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The Urgency of Climate Change Mitigation and Individual Responsibilities


Muhammad Arslan Aslam– environmental researcher and advocate currently pursuing an Erasmus Mundus MSc in Marine Environment and Resources.

Anamika Barua– Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, India, and also associated with the Centre for Disaster Management and Research, Centre for Environment and Centre for Sustainable Water Research.

Mamadee M Kamara– climate change researcher and advocate who recently completed his Master’s in Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the Asian institute of Technology, Thailand.

Climate change is not a distant threat; it is an imminent crisis that demands our immediate attention. Planetary warming and extremes thus far have already impacted ~5 billion people. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 reports paint a stark picture of our planet’s future if we fail to act. They present a call to arms, a call to recognise the urgency of mitigating climate change and for each of us to play our part in safeguarding the world we inhabit.

Rising greenhouse gas emissions

Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, primarily due to human activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, industrial processes, waste, and agricultural practices. Despite some promising efforts in emissions reductions by a few nations, the overall trend is deeply concerning. We stand at a critical juncture where the consequences of our action, or inaction, will define the future of our planet. The AR6 reports make it abundantly clear that we are on a trajectory to exceed the 1.5°C target, a threshold beyond which catastrophic climate impacts become increasingly likely. The present 1.2°C climate reveals increasing vulnerability of major planetary systems, particularly ice sheets and oceans, and an increasing frequency and intensity of extreme heat, heavy precipitation, droughts, and intensification of major hurricanes.

The urgency cannot be overstated, although there are challenges

The AR6 Working Group III report outlines various mitigation pathways, demonstrating that it is still possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C if we take immediate and sustained action. The pathways involve transitioning from fossil fuel-based energy systems to low-carbon alternatives, scaling up renewable energy sources, enhancing energy efficiency, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels across multiple sectors. However, the 1.5°C target may necessitate removal of carbon dioxide alongside reduced emissions from sectors such as transportation, industry, and land use. A 1.5°C climate target may require carbon dioxide removal (CDR) of about 500 Gt CO2 within the 21st century with negative CO2 emission technologies (NETs).

The AR6 reports also draw attention to the top 1% and top 10% of the global population, primarily the wealthiest individuals and nations, responsible for a disproportionately large share of global greenhouse gas emissions. This disparity is due to industrial activities, consumption patterns and energy-intensive lifestyles, concentrated mainly among the wealthier nations. This emissions disparity contributes to both climate and social injustice by placing a heavier burden on the poorest and most vulnerable communities. The AR6 reports therefore advocate equity in climate action so that mitigation efforts address the emission gaps without ignoring the issue of social justice. However, the fault line between mitigation ambition and equity reflects the complex dynamics of international climate negotiations. Developed countries often emphasize the need for ambitious mitigation targets and actions, while developing countries argue for climate justice and equity considerations governed by levels of responsibility for historical emissions based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The varying national interests and priorities have led to a tension between mitigation ambition and equity considerations, thus making it increasingly challenging to reach a consensus in addressing climate change. For instance, COP27 faced similar challenges in achieving consensus and tangible results on the issue of mitigation and enhancing ambition to keep 1.5°C alive. Despite the complex climate negotiation challenges, it is heartening to see that equity concerns were central to climate negotiations at COP27 and COP28, which is a significant development.

The pivotal role of individuals in mitigation efforts

The AR6 reports emphasise demand-side approaches to mitigation by stressing the need for behavioural and lifestyle changes for sustainable consumption and production. These demand-side strategies have significant potential to reduce emissions by 40-70% by 2050. Changes in consumption patterns, behaviours, and lifestyles can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Individuals can be powerful agents of change by making conscious choices, adopting sustainable practices, and reducing their carbon footprints. The message that the reports deliver is that individuals are not passive observers in this climate crisis but active participants and agents to make a difference. Every action, no matter how small, counts. For example, it is about choosing public transportation over personal vehicles, reducing meat consumption, conserving water and energy, and supporting sustainable products and businesses. It is also about advocating policies that prioritise renewable energy over non-renewables and adopting sustainable practices over unsustainable lifestyles.

The figure below highlights the critical role of individuals and the demand-side actions that consumers and businesses can initiate. Such action can help change our planet’s current trajectory towards climate change mitigation whilst ensuring climate justice. It emphasises the interconnectedness of individual actions, consumption patterns, and the broader goal of addressing the climate crisis equitably.

However, evidence also suggests that some do not perceive climate change as an imminent crisis that demands immediate attention. For instance, some individuals may reduce their support for climate action in immediate crises as they prioritise addressing the direct threat over a perceived distant threat. People often perceive climate change as a distant threat that does not personally affect them, which can lead to a lack of personal relevance and motivation to act. Furthermore, some individuals resist climate change messages and are still waiting to make the necessary investments and sacrifices to respond to the threat despite acknowledging that climate change is caused by humans. But it is important to realise that the longer we postpone action to mitigate climate change, the more challenging it will be to address them, and we will face the brunt of the severe consequences, such as increased heatwaves, droughts, flooding, and food insecurity.

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