LONDON, March 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The extent
to which countries cut their emissions over the next 50 years
will determine the conditions of people's life on earth for at
least the next 10,000 years, the head of the Stockholm
Resilience Centre at Stockholm University says.
Continued use of oil, natural gas and coal at the current
rate will likely raise global temperatures to 2 or 2.5 degrees
Celsius above pre-industrial levels, creating conditions that
would make life "difficult to manage", said Johan Rockström.
Even more worryingly, this temperature rise may trigger
natural events that would take the planet from 2 degrees Celsius
to 6 degrees, which would be "catastrophic", he said.
"What happens in the coming 50 years will certainly
determine the outcome for humanity 10,000 years and beyond,"
Rockström said, adding that the last 50 years of human activity
has "pushed us away from the stability we've been in for the
past 12,000 years".
Rockström is one of a group of scientists proposing that the
world halves its carbon dioxide emissions every decade from
2020, by issuing penalties on carbon emitters.
If temperatures approach 2 or 3 degrees Celsius, sea levels
are likely to rise at least 7 or 8 metres (23-26 feet), and
droughts and floods increase to a frequency and severity not
seen before. There are also likely to be many more catastrophic
weather events such as hurricanes and "massive" heat waves, he
Tropical areas of the earth will "very rapidly" move north,
and tropical diseases will spread to other latitudes.
This temperature rise may also cause additional trigger
events that will warm the planet further, he said.
These include permafrost in Siberia thawing and releasing
potent greenhouse gases, forests dying and releasing carbon
dioxide, and ice melting which would leave the planet with a
darker surface that absorbs the sun's heat instead of reflecting
"These are the kind of domino effects that we are concerned
about and where we could end up in a very dangerous situation,"
Rockström told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
If temperatures rise 4 degrees Celsius or more, it will be
the first time this has happened in 4 million years - since
before modern humans existed, he said.
To have a chance of keeping temperature rise to well below 2
degrees Celsius, as laid out in the Paris climate agreement,
countries will need to decarbonise their economies, cut
emissions from agriculture and food production, and protect
existing natural environments, Rockström said.
They will also need to remove carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere using "geoengineering" techniques which are both
costly and have not yet been tried out at scale.
But they will be a necessity, he added. "We have gone too
far, we have simply emitted too much."
Too often the most vocal groups on climate are environmental
non-governmental organisations and climate scientists, Rockström
Although their voices are important, over the decades that
had led to a mistaken belief that there is a contradiction
between economic growth and sustainability, he said.
"It's very dangerous to have NGOs in the frontline, science
a little behind them, because political leaders need to hear the
business voice. They are the engine of growth and jobs," he
One reason why the 2015 Paris climate talks were so
successful was because "business was there and it was very
strong", he said.
Companies in many sectors see the potential for making money
from sustainable growth, he said.
Truck companies can make vehicles that run on electricity,
the aviation industry is finding ways to cut emissions, and
companies in the construction industry are working on low-carbon
alternatives to the current form of cement, for example.
But companies are also hedging their risks. While many are
investing in new low-carbon technologies, often under the radar,
they also continue to make - and sometimes lobby for - older
technologies, Rockström said.
Either way, they will adapt to political realities to make
the most profit in the short-term, he said.
"We're in this Trump administration that doesn't care about
climate change at all, so (businesses in United States)
basically adapt to the situation," he said. "But if we had
another administration, they would operate there to make the
Overall, though, there is a general move towards sustainable
economic growth, he said.
China, for example, more than doubled its solar capacity
last year, making it the world's largest producer of solar
energy by capacity. It aims to generate 20 percent of its energy
without fossil fuels by 2030, up from 11 percent today.
China's rationale for shifting to clean energy is because it
makes good business sense, he said.
"They are adamantly focused on their own growth, their own
success and their own prosperity," he added.
(Reporting by Alex Whiting @Alexwhi, editing by Laurie
Goering.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking
and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)