Climate Action to Save the Planet

We explain how climate action incorporates mitigation and adaptation strategies and needs to be guided by climate ethics in order to achieve global acceptance. We outline the 10 important elements of a climate action plan and discuss the United Nations' Goal 13.
Climate protest in Sydney, Australia 2019
Climate protest in Sydney, Australia (2019). Photo: Marcus Coblyn/Flickr

Climate action refers to any action taken to either slow down the effects of climate change or to adapt to the consequences of it.

While individuals can contribute towards climate action, for example by reducing their carbon footprint, or switching to renewable fuels, in this article we focus on climate change actions taken on a larger scale by governments and the international community.

WORTH READING: UN Climate Talks and Timeline.

Climate Action Defined

When politicians talk about the importance of climate action, they mean climate mitigation actions to slow down global warming, or climate adaptation actions to enable the community to adapt to its fallout.

Notice, no one is talking about reversal which is no longer considered a realistic option. As global temperature projections point to an alarming rise by 2100, we’re in danger of hitting one or more climate tipping points along the way. Unfortunately, it’s too late to wind the clock back. All we can do, is minimize the damage to Planet Earth for the sake of future generations.

With that in mind, here are the two main types of climate action:

1. Climate Mitigation

Climate change mitigation, is any action which helps to slow the progress of climate change. Essentially that means, any effort which reduces the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The aim is to plug the emissions gap – namely, the difference between what emission levels are likely to be in 2030, and what they need to be if we are to reach the goals laid down by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

Climate mitigation involves switching from fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas to renewable energy from wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and biomass sources.

Mitigation plans are essential in order to limit the increase in Earth’s temperature to 2°C above pre-industrial levels – the target scientists say is necessary to prevent runaway climate change.

The development of new technologies involving carbon capture and storage is also seen as essential to help us achieve this goal.

See also: What is the Root Cause of Climate Change?

2. Climate Adaptation

Climate change adaptation involves projects that help cushion the effects of global warming on humans – that is, damage to health, as well as to homes, businesses, and community infrastructure.

Projects designed to minimize the effects of global warming on Earth, as well as the effects of global warming on the oceans, are also important. Examples include large-scale barriers to combat sea level rise, as well as other practical initiatives like ‘sponge cities’ to deal with excess flood water, or new urban designs combined with forms of ‘green architecture’ to help residents stay warm in winter and cool in summer.

Of course, adaptation isn’t really effective unless accompanied by a program of mitigation. If climate change is left unmitigated, then in the long run no amount of adaptation is likely to be effective.

Oosterscheldekering Flood Surge Barrier, Netherlands
The Oosterscheldekering surge barrier which protects the Netherlands from North Sea storm surges, is the world’s largest flood barrier. Nine kilometers in length (5.6 mi), it consists of 62 steel doors, each 42 metres (138 ft) wide. It took ten years to construct and is designed to last 200 years. Each pillar weighs 18,000 tonnes. The American Society of Civil Engineers has declared it to be one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World. If our climate crisis continues unchecked, barriers like this will soon be needed in low-lying coastal areas around the world. Image: V.Siman (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why Is Climate Action Necessary?

Unless we take ambitious and rapid action, there is a risk that Earth’s temperature will rise by 4 °C (7.2°F) by 2100. This would make it very difficult for people and ecosystems to adapt.

We are already beginning to witness a number of changes, including an increase in extreme weather events, including droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, hurricanes and tropical cyclones around the world. In the ocean, we’re witnessing marine heatwaves, as well as severe episodes of ocean acidification, mass bleaching of coral reefs and ocean deoxygenation.

In some places water scarcity is triggering crop failures and wildfires, putting people at risk of poverty and hunger. If the situation worsens, it could lead to intense conflicts and refugee movements on a scale not yet experienced. In short, climate action is necessary to sustain life on this planet, practically, economically and politically.

The Ethics of Climate Action

Climate ethics is all about what is right or wrong (fair or unfair) when it comes to taking action to limit global warming and repair our climate system. It can be expressed very crudely in the question: Who Pays?

For example, poor countries want rich countries to pay most of the costs – after all, the latter have already agreed to this by signing the U.N. Framework Convention On Climate Change (UNFCCC), in 1992. This sounds perfectly fair.

But several rich countries object to gifting funds to developing countries who are unable to show good governance. After all, what’s the point of giving climate funds if most of the money is siphoned off by crooked officials into secret bank accounts?

This is the basic reason for the impasse at recent UN climate conferences, such as COP25 at Madrid in December 2019.

The simple answer to the problem is for both rich and poor to agree mechanisms that guarantee the necessary funding, so long as good governance is clearly demonstrated. This will not be easy as trust seems to be in short supply. But there is no alternative. For more, see: The Ethics of Climate Change.

What Is A Climate Action Plan?

A Climate Action Plan is a detailed document which outlines how an international organization, country, city or town, plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and deal with the impacts of climate change. At the very least a plan will state existing emissions, reduction targets and priority actions. Ideally, a plan will also include an outline of the resources necessary to achieve the plan, and funding mechanisms.

10 Important Climate Actions

1. Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Most climate action plans begin with an emissions reduction target. This explains how (and by how much) emissions are to be reduced across every area of activity, from energy, transport, building, trade and industry, agriculture and forestry.

For example, Germany’s Climate Action Plan 2050, set a target of lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent, by 2050, and set a goal for carbon neutrality after 2050. Typically, national targets are derived from recommendations laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Nearly all countries (rich and poor) have committed themselves (in theory) to making a contribution towards climate action. This is essential. Global warming is a cross-border problem, so it must be the responsibility of all countries, to ensure emissions are reduced.

Deforestation, for example, remains a huge concern. The burning of trees in the Amazon Basin affects everyone, whether they live in Rio or Shanghai. And let’s not forget: 80 percent of the world’s land-based animal and plant species are found in forests.

Offshore Wind Farm North Sea
Offshore wind farm in the North Sea, near Copenhagen, Denmark. An average offshore wind turbine of 3.6 megawatts can power more than 3,300 EU households. Photo: © CGP Grey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

2. Switch To Cleaner Renewable Energy

Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the only way to achieve the emission reductions needed. But governments are dragging their feet.

Here’s why. In 2000, a massive 86 percent of the world’s energy came from fossil fuels. Twenty years later – despite the climate crisis – fossil fuels still account for 85 percent of world energy. This is creating a huge emissions gap and needs to be addressed.

Which is why any half-decent climate action plan now includes clear goals on switching to sustainable energy to regain control of our climate system.

There are five major types of renewable energy: solar power, offshore and onshore wind power, organic biomass, underground geothermal energy and hydropower (hydroelectricity).

Next generation renewables include marine energies like wave power and tidal power, both of which are still in development. Hydrogen energy is expensive and still in its infancy. Meantime, nuclear fusion remains rather futuristic.

For more reasons to switch to renewables, see: The 3 Benefits of Renewable Energy.

The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018) lays out renewable targets for the world. A middle path, which would help the world avoid the worst impacts of climate change, requires renewable sources to supply half to two-thirds of primary energy by 2050. 1  

The EU has set a binding target of 32 percent for renewable energy sources in the EU’s energy mix by 2030. This will increase thereafter with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. 2

NOTE
About two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to the burning of fossil fuels used for heating, electricity, transport and industry. 3

3. Reduce Energy Use

Even after the world switches to renewables, energy will continue to be a precious resource. This is because, renewable energy still requires land and public support and is to some extent at odds with nature and with conservation concerns. See also: Land Use and Climate Change.

For this reason, improving energy efficiency is a key objective in any climate action plan. The European Union has set binding targets of at least 32.5 percent energy efficiency by 2030, relative to a ‘business as usual’ scenario. 4

4. Decarbonize Electricity Generation

According to the IPCC, as far as electricity generation is concerned, renewables should supply about 70–85 percent of electricity, with fossil fuels (10 percent), natural gas (8 percent), and coal (no more than 2 percent), making up the rest. 1 

(NOTE: Doubts remain over the climate suitability of two other fuels – wood and peat. Unbelievably, both the EU and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say that wood-burning is carbon-neutral, despite strong scientific evidence to the contrary. Also, the IPCC has (strangely) accorded peat a special status between fossil fuel and biomass.)

This is undoubtedly a major challenge. In 2018, the United States sourced its electricity from fossil fuels (63 percent), nuclear energy (19.3 percent), and renewable energy sources (17.1 percent).

Electrical power plants account for the highest share of greenhouse gas emissions, so switching them to renewables will have an enormous impact on climate mitigation. Germany for example aims to phase-out coal-fired power generation by 2038 at the latest.

electric vehicles recharging at roadside power point
Electric cars including Nissan Leaf, charging by roadside. Photo: CC-by-sa-2.0

5. Reduce Transport Emissions

While vehicles have become more fuel efficient in the past decade, most of the efficiency gains have been offset by the constant rise in traffic volume. To tackle this, the EU (for example) has put forward various policy packages for transport, including the European Strategy for Low-Emission Mobility and initiatives such as Europe on the Move.

Governments are setting down targets on investment in public transport networks and new mobility services such as car and bike sharing. There is emphasis on the need to accelerate the use of electric vehicles (EVs) across the board, including passenger EV’s, electric trucks, and buses. For more on this, see: Electric Vehicles Are Best for Climate.

Decarbonizing the transport system is impossible without switching to electric vehicles. For example, some cities have committed to no longer buying diesel or petrol public transport vehicles after a certain date. New residential buildings may be required to have a certain amount of re-charging points. Grants for people to install EV home chargers may also be provided. In their 2050 Climate Action Plan, the Irish government commit to helping citizens become less reliant on cars by providing better public transport, cycle lanes and encouraging remote and home-working.

6. Protect Carbon Sinks

Protecting and renewing carbon sinks is a critical climate action. Carbon sinks are carbon reservoirs that absorb and store carbon-containing compounds for an indefinite period. The most important carbon sinks are coastal ecosystems that store blue carbon, and forests. Tropical forests like the Amazon rainforest and the Congo rainforest are especially important. Other critical carbon sinks include sub-surface permafrost, wetlands and peat bogs.

A recent study published in Science, estimated planting one billion trees could absorb 75 percent of all the emissions from human activities that remain in the atmosphere today. 5 For more, see our article: Does Tree-Planting Stop Global Warming?

Poorer countries that are able to demonstrate reductions in deforestation or in degradation of their forests, are eligible to receive compensatory payments under the REDD+ program, an international climate change mitigation mechanism developed within the UNFCCC.

Many countries are also committing to protecting or replanting their blue carbon sinks – which include mangrove forests and seagrasses as well as coral reefs – all of which are in serious decline. The UK government is planting 1 million seagrasses along their coastal waters. Mangroves are especially important for coastal communities because they also protect against storm surges.

In Ireland, peatlands represent 64 percent of total soil carbon, and the government’s Climate Action Plan reported that this “store is very vulnerable, especially to drainage for forestry, grazing and extraction.” They plan to better manage their carbon sinks by rewetting raised bogs, as waterlogged bogs provide better biodiversity; and by encouraging farmers to restore and grow hedgerows. 6

Artificial Carbon Sinks

Artificial carbon sinks, are man-made methods of capturing and storing CO2 emissions. While they are still far from meeting the demands of climate change, new projects may be supported in a climate action plan.

For example:
(1) Capturing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power stations or cement production factories, and injecting it deep under the surface of the Earth.
(2) Large scale planting of trees and plants to absorb CO2, and then burn the vegetation in biomass power stations, capture all the CO2 and bury underground.
(3) Using industrial sized fans to suck CO2 out of the air.

7. Reduce Agricultural Emissions

Agriculture contributes to climate change through the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, specifically, methane (CH4) from livestock digestion processes and stored animal manure; and nitrous oxide (N2O) from fertilizers. Lowering the emissions of these greenhouse gases is a priority for any climate action plan, not least because – on a pound for pound basis – methane is 84 times more powerful than CO2 (over a 20-year period), while nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times more powerful (over a 100-year period). For more, see: Why Are Methane Levels Rising?

A climate action plan for farmers could include a target on reducing national herd count, for example. Or encourage farmers to switch to a form of urea fertilizer to cut N20, and support better management of forests and peatlands. See also: The Nitrogen Cycle: How Does It Work?

Sponge City type of green rooftop architecture in Chicago
Ecological construction is a way to create an adequate homes, workplaces and public property for people (not too big, not to small), which also respects the environment. Chicago City Hall Green Roof. Photo: GFDL/CC-by-sa-3.0

8. Create Energy Efficient Buildings

Many cities and countries have defined a road-map towards climate-neutral buildings. This involves the gradual introduction of energy standards for new buildings, and the extensive refurbishment of older buildings. The technology already exists to build carbon neutral buildings. The real challenge is to update older buildings which are less well insulated and heated mostly by gas or oil fired boilers. Converting older buildings will make a significant impact on emissions, but will prove costly and will need institutional funding.

In the EU, buildings account for 40 percent of total energy consumption. About 75 percent of those buildings are energy inefficient. At the current 1 percent annual renovation rate it will take another century to retrofit buildings to satisfy modern low-carbon levels.

Germany has set the challenge at less than 40 kilowatt hours per square metre per year for homes, and 52 kilowatts for non-residential buildings by 2050. The European Regional Development Fund and the Cohesion Fund are committing billions of Euros annually to speed up the transition.

9. Reduce Cement Emissions

The carbon emissions used to create construction materials, like cement, are another problem. Cement emissions account for about 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions and more than 4.1 billion tonnes of cement are produced annually. 7

The cement industry has finally published a new low-carbon roadmap to improve energy efficiency. But skeptics doubt that low-emission cement can deliver the same adhesive qualities as the regular variety.

Given the fact that concrete is the world’s most popular form of building material, and that cement is an essential ingredient in its manufacture, the development of a green cement could have an enormous impact on climate mitigation.

10. Create Better Designs For Greener Cities

Most climate action plans include goals on spatial planning, or urban design. More care is taken to design towns and cities with a better mixture of residential and commercial property to reduce the need for people to commute long distances to their place of work.

China – ironically one of the world’s worst CO2 emitters – is pioneering new forms of climate-proof architecture and infrastructure. Unveiled in so-called “sponge cities“, the new designs are supposed to absorb and use floodwater, rather than repel it.

In effect, sponge cities are designed to imitate the natural environment as much as possible, by replacing glass and steel with plants, grasses and wetlands. Increased shade and transpiration from extra trees helps to produce a cooling effect. Air pollution and acid rain is also absorbed.

In 2015 the Chinese government announced the first batch of sponge cities. A total of 30 are planned by 2030.

What About Our Climate Plan?

The Paris Climate Agreement (2015) is the only international climate treaty in play. Unfortunately, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s no longer fit for purpose. For a full explanation, see: Our Climate Plan Can’t Cope.

The Cost Of Climate Action

Combating climate change, requires a major shift in investment patterns towards low carbon, climate resilient development. The infrastructure and technology to achieve this is estimated to cost US$4 trillion a year until 2030. 8 Much of this burden initially will fall on developed countries because only they have the resources to make the shift.

Under the UNFCCC, developed countries have committed to mobilizing US$100 billion per year from 2020 to support developing countries. Other mechanisms like carbon trading and climate credit schemes have raised significant funds for developing countries to address their climate change projects. Green bonds are also growing in popularity as a private source of investment for green companies. In 2016 US$95 billion was invested in green bonds, and this is projected to grow to over US$600 billion by 2035. 9

United Nations Goal 13: Climate Action

UN sustainable development goal 13 on Climate Action.
Economic losses from climate-related disasters add up to hundreds of billions of dollars annually. By 2020, Goal 13 aims to mobilize US$100 billion annually to finance the needs of developing countries to adapt to climate change and develop low carbon technologies.

Goal 13 is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals laid down by the United Nations in 2015. The aim is to “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”.

The Goal has targets to be achieved by 2030 and lays down indicators by which to measure progress. Goal 13 targets include the need: to strengthen resilience and adaptive capability to climate-related disasters; to incorporate climate-proof measures into all relevant policies; and to increase knowledge and ability to cope with climate change.

The good news is, robust climate action could deliver US$26 trillion in economic benefits by 2030. 10

Everyone Can Play A Role In Climate Action

But it’s not all about governments. Climate action starts at home, by the actions we take and the choices we make.

Begin by calculating our carbon footprint, and becoming more aware of our personal carbon emissions. Use our Carbon Footprint Calculator.

You may think that one person’s actions have little impact, but it is not true. In the West, consumer preferences exert a huge influence on new corporate products. And in the East, China is proving markedly more responsible than the United States. In 2016, for instance, the Chinese government introduced new vegetarian-friendly dietary guidelines with the aim of cutting the country’s meat consumption by 50 percent. This could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030.

Other ways for urban dwellers to make an impact include going car-free. This saves 2.4 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. For a more detailed list of actions, see How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.

Learn more about climate change denial, and how big oil companies spend millions every year downplaying the dangers of global warming. Pass on what you learn to others. In an era of fake news, well-educated arguments need air time.

References

  1. IPCC – Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR15) Summary for policymakers[][]
  2. The recast Renewable Energy Directive (2018/2001/EU) entered into force in December 2018. []
  3. Energy and Climate Change” – European Environment Agency []
  4. The amending Directive on Energy Efficiency ((EU) 2018/844) December 2018. []
  5. “The global tree restoration potential,” Jean-Francois Bastin et al. Science 05 Jul 2019: Vol. 365, Issue 6448, pp. 76-79. []
  6. Network Monitoring Rewetted and Restored Peatlands/Organic Soils for Climate and Biodiversity Benefits (NEROS) by Florence Renou-Wilson et al. Report no. 236 EPA.ie []
  7. “Why Cement is a Major Contributor to Climate Change.” Chatham House. []
  8. Financing Solutions For Sustainable Development (OECD report) []
  9. “Green bonds: mobilising bond markets for a low-carbon transition.”
    oecd.org/ []
  10. Goal 13: Climate Action.” United Nations Development Programme. []
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