alternatives to reduce the use of unnecessary packaging – from bees wax cloth alternatives to cling film; packaging-free bars of toiletries, from shampoo to deodorant, and moisturiser to mouthwash, from shops like Lush; supermarkets like Morrison’s allowing customers to take in their own containers to the deli, butcher or fishmonger to be filled; and organisations like our local Daily Bread Co-operative, which welcomes individuals to refill their own bottles with washing up liquid and hand soap.
The Earth Overshoot Day organisation also explores solutions – under the four following headings: Cities (with 80 percent of the world expected to be city-based by 2050, city planning and urban development strategies are essential); Energy (decarbonising is our best chance to address climate change); Food (how we meet our basic need to eat offers a powerful way to influence sustainability – with locally sourced food, and avoidance of highly processed foods, likely to reduce the damage caused); and Population (addressing population growth – in part through empowering and educating women around the world – is essential if we are to ensure everyone can live secure lives in a world that has finite resources).
Addressing energy, there are already providers offering 100 percent renewable energy to consumers at competitive rates, and companies like Schneider Electric have partnered with the Global Footprint Network to demonstrate how existing technologies can help to move the date of Earth Overshoot Day – potentially by 21 days through retrofitting existing building, industry and datacentre infrastructure, and upgrading electricity production. If the date of Earth Overshoot Day could be moved later by five days each year, we could hope to live sustainably on the planet by 2050.
Individuals can monitor their own Earth Overshoot Day to work out what the global Day would be if everyone behaved in the same way as they do, and the more we can each think of how to address these factors in our day to day lives – whether at home or in our work places – the higher the chance of us moving Earth Overshoot Day back; reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in landfill or in the ocean; and halting our impact on rising temperatures.
Nathanial Rich posed the following question in his New York Times article:
“Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this? That we came so close, as a civilization, to breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels can be credited to the efforts of a handful of people [who] risked their careers in a painful, escalating campaign to solve the problem, first in scientific reports, later through conventional avenues of political persuasion and finally with a strategy of public shaming. Their efforts were shrewd, passionate, robust. And they failed.”
Our challenge, to ourselves and to everyone else, is to commit to making changes in our everyday lives before it’s too late, and before the next generation starts to ask us the same questions.