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What’s happening to our planet in 9 key numbers

From rising temperatures to expedited rates of extinction, our planet is facing unprecedented challenges due to climate change.

Climate change, a long-term shift in global or regional climate patterns, represents one of the greatest threats to the future of humanity, as well as that of life-support systems that make our planet inhabitable. 

As a result of greenhouse gas emissions by humans, the globe has been gradually warming since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s. This rising global temperature, which currently sits at about 0.98 degrees Celsius, has already caused more devastating natural disasters, coral bleaching, droughts, floods and forest fires, not to mention the effects on wildlife 

Many climate experts and scientific institutions warn that if the globe reaches an average temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the consequences will not only be devastating for the world’s fragile ecosystem but also communities, displacement and the global economy. 

So how dire is the situation? Here are nine key numbers that paint a clearer picture of the state of our planet: 

11,258

The number of scientists around the world who have declared a ‘climate emergency’.

In November 2019, scientists from 153 countries announced grave warnings in a report entitled, “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency.” In the document, the scientists write: “The climate crisis [had] arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”

The report marked a catalyst in the scientific community, according to scientific journal Bioscience. The report’s authors also stated that climate change is man-made, driven by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, transport, deforestation, population growth, etc.  

6 million 

The number of people who partook in a global ‘climate strike’ in 2019. 

In the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Summit, millions of people around the world gathered in their respective locales in late September 2019 to demand urgent action against climate change. 

Initially part of the School Strike for Climate movement (inspired by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg), the events evolved into the largest climate strike in history.  

Though their demands were left unmet by the UN summit – due in part to myriad global distractions, from the US-China trade war, Brexit and later the new coronavirus outbreak – the protestors made their voices heard around the world in an unprecedented display of international solidarity.

2 Credit Socialist Appeal Creative Commons 1
Credit: Socialist Appeal, Creative Commons

17 per cent

The amount of Amazon rainforest already lost to deforestation.

Between 15 and 17 per cent of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed by deforestation over the last 50 years, driven mainly by the agriculture and logging industries.

Combined with signs of global warming, the dramatic deforestation has led experts to worry that the rainforest is nearing a tipping point. If we reach deforestation levels closer to 20 to 25 per cent, the consequences could reverberate around the world. 

According to an article in the journal Science Advances, we need trees to cycle moisture through the rainforest. Without enough of them, it would cause the jungle to dry out and degrade into a savanna. In addition, the loss of trees results in an increase in carbon dioxide emissions which, in turn, causes poorer air quality and warmer global temperatures. 

The loss of the Amazon’s trees has also led to an increase in fires –  larger and more destructive than ever – which spew more carbon into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the biological loss would be tremendous, seeing as the Amazon makes up over half of the earth’s rainforests, and comprises the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest in the world.

3 Credit Wagner T. Cassimiro Creative Commons 1 1
Credit: Wagner T. Cassimiro, Creative Commons

1 million

Animal and plant species now threatened with extinction.  

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a landmark report in 2019, which revealed that roughly 1 million animal and plant species now face the threat of extinction – the highest number ever recorded. 

The rate of extinction is 10,000 times faster than at any point in modern history. More than one in five species on Earth could go extinct in the coming years, and scientists expect that number to rise to 50 per cent by the end of the century unless we take urgent action, according to IPBES.

In most major land habitats, the number of species has fallen by at least 20 per cent on average since 1900. Meanwhile, more than 40 per cent of amphibian species, almost 33 per cent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are vulnerable.

The picture is less clear for insects, but evidence suggests an estimated 10 per cent of species are under threat.

4 Credit Dano Creative Commons
Credit: Dano, Creative Commons

0.9 degrees Celsius

The average increase in the Earth’s surface temperature in the past 200 years. 

Since the late 19th century, the planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 0.9 degrees Celsius, according to 2017 data from the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

This is far from business as usual – the most rapid rate of warming has occurred in the past 35 years, with five of the warmest years on record in the past decade, according to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Scientists attribute the change to the increased output of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation, as well as other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

Globaltemp
Credit: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

228 sextillion  

The number of joules of heat the ocean has absorbed in the past 25 years.  

Just like the planet, our oceans are also setting new temperature records. And since these immense bodies of water are the main repository of the planet’s excess heat, measuring their temperature is one of the best ways to quantify the rate of global warming.

Between 1987 and 2019, the rate of ocean warming was nearly 450 per cent greater than the rate between 1955 and 1986, according to a comprehensive international study published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

The increase represents an enormous amount of heat spread out across the world’s oceans. Essentially, the ocean has absorbed 228 sextillion joules – that’s 228,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules – of heat in the past 25 years. 

To put it into perspective, that’s equivalent to the heat emitted by 3.6 billion Hiroshima atom-bomb explosions, according to the study’s lead author, Lijing Cheng, who is an associate professor at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing.

6 Credit Christian Collins Creative Commons
Credit: Christian Collins, Creative Commons

380 million metric tonnes

The volume of single-use plastic packaging produced globally in 2015. 

By 2050, plastic will account for up to 13 per cent of the world’s total “carbon budget,” the upper level of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions that can be released while still sustaining a safe temperature, according to a report by the Center for International Environmental Law

Single-use packaging makes up 40 per cent of the demand for plastic, fueling a boom in production. From 1950 to 2015, plastic production increased 19,800 per cent, from 2 million to 380 million metric tonnes.

This virgin plastic has already polluted the environment and will continue to do so for centuries. Depending on the type of plastic and where it ends up, one piece of plastic can take 400 years to decompose in water and 800 years in soil.  

“Packaging is one of the most problematic types of plastic waste, as it is typically designed for single-use, ubiquitous in trash, and extremely difficult to recycle,” the report stated. “A constant increase in the use of flexible and multilayered packaging has been adding challenges to collection, separation, and recycling.”

Cumulative Global Plastics
Credit: Geyer et al

5 trillion

The total number of plastic pieces in our waterways.

Due to pollution, nearly all marine turtles have plastic inside their bodies. Marine animals often consume plastic accidentally because it resembles food, or they eat tiny pieces unknowingly. Some “microplastics,” are so small, less than 5 millimetres, that they are nearly invisible.

In addition, chemicals used in plastic manufacturing, such as phthalates (a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break) and flame retardants, have been found in fish, molluscs and sea mammals. 

When studying specific species, a study published in the science journal Annual Review of Marine Science found that all marine turtles, 59 per cent of whales and 40 per cent of seabirds have traces of marine plastic pollution inside their bodies.

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Credit: Jennyvids, Creative Commons

US$1.15 billion 

The amount invested in sustainable corporates in a single day.  

The world’s largest asset management firm, BlackRock, announced sweeping changes to its investment approach earlier this year. On 13 January, the company joined the Climate Action 100+, a major investor effort to pressure the biggest polluting companies to change course, signaling an important shift in corporate engagement on climate change. 

The next day, CEO Larry Fink wrote his annual letter to corporate executives, announcing sustainability as the foundation of its investment and risk management strategy. “Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects,” Fink wrote in the letter. “Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.”

9 Credit Aaron Anderer Creative Commons
Credit: Aaron Anderer, Creative Commons

He also indicated that BlackRock will shift away from companies with high environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risks, such as thermal coal producers, and towards companies with long-term social or environmental visions. Over the next decade, the firm intends to increase sustainably managed assets by more than tenfold, from US$90 billion currently to more than US$1 trillion. 

Within a day of Fink’s announcement, the company recorded more than US$1.15 billion in investments in its green ETF fund, while investors poured US$785 million into a similar sister ESG fund.