In his scientific exploration “Enlightenment Now”, Harvard University’s DR Steven Pinker outlines how humanity is making sensational progress, citing real data that will surprise you. The data is real, verifiable and encouraging. But one challenge is highlighted as a critical need to be addressed: Climate change.
The year is 1848, Sacramento Valley is sprinkled with white powder from the heavens in a cold January. The USA is in the midst of a tense negotiation with possessors of the land, Mexico, who days later would cede their territory to the Yanks.
It’s now glaringly obvious that climate change is having a serious impact on everyday human life. We’ve recently witnessed devastating floods in Pakistan and India, and scorching drought in most of Europe. Every month seems to bring more news of severe calamity brought on by mother nature.
Clean energy is given an enormous amount of media attention these days, so much so that it’s hard to imagine that 80% of the world’s energy is still produced from the combustion of fossil fuels. And while that share is projected to drop to 56% by 2050, it’s still staggering considering we are told daily about renewable energy exploits.
Turns out timing is everything.There are moments when world events combine to rescue the truth of old lines from mere cliché.
The release of the latest landmark report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this week was one of them.
If you were to distill the thousands of pages of “Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Working Group III Contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report” detailing our shrinking window to avert climate catastrophe into a single line , it would simply be this:
Timing is everything.
Everything, because the report delineates with clinical precision the steps to something like a livable future and exactly how much time the world has for each . (Spoiler alert: Less than we thought.)
But everything also, because at a moment when the human tragedy in Ukraine has forced a global conversation on fossil fuels and our energy future, the report is exactly what the world needs to hear right now.
THREE YEARS TO TURN THE CORNER ON FOSSIL FUELS
The toplines of the report will not surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to the headlines on climate recently. In a nutshell, we have just three years – not decades – to reach the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions (aka “peak emissions”) planetwide before rapidly reducing fossil fuel use and reaching net-zero levels by 2050.
Three years, that is, to have any reasonable chance at holding global warming to something like 1.5 degrees Celsius, the danger line after which climate-fueled destruction threatens to go from “quite bad” to “downright Biblical” with projected human suffering growing exponentially with every fraction of a degree above 1.5.
The stakes are huge. Miss this goal and emissions keep rising, which the report estimates could lead to warming of 2.2–3.5 degrees (Celsius) by 2100.
PEAKING GLOBAL EMISSIONS: A MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB
Needless to say, peaking global emissions in just three years is a tall order. One of almost Everest-like proportions.
Despite years of promises by the international community and the historic accomplishment of the Paris Agreement, the report authors underscore that global emissions continued to grow over the last decade from 2010–2019.
Perhaps most concerningly with respect to 2025, a recent study shows that the first and third-greatest polluting nations – China and India, respectively – both rosebetween from 2019–2021. China’s current Paris Agreement commitment calls for the country to peak emissions “before 2030” but doesn’t specify a year. India, meanwhile, doesn’t plan to peak emissions before 2040 at the earliest.
(To be clear, India and China are not the sole villains in the global emissions picture, as both are working to develop and pull millions out of poverty. The US and EU, for example, are in no position to throw stones.)
The result, the report notes is that: “Without a strengthening of policies beyond those that are implemented by the end of 2020, GHG emissions are projected to rise beyond 2025, leading to a median global warming of 3.2 [2.2 to 3.5] °C by 2100.”
In short, the world is not doing enough. Not nearly.
THERE IS STILL A PATH TO A BETTER FUTURE. JUST.
There is an implicit note of hope here. For all the task of reaching net zero by 2050 is a huge one, we can still do it. But it’s going to take an unprecedented effort and we’re talking about making it by the proverbial skin of our 2050 teeth.
Much of the report is given to the steps we need to take quickly to accelerate just energy transition and social transformation. Some of the key takeaways here:
- It’s going to take an all-of-society approach.
- “All global modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C (>50%) with no or limited overshoot, and those that limit warming to 2°C (>67%) involve rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emission reductions in all sectors.”
- It’s going to mean shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy sources on a massive scale.
- “Modelled mitigation strategies to achieve these reductions include transitioning . . . to very low- or zero-carbon energy sources.”
- Energy transition alone won’t be enough to hold warming to 1.5 degrees – we need carbon removal technology too.
- “[D]eploying carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods to counterbalance residual GHG emissions.”
- Acting on climate and accelerating energy transition will make life better – and be cheaper than the alternative.
- “The global economic benefit of limiting warming to 2°C is reported to exceed the cost of mitigation in most of the assessed literature.”
- Wealthy nations have to step up and support developing countries at much higher levels than are currently pledged.
- “Accelerated financial cooperation is a critical enabler of low-GHG and just transitions, and can address inequities in access to finance and the costs of, and vulnerability to, the impacts of climate change.”
- The future of billions in developing nations depends on rapid energy transition and ambitious climate action.
- “There is a strong link between sustainable development, vulnerability and climate risks. Limited economic, social and institutional resources often result in high vulnerability and low adaptive capacity, especially in developing countries.”
- Perhaps most important, many of the tools we need for rapid emissions cuts – from better use of land resources to improving demand and efficiency to effective electric vehicles – are in our hands today.
THE TIMING MATTERS
There was, of course, no way for the IPCC to know it would be releasing the report at a time when the war in Ukraine is the backdrop to almost everything. And when the world is grappling with the real and wide-ranging costs of fossil fuels like perhaps never before.
But that’s exactly what’s happened. Even before Russian tanks rolled across the border, the EU was working on a new energy strategy to wean the bloc off Russian gas within the decade and – critically – accelerate the pace of clean energy transition. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyden told policymakers at a conference on February 19, “We are doubling down on renewables. This will increase Europe’s strategic independence.”
The war has – for Europe – added new urgency to this effort, with the EU now scrambling to cut its reliance on Russian gas by more than two-thirds this year. Meanwhile, in the US, President Biden has pointed to renewables as the path to not only providing true energy security and fighting global warming, but also protecting families from painful fuel prices.
What happens next and how quickly these statements turn into concrete policies is still an open question. Both the US and EU face real but solvable challenges to get to clean energy economies, and the Drill Baby Drill contingent in Congress is seizing every opportunity to argue for more of the same dirty energy that got us here in the first place.
With the world asking how can we keep the lights on without propping up murderous petro-state dictators and protect working families from crippling energy prices, the short-term strategy seems to be a lesser-of-two-evils approach, with Europe trying to trade Russian gas for US alternatives in a global game of energy musical chairs.
Long-term, simply trading one source of the same fossil fuels that got us here for another and expecting peace and democracy to flourish and low prices to return forever sounds a lot like the popular definition of insanity (i.e. doing the same thing twice and expecting different results). Vladimir Putin being far from the only petro-state dictator with a violent turn, and 2022 being not our first oil price spike rodeo.
Let’s be clear: this is a decision point, not just on how we heat our homes in 2022, but what the world looks like in 2052. And this is why the timing of the IPCC report matters, effectively reminding world leaders that responding to what Ukraine’s top climate scientist – and previous IPCC contributor – has called “a fossil fuel war”with more pipelines, terminals, and more is just an invitation to climate disaster: “The continued installation of unabated fossil fuel infrastructure will ‘lock-in’ GHG emissions (high confidence).”
The simple truth is that we cannot drill ourselves to safety or energy security. We cannot pretend the climate bill for doing so will not come due with devastating interest. The only path forward – for our families, our democracies, and our planet has to be to accelerate the just transition to clean energy already underway across the globe.
The stakes are clear. The steps we have to take – peak emissions by 2025 and rapidly reduce fossil fuels to reach net zero by 2050 – are too. It’s now or never. The timing of our collective response is everything.
Learn how you can make a difference on climate when it matters by becoming a Climate Reality Leader. Join us for an upcoming training in Las Vegas, Nevada from June 11–13 and get the tools, know-how, and network to lead the fight for solutions.
Be they sculptors, painters, photographers, or filmmakers, these artists are sparking important conversations about the climate crisis and inspiring action around the world. “[P]eople are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events… by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.”
The late American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was right:
Art really does have the power to change people, and thus, our future.
That’s why today we’re heartened to see more and more artists taking on the generation-defining issue that is the climate crisis. They’re expressing what this threat means for all of us and are making the need for action emotional, urgent, and tangible.
So, here are 11 outstanding visual artists whose work is inspiring conversations and action all around the world!
Lorenzo Quinn is an Italian sculptor best known for his massive recreations of human hands. As he describes, “I wanted to sculpt what is considered the hardest and most technically challenging part of the human body…[t]he hand holds so much power – the power to love, to hate, to create, to destroy.”
Lorenzo’s sculptures often grapple with environmental issues, including the climate crisis. Some of his most famous pieces on the matter include “Support” — a commentary on the threat of rising seas to the historic city of Venice — and “Give,” which asks the question “Can we save the planet… and save ourselves in the meantime?”
Guided by that theme, Sobecki often covers the effects of the climate crisis and its solutions. Whether that means sharing pictures of the global clean energy transition or documenting the devastating impacts climate change is already having on vulnerable communities around the world.
The Icelandic–Danish artist Olafur Eliasson has advocated for the environment for decades using sculptures and photography, among other mediums. In fact, in 2019, Eliasson was appointed goodwill ambassador for renewable energy and climate action by the United Nations Development Program.
One of his global warming-focused works, “The Weather Project”, can be seen below.
Speaking of “The Glacier Melt Series 1999/2019”, another climate change-focused piece, Olafur notes, “Every glacier lost reflects our inaction. Every glacier saved will be a testament to the action taken in the face of the climate emergency. One day, instead of mourning the loss of more glaciers, we must be able to celebrate their survival.”
John Akomfrah is a British artist of Ghanaian descent whose works include the themes of memory, post-colonialism, the experiences of migrants around the world, and more recently, the climate crisis.
In 2017, Akomfrah released “Purple,” a six-channel video installation that draws upon his travels in the French Polynesia to address climate change, human communities, and the wilderness. It’s been called the “most ambitious project to date” of his multi-decade career.
Daniel Beltra is a Spanish photographer whose photographs show just how drastically our planet is changing as a result of human activity.
Beltra is known for his focus on aerial photography, which “more easily allows for the juxtaposition of nature with the destruction wrought by unsustainable development.” For him, this angle helps emphasize that our planet has limits and that we are pushing past them.
One of his best-known photographs — an image of the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — can be seen below.
ANA TERESA FERNÁNDEZ
Ana Teresa Fernández is a Mexican-born, San Francisco-based sculptor and painter. Released in 2021, her “On the Horizon” exhibit stunningly demonstrates the risk rising sea levels present to her community, and of course, coastal communities all around the world.
As she describes, “We human beings who call this ocean planet home are key protagonists in the plot and pacing of this tale. Individual actions will have everything to do with how our collective story unfolds.”
ALLISON JANAE HAMILTON
Allison Janae Hamilton is a Kentucky-born, Florida-raised sculptor, photographer, and videographer. Her art draws inspiration from her roots growing up in the South and from a passion for landscapes.
As her biography describes, “she engages haunting yet epic mythologies that address the social and political concerns of today’s changing southern terrain, including land loss, environmental justice, climate change, and sustainability.”
You can see those themes captured in works like “Floridawater I” (2019).
Did you know that if plastic use were a country, it’d be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world? It’s true, and along with the inescapable problem of waste, is serious cause for concern.
That’s why we’re glad to see Alejandro Duran taking action through the Washed Up Project. This is a series of artworks made of the international trash that washes up on Mexico’s beaches.
Duran is raising awareness of the problem and hopes to help end the plastic pollution trashing the world’s land, oceans, and atmosphere.
Katherine Boland is a British-born, Australia-based artist who makes art focused on the natural world using non-traditional mediums. Among them, fire.
Katherine was inspired to make art to raise awareness about climate change after experiencing the 2019–2020 Australian bushfires firsthand. Below is a piece from “OUTPUT: ART AFTER FIRE,” an art project supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade following the fires.
JASON DECAIRES TAYLOR
Jason deCaires Taylor is a sculptor, professional underwater photographer, and as his art clearly shows, an avid environmentalist. He is best known for his many large-scale underwater sculpture exhibits.
As his bio describes, “Taylor’s pioneering public art projects are not only examples of successful marine conservation, but works of art that seek to encourage environmental awareness, instigate social change and lead us to appreciate the breathtaking natural beauty of the underwater world.”
His works are mesmerizing and moving and completely speak for themselves.
Julie Heffernan is an American painter whose art touches on subjects ranging from the environment to history and feminism, among others.
Recently, she made waves in the climate art scene with “When the Water Rises,” a series of paintings that “create alternative habitats in response to environmental disaster and planetary excess.”
Courtney Taylor, an art curator at Louisiana State University, could hardly have described the series better:
“Julie’s work addresses excess and its relationship to climate change, issues that become more relevant, more pressing, each day…[t]he beauty of her painting pulls us in to consider these fraught issues, but, in addition to considering these catastrophes and our complicity, we’re pushed to consider our response.”
JOIN THE MOVEMENT FOR SOLUTIONS
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By Diego Rojas
A better, more sustainable fertilizer production industry and application management regulations and training for farmers, alongside regenerative solutions, could dramatically reduce emissions from farming, while still feeding a booming world population.
Here at Climate Reality, we’ve long taken a keen interest in climate-smart agriculture and the ways farmers and gardeners can do their part to help turn the tide on climate by taking action to fight this crisis.
From edible landscaping and “lasagna gardening” to industrial-scale regenerative farming, the ways we grow food have a vital role to play in helping us end the climate crisis, and create a safe, sustainable future without carbon pollution. One where we can provide our booming world population with fresh, healthy food grown in a sustainable ecosystem.
Our focus has largely been on solutions. Things like, tips and tricks for everyday gardeners and hobby farmers to help lower their respective carbon footprints. Or overviews of larger, system-wide changes that need to be advocated for to reduce emissions from one of our biggest sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas (GHG) most responsible for the changes we are seeing in our climate today.
But for all of our coverage, we’ve left one big, 500-million-tons-of-CO2-sized elephant in the cornfield: synthetic fertilizers.
SO, HOW BAD IS IT?
There are plenty of reasons to be weary of synthetic fertilizers.
Chemical runoff from haphazardly applied fertilizer can drain into streams and lakes, leading to recurrent algal blooms that kill fish and other marine life in places like Lake Erie and “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s also the matter of it then making its way into our groundwater and reservoirs, contaminating fresh drinking water depended on by people just like you and me.
Misapplication of fertilizers and other soil amendments can disrupt the natural relationship between microorganisms and plant roots, damaging the long-term health of both the plant and the soil (and making both reliant on further application of fertilizer).
Its production can also be incredibly dangerous, as thousands of Winston-Salem, North Carolina residents learned just a few weeks ago, when a fire at a fertilizer plant there led to an evacuation order because of the risk of an explosion.
When it comes to our climate alone, however, it’s the manufacturing of synthetic fertilizers that really gets our goat.
But we’ll get to that after a brief history lesson, courtesy of the United Nations Environment Programme:
At the start of the 20th century, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a method for taking nitrogen from the air and melding it with hydrogen. It would prove to be one of the great scientific advances of the century.
Combined, the two elements made liquid ammonia, a key ingredient in synthetic fertilizers, which would drive an unprecedented agricultural expansion and help feed a fast-growing world.
The thing about that “method” they invented? (Well, the modern iteration of it, at least.) It takes a lot of energy. Energy that comes from burning lots of coal, oil, and natural gas. Which emits a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, causing our planet to warm faster than at any time in recorded history and our climate to change in ways that could undermine its capacity to support a large and thriving human population.
All told, ammonia production accounts for about 1.8% of global CO2 emissions.
Together with forestry and other land use, agriculture is responsible for just under 25 percent of all human-created GHG emissions. With fertilizers, we’re only talking about a small piece of that very big pie; however, it’s a piece that has an outsized impact.
“Four to six tons of carbon are typically emitted into the atmosphere per ton of nitrogen manufactured,” according to Dr. David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. “Anything you can do to be more efficient and conservative about nitrogen use is one of the biggest things you can do in the garden.”
WHAT HE SAID – BECAUSE WE NEED FERTILIZER
It’s tempting here to go all-in on compost, worm castings, manures, and other natural soil amendments to perk up your plants. To preach the gospel of sheet composting, a cold composting method where alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen materials are placed directly on the soil and break down over time, turning into a fantastic growing medium.
We’ve written reams on the enormous benefits of climate-smart gardening and large-scale regenerative agriculture, and even an entire e-book on the importance of soil health and its role in fighting climate change (download it for free here).
And it’s all true, of course. Every word. The future of food is kind of a big deal around our (virtual) office.
We really do need to broadly deploy regenerative practices like conservation tillage to sequester more carbon where it belongs (in the ground); help diminish erosion, runoff, and other soil damage at the same time that climate change makes each more likely; and grow healthy, resilient crops that can better withstand impacts like heavy precipitation and drought.
The food-growing status quo simply isn’t going to cut it in a world that needs to reach net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 or earlier.
But here’s the thing: We also can’t walk away from human-made, non-organic fertilizers entirely. Not really, and certainly not right now; not without harming some of the most vulnerable people and communities in the world.
“Globally, synthetic fertilizers are behind the bulk of global food production and they’re especially important in developing countries,” the UNEP writes.
Indeed, it’s estimated that fertilizer use contributes to around half of all food production around the world.
And notably, fertilizers “play a key role in reducing micronutrient deficiencies in people: the fertilizer fortification of staple food crops with micronutrients (also known as agronomic biofortification) has alleviated deficiencies in zinc, selenium, and iodine in communities around the world,” according to the International Fertilizer Association (IFA).
With the global population expected to grow from nearly 7.7 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050, demand for food is likely to explode around 60% compared to what it was in 2005. At the same time, increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are making some foods less nutritious.
So what do we do, knowing that synthetic fertilizer is both a major emitter of the GHGs driving global warming and a dangerous environmental pollutant – but that it is also necessary for providing food security to billions of people all around the globe?
WE CAN IMPROVE HOW IT’S MADE…
Remember, synthetic fertilizers require a lot of energy to manufacture. We already know that. But did you know that fertilizers also produce GHGs after they’ve been applied to fields?
It’s true: On average, crops only take up about half of the nitrogen they get from fertilizers. Of what’s left, what doesn’t run off into waterways mostly gets broken down by soil microbes, releasing nitrous oxide, a potent GHG with 300 times the planet-warming capacity as CO2, into the atmosphere. So things just keep getting better and better.
(Wouldn’t it be so much cooler if plants got their nitrogen from the air, absorbing it the way they do carbon dioxide? But no, they insist on getting it through the soil, creating this whole mess. Thanks for nothing, plants.)
By now, two things should be clear –
- We need to be applying only the necessary amount of fertilizer and not a drop more (more on that below); and
- The fertilizer we do manufacture should be produced in as green and sustainable a way as possible.
That second one is easier said than done, but the right minds are on the case.
“Scientists and engineers are working to reduce the high temperature and pressure currently needed to manufacture ammonia. These changes would make it easier to run fertilizer plants entirely on renewable energy or other climate-friendly sources,” according to MIT. “They would also allow ammonia to be made in smaller factories, making fertilizer more accessible to farmers in developing nations.”
Some industries are harder to electrify than others because they require fuel that is high in energy density or heats to particularly high temperatures. Chemical manufacturing is one of them – but by targeting the production of hydrogen in the fertilizer creation process, manufacturers can dramatically reduce emissions.
In particular, they can employ carbon capture and storage (blue hydrogen), though this still involves the use of natural gas and other fossil fuels. It’s a good thing they can produce zero-carbon ammonia through the use of “green hydrogen,” which captures hydrogen from water molecules using renewable sources like wind and solar to power an electrolyzer.
More generally, green hydrogen could play a critical role in the decarbonization of the global economy. It remains a fairly new and somewhat niche energy presently, but holds huge promise in electrifying high-juice industries like steel manufacturing, aviation and shipping, which is why many nations have included hydrogen roadmaps as part of their plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their power, transportation, or industrial sectors.
(There’s a lot more to talk about when it comes to green – truly green! – hydrogen. Learn more here.)
… AND HOW (AND HOW MUCH) IT’S APPLIED
To be clear, we’re definitely not talking about pumping the brakes on any nature-based solutions here. The many competing pressures of feeding a rapidly growing population while at the same time reining in the emissions driving widespread climate disruption and the escalating destruction that accompanies it requires a unified, all-hands-on-deck response.
That’s why we’re suggesting that they are going to have to work in concert with a better, more sustainable fertilizer production industry and regulations and training that encourage farmers to apply only the exact amount of the necessary fertilizer that each individual crop needs exactly when it needs it.
For some reason, that’s not the case today. We have policies that *checks notes* “at present encourage farmers to apply more fertilizers to their fields than they need.” Because of all the good all that extra fertilizer does when it makes it into Lake Erie, like we talked about earlier, we can only presume.
No – the correct and balanced application of soil amendments is necessary to “sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; adapting and building resilience to climate change; and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible.” But don’t take our word for it; the preceding is in quotes because it’s part of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s definition of climate-smart agriculture (CSA).
So how do we actually do it? The IFA has some ideas.
“The fertilizer industry promotes nutrient stewardship programmes and fertilizer best management practices (FBMPs) in order to encourage farmers to use fertilizers in an effective and efficient way,” IFA writes. “FBMPs refer to site- and crop-specific production techniques and practices developed through agronomic research, verified and continuously adapted in the fields to maximize economic, social, and environmental benefits.”
Site- and crop-specific nutrient management has proven an efficient way to reduce emissions associated with the use of nitrogen fertilizers while still getting crops the nutrients they need to succeed. It deploys four principles – source (what), rate (how much), time (when), and place (where) – to determine minimal necessary input to optimize plant uptake and eventual crop output.
At the end of the day, what we’re really talking about here is producing as little fertilizer as possible and using only what is truly necessary very deliberately to maximize plant resilience and carbon sequestration while minimizing nutrient losses to the environment and polluting run off.
So while we may need some synthetic fertilizers to facilitate agriculture, particularly in the developing world, at a time when about 50% of nitrogen applied to crops is lost to the environment, we also need to be producing much less of it and using it much, much more efficiently.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Reducing GHG emissions from the whole of the agriculture sector, including from fertilizer production and application, while ensuring global food security is essential to ending the climate crisis.
Period. Point blank. With a bow on top.
It’s a critical challenge. But you don’t have to manage a thousand acres to do something real about it.
You don’t even have to leave your own backyard to get started.
First, be the change you want to see and do your part:
- Spring Into Action: 6 Tips For Climate-Smart Gardening
- What to Plant In A Warming World
- Take Climate Action By Transforming Your Lawn With Edible Landscaping
- ‘Lasagna Gardening’: Grow Healthy Veggies While Taking Climate Action
And if you do need to pick up some synthetic fertilizer, keep in mind what you’ve just read. Only purchase what you need (source), apply it exactly as directed (rate) at the correct time for fertilization for that specific plant (time), and be sure to apply it directly near the plant roots (place).
Plus, many soil amendment manufacturers are every bit as worried about the future of our climate as you are – and that’s why they’re already using renewable resources like solar, wind, and recycled food waste in their production processes.
So be on the lookout for stamps, stickers, or direct branding on products that indicate the manufacturer is using sustainable methods in their production.
And when your neighbors, colleagues, or family members ask what you’re up to, tell them you are taking action for the planet. Sometimes, the most powerful climate action you can take is simply talking about the crisis and the ways we can fight it and win together.
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