Governments around the world will be gathering in December this year to sign a new global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Johan Rockström, Professor of Global Sustainability, Stockholm University, looks at what needs to be agreed in order to avoid potentially devastating impacts of climate change.

On 22 April this year, the world marked the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, established in 1970 to draw attention to environmental challenges. Never have those challenges been greater or more urgent than they are today. The combination of climate change, erosion of biodiversity, and depletion of natural resources is propelling the planet toward a tipping point, beyond which objectives like sustainable development and poverty reduction will be more difficult than ever to achieve.

Since 1970, scientists have learned not only that human activity is the primary driver of environmental change on Earth, but also that it is pushing the planet beyond its natural limits. If we do not make big changes fast, the results could be devastating.

Global leaders seemed to recognise this when they agreed five years ago to limit global warming during this century to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – the threshold beyond which we risk triggering more devastating consequences of climate change. But strong action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has not been taken. On the contrary, emissions have increased markedly; as a consequence, last year was the hottest year on record.

The world is now on track to deplete its remaining ‘budget’ for CO2 emissions, which now amounts to less than one trillion tons, in just 25 years. The result would be catastrophic changes like unmanageable sea-level rises, devastating heat waves, and persistent droughts that create unprecedented challenges in terms of food security, ecosystems, health and infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, the poorest and most vulnerable will be the hardest hit.

We must change course. This Earth Day should serve as a reminder – and, indeed, a catalyst – of what the world really needs: strong and sustained action. Fortunately, 2015 may mark the beginning of just such a change for the better.

This year, world leaders will meet three times to chart a new path for our planet. In July, they will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the Conference on Financing for Development. In September, they will convene to approve the Sustainable Development Goals, which will guide development efforts until 2030. And in December, they will head to Paris to negotiate a new global climate agreement.

The outcomes of these meetings will shape this generation’s legacy for both the natural environment and economic growth and development. By decarbonising the global economy and limiting climate change, world leaders can unleash a wave of innovation, support the emergence of new industries and jobs, and generate vast economic opportunities.

It is up to all of us to encourage political leaders to do what is needed to secure such an outcome. Just as we demand that our governments address risks associated with terrorism or epidemics, we should put concerted pressure on them to act now to preserve our natural environment and curb climate change.

Here, the scientific community has a special responsibility to share their research and its potential implications. That is why I and the 16 other scientists of the Earth League – representing world-leading academic institutions like the Potsdam Institute on Climate Impact Research, the Earth Institute, Tsinghua University, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre – have released the ‘Earth Statement’, which sets out the eight essential elements of a successful global climate deal, to be reached in Paris in December.

1. The agreement must reinforce countries’ commitment to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius

2. The agreement needs to recognise the remaining global budget for CO2 emissions.

3. The agreement should lay the foundation for a fundamental transformation of the economy, with deep decarbonisation beginning immediately, in order to create a zero-carbon society by around 2050.

4. All 196 countries in the United Nations Climate Convention must formulate an emissions pathway consistent with deep decarbonisation, with richer countries taking the lead.

5. Countries must promote innovation in clean technologies and ensure universal access to existing technological solutions.

6. Governments must agree to support adaptation to climate change and to address the loss and damage associated with it.

7. The agreement must include provisions to safeguard carbon sinks and vital ecosystems.

8. To help developing countries fight climate change, donors need to provide additional support at a level at least comparable to current global development aid.

The good news is that these eight objectives are realistic and achievable; indeed, some progress is already being made. Last year, total CO2 emissions from the energy sector remained unchanged year-on-year for the first time (in the absence of an economic downturn). And recent reports show that emissions in China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, also did not increase from 2013 to 2014.

The tide is turning. Decarbonisation has already begun, and the appeal of a fossil-fuel-free world is growing – not only because it would limit climate change, but also because it would be more technologically advanced, democratic, resilient, healthy, and economically dynamic. This is the right time to move fully onto a more sustainable, zero-carbon path.

With the right global deal, the world could finally do just that. For the sake of the planet, and the people who depend on it, let us make 2015 Earth Year.

Johan Rockström Professor of Global Sustainability, Stockholm University

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.


SIDEBAR: Environmental risks are on the rise

In January this year, the World Economic Forum published its Global Risks 2015 Report. The report, which features an assessment by experts of the top global risks over the coming 10 years, is an excellent resource for corporate secretaries seeking to keep tabs on the changing global risk landscape.

One important finding of the 2015 report is that environmental risks feature more prominently than economic ones. Water crises, for example, rated as the greatest risk facing the world in terms of impact. Extreme weather events rated second in terms of likelihood and failure of climate change adaptation was ranked fifth in terms of impact.

The top five global risks in terms of likelihood were:

1. interstate conflict with regional consequences

2. extreme weather events

3. failure of national governance

4. state collapse or crisis, and

5. high structural unemployment or underemployment.

The top five global risks in terms of impact were:

1. water crises

2. rapid and massive spread of infectious diseases

3. weapons of mass destruction

4. interstate conflict with regional consequences, and

5. failure of climate-change adaptation.

The World Economic Forum believes that the prominence of environmental risks over economic ones were not due to a diminution of the importance of economic risks. ‘This comes as a result of a marked increase in experts’ negative assessment of existing preparations to cope with challenges such as extreme weather and climate change, rather than owing to a diminution of fears over chronic economic risks such as unemployment and underemployment or fiscal crises, which have remained relatively stable from 2014,’ the World Economic Forum stated at the launch of the report.

The World Economic Forum ‘Global Risks 2015 Report’ is available at:


SIDEBAR: Ambassadors for climate action

Recognition by board members of the need to address climate change risks will be one of the critical factors determining how businesses respond to the threats and opportunities of the emerging business environment.

Globally, awareness of the importance of these issues is rising in the agenda of board members. Earlier this year, a coalition of 43 CEOs representing over US$1.2 trillion in revenue urged the world’s leaders to reach an ambitious climate deal at the ‘UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties 21’ to be held in Paris in December this year. The coalition called on government leaders and policy makers to align on global measures, to be consistent in policy-making and to develop helpful innovation frameworks.

The CEOs, who hope to act as ‘ambassadors for climate action’, also pledged their commitment to worldwide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promising to move their own businesses toward a lowcarbon economy.

‘This coalition believes the private sector has a responsibility to actively engage in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to help lead the global transition to a lowcarbon, climate-resilient economy. This coalition further seeks to catalyse and aggregate action and initiatives from companies from all industry sectors – towards delivering concrete climate solutions and innovations in their practices, operations and policies’, the open letter reads.

The letter stresses that an effective response to climate change will have to include an effective pricing of carbon to trigger low-carbon investment and transform current emission patterns.