We are running out of time: we have to act fast

Climate change is affecting the whole world. Many are already suffering its consequences – and the Norfolk Coast is vulnerable.

The Norfolk Coast area of outstanding natural beauty is exposed to the climate crisis. Sea levels are rising, the dynamic coast is shifting and extreme weather events are becoming ever more common.This diverse, precious area – designated under law as a national landscape, special for everyone – is rising to the challenge.

Across the area, there are stories of hope – from the clean energy of windfarms, to protecting species at risk; from helping people to understand nature and change, to farmers working together for their local river. There are increasing calls for more cycle paths, footpaths and to build in low carbon living. But we are running out of time, and we have to act fast. 

Today, if no consolidated and serious action is taken to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions we are headed for a 4-6 degree rise in temperatures – and an uninhabitable planet. The time for action is now, but the challenge is a big one. Already many places and people in the world are suffering the impacts. 

We need to reduce our total carbon emissions in Norfolk by two thirds – to no greater than 1.7 tonnes of CO2 per year per person by 2050 – if we are to be part of limiting global temperature rise to a level which does not cause mass devastation.

Carbon makes up around 80% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. These have been falling, thanks to cleaner power sources. But the rates are too slow: including aviation, shipping, imports and exports our total carbon emitted shows a fall of only 10% since 1990.

Per head, estimated CO2 emissions in the UK declined from 8.7 to 5.4 tonnes/person between 2005 and 2016. Closer to home, Norfolk went from having below UK average per capita CO2 emissions in 2005 to above in 2016 (5.7 tonnes/person) due to its increasing levels of road transport. 

Worldwide, governments have recognised the crisis, and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  Paris agreement was a commitment to take actions to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees.

By 2050 at the latest, and ideally by 2040, we must have stopped emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than earth can naturally absorb through its ecosystems. Our global greenhouse gas emissions must be clearly in decline by the early 2020s (in other words, now) and reduced by at least 50% by 2030.

There is evidence that we can achieve this, and we have to.

What is causing climate chaos?

Our earth sits in a balanced atmosphere which has allowed plant and animal life to prosper.

Although there have been changes in climate – for instance Ice Ages – these have been slow: in the 10,000 years before the industrial age we saw a one degree rise in global temperature. 

The balance is being lost, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels – like coal and oil – in ever-increasing amounts over the past 200 years. The carbon released is creating a blanket of gases around the planet, trapping the sun’s warmth – the greenhouse effect. 

This heating is throwing the planet’s climate system into chaos:

Heating ocean, rising sea levels
The ocean – over 70% of the earth’s area – plays a major role in regulating climate, by absorbing heat. As a result, sea temperatures are rising, causing artic ice to melt and sea levels to rise. 

Acidifying seas, marine life failing
Increased carbon is dissolving into the sea, making it more acidic, destroying natural self-regulating marine systems.

Extreme weather events
We are seeing warmer, drier summers; wetter winters; and increased extreme weather like storms and gales.

System collapse
Complex natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers and coral reefs are collapsing, releasing more gases. 

Increasingly rapid effects
Feedback loops – where the effects of climate change create a worse effect, leading to increasingly rapid change – are coming into play. These are difficult to predict. One example is the loss of reflection of the sun’s rays by sea ice. The more the ice melts, the less area of reflection of the rays there is. The darker water heats more quickly – so the ice then melts even more quickly.