As the world grapples with the unprecedented challenges of the Anthropocene era, the ongoing COP28, the United Nations climate summit, holds profound implications for the future of the planet. The Anthropocene, a term coined by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000, signifies a new geological epoch characterized by human-induced transformations on Earth.
Crutzen’s concept of the Anthropocene has gained widespread acceptance, reflecting the substantial impact of industrialized humanity on the planet. The summit’s decisions will reverberate not only through our lifetime and that of our children but potentially throughout the existence of human society as we know it.
In the early days of the Anthropocene proposition, planetary symptoms were evident, including deforestation, widespread dam construction, overfishing, and disruptions in the nitrogen cycle. Climate change, although acknowledged, seemed a concern for the future.
Fast forward to 2023, and the future has arrived with alarming force. Global temperatures have surged, with 38 days in 2023 surpassing pre-industrial averages by 1.5°C, a limit deemed safe by the UN Paris agreement. Record-breaking heatwaves, wildfires, and floods, exacerbated by human activities, underscore the centrality of climate issues in the Anthropocene.
Several factors contribute to this temperature surge. Greenhouse gas levels, particularly carbon dioxide, have risen steadily, reaching approximately 420 parts per million (ppm), up from 370 ppm when Crutzen introduced the Anthropocene concept. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide continues to increase by around 2 ppm annually.
Additionally, cleaner skies, resulting from regulations phasing out polluting power stations and fuels, have intensified the sun’s impact on the Earth’s surface, contributing to global warming. The reduction of heat-reflecting surfaces, including melting sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, further exacerbates the warming trend.
A concerning development is the sharp rise in atmospheric methane since 2006, a potent greenhouse gas. This increase appears linked to the warming world’s impact on rotting vegetation in tropical wetlands, highlighting the interconnected nature of climate feedbacks.
The Earth has now entered levels of warmth not experienced in approximately 120,000 years, comparable to the last interglacial phase. This warming trajectory, with additional warming anticipated over centuries due to feedback mechanisms, raises significant concerns, especially for the Antarctic ice sheets and potential sea-level rise.
The Anthropocene’s lens reveals a disruption in the Earth’s multi-millennial climate patterns, which were delicately balanced by the planet’s natural mechanisms. The injection of a trillion tons of carbon dioxide within a century has overridden these controls, resulting in a fundamentally and irreversibly altered climate pattern.
As COP28 unfolds, the urgency of achieving and stabilizing carbon emissions at “net zero” is emphasized. However, this represents only the initial step. Negative emissions, involving the removal of carbon from the atmosphere and oceans to store it underground, are essential to restore a climate conducive to human thriving.
The summit’s outcomes will significantly influence the trajectory of the Anthropocene, a geological epoch marked by unprecedented human influence. The presence of strong fossil fuel interests at COP28 underscores the challenges in making substantial progress. Beyond immediate concerns, the decisions made at COP28 will shape the Earth’s trajectory, determining the legacy for future generations and the viability of life on our planet.