On the 2nd birthday of the Paris Agreement and in response to the amazing August issue of the New York Times Magazine, Ellina Webb looks at the effect that rising temperatures will have on our planet and whether we’ve left it too late to reverse the damage.

The title of the article was a single sentence which adorned the August 5th Issue of the New York Times Magazine. The black cover which featured on one of America’s most iconic publications was minimal aside from the sentence and the logo in order to highlight the stark and barren reality of mankind’s effect on the planet and what we didn’t do to avoid the situation we now face.

The situation is, in its briefest form, that the consequence of human modernity is triggering life changing problems to our habitat, such as causing the temperature on planet Earth to rise – something which was understood almost 30 years ago!

The Paris Agreement effective from 14th November 2016, states that one of its aims is to reduce emissions in order to hold the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C, or at least below 2°C (against pre-industrial temperatures). This was in reaction to a 1.3°C increase identified above the average recorded in 1880. Since then researches have predicted that temperature rises could be double what was previous predicted, increasing the urgency in which countries need to reduce their emissions – and highlighting a 1 in 20 odd of achieving the aim.

But what will a rise in temperature actually do to our planet? What if its 1.5°C? What if its 2°C? What if it’s more? What if we could have capped temperatures to 1.5°C by freezing carbon emissions 30 years ago? Is it really too late to save our planet?

Sea Levels

As noted in this article on The Independent, the rate of the oceans rise is increasing by 0.08mm every year. This means the total rise between 1993 and 2100 could be 65cm – an acceleration caused by melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica.

The consequence of this means many major coastal cities are at risk of flooding or disappearing completely putting a further strain on issues such as immigration, housing, agriculture, the economy. If fact it was announced a few days ago that global retail giant Amazon are planning for a new US headquarters in Queens, New York. This location is predicted to be underwater by 2100 and in the immediate timescale will be rife with flooding.

Of course to make the problems of flooding worse, an increase in temperature of 1.5°C will see the average level of rainfall increase by 2% along with an increase in frequency of rainfall extremes over land by 17%. These numbers both double if temperatures get to 2°C.

Back to sea levels however, the difference in the flooding differs again depending on the temperature change that happens. Although the results are devastating regardless, according to a report by IPCC it is thought that a rise by 1.5°C would increase sea levels by 26 to 77cm (higher than the Independent article prediction) by 2100 and a rise by 2°C would make this another 10cm higher. This seeming ‘small’ increase would ultimately put an additional 10 million extra people at risk!

To find out more about the effects of this rise, take a look at this amazing interactive representation over on the Carbon Brief.

Animals and Plants

Over the past few years on the Hub I’ve written quite a few articles about the danger of climate change on animal and plant life including 'The environmental lessons to be learnt from Dr Seuss' and '4 fascinating species facing extinction due to climate change'. The habitats and ecosystems of these species are at major risk and any slight temperature increase will lead to some form of extinction, as we are already seeing when it comes to birds. Not only does flooding and severe weather have an effect on habitats, changing temperatures will cause confusion when it comes to migration, hibernation and breeding. In fact a 1.5°C temperature increase could mean 6% of insects and 4% of invertebrates would lose over half of their habitats, while a 2°C increase boosts these numbers to 18% and 8%.

Habitats like coral reefs are also at risk as a rise in temperature by 1.5°C would see between 70% and 90% of reefs destroyed. This increases to 99% if 2°C is achieved – as reported by the IPCC report released in October which highlights that we now only have 12 years to try and make a difference.  

In terms of fishing a change in temperature will decrease annual catches for marine fisheries, a ‘catch 22’ for the lucrative fishing industry which could potentially help put sanctions in place to reduce fishing in certain areas and help with climate change. The problem is, when it comes to proposals such as an Antarctic Ocean reserve “safeguarding wildlife, tackling climate change and improving the health of our global oceans” countries with large fishing industries reject it due to the knock on effects to their economies.

Of course the change in climate will be great for some types of animals, mainly the ‘cuddly and cute’ rat population. Of course not all rats are vermin but the rats I’m referencing here are the urban pest types whose populations are due to explode as breeding increases in warmer winters – did you know 1 rat can result in 15,000 – 18,000 new rats? Other species that will likely thrive are crop-eating insects (reducing crop yields by 25% - 50%) and purple sea urchins (aka cockroaches of the ocean).

The effect of temperature increases in the animal world has been documented quite frequently in the past year, mainly due to documentaries like Blue Planet 2. In 2019 the release of another David Attenborough masterpiece is due to take over Netflix called Our Planet and I recommend you watch the trailer. Alongside this, the latest campaign from the World Wildlife Fund includes a series of social media and TV advertisements with similar hard hitting messages. Ultimately these TV shows, ads and videos are highlighting one key element – that we have to change NOW, because the opportunity to do so stops at this generation.

Fight for your world by World Wildlife Fund As taken from the WWF YouTube Page: "We are the first generation to know that we are destroying the world. And we could be the last that can do anything about it. It’s time to decide. Are you for your world or against it?"

Heatwaves

The knock on effect of higher temperatures will undoubtedly have an effect on heatwaves and the number of hot days per year. In fact if the temperature rises by 1.5°C there will likely be a 16% increase in hot days, while 2°C will likely see a 25% increase.

In towns and cities where temperatures are already soaring due to industry, traffic and urbanisation, the increase in temperatures and hotter days will make comfort and wellbeing a bigger issue than it already it. As I have explained in a previous article here, this will ultimately put pressure on health care systems, police and transport.

Therefore the need to think differently about how to travel or how we heat and cool our buildings is very important which is why everyone in the built environment should be kept abreast of the issues and innovative solutions available to resolve this – which is a mission The Hub aims to achieve.

If you are in the built environment, issues such as WELL being, indoor air quality and energy efficiency are topics you need to look into and we have discussed them all on the Hub in articles such as:

'All WELL and good for the places we work' by Paul Groves

'Toxic times for air quality' by Ken Sharpe

'18 things you need to know about MEES in 2018' by Deane Flint

Of course adapting commercial buildings isn’t the only thing we need to do combat rising temperatures and look after occupants, our homes are important too. Therefore looking at alternative heating and hot water systems which are renewable help the UK as a whole to reduce its carbon emissions and support the Paris Agreement in achieving the aims we should have fought for 30 years ago. 

Final thoughts

To finish my article in a way that that echoes how the New York Times Magazine started their August 5th issue, ‘thirty years ago we could have saved the planet’ and now is the last chance we have.

There isn’t much more to say than that.

Ellina Webb is a Marketing Specialist at Mitsubishi Electric