From fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions to rising temperatures, biodiversity loss and economic harm, the latest data tell a disturbing story.
Fossil fuels—mainly oil, gas and coal—are being drilled, mined and burned at an ever-increasing rate. The historical comparison is stark: fewer than 20,000 Terawatt-hours (TWh) of energy from the main fossil fuels were used globally at the turn of the 20th century. Today, that figure approaches 150,000 TWh.
Burning these fuels results in the emission of greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide (CO2) has long been recognised as the principal driver of climate change. The amount released per person varies by country and over time. China and India have generated vast emissions in recent history, in their efforts to industrialise. The United States, despite efforts to de-carbonise, remains a clear front runner in per capita terms.
Limiting greenhouse gas emissions sits at the heart of climate policies worldwide. Without efforts to curtail fossil fuel consumption, global temperatures could rise by 4.1-4.8°C by the end of the century. Under current pledges, a 2.4°C rise is predicted. But climate experts state that an increase beyond 1.5°C will trigger irreversible environmental and ecological damage, as well as enormous economic costs.
Focusing on economic costs alone, it is predicted that emerging markets in more vulnerable locations are likely to bear the brunt of the climate crisis. With just a 1.4°C temperature increase, the Philippines is set to experience a 1.3% decline in GDP. Under a 3.2°C increase, the loss would be almost 7%. Countries dependent on fossil fuels are also at risk. Saudi Arabia could experience a 12% drop in GDP should the average global temperature rise by more than 3°C.
Oil, gas and coal are not the only natural resources being used unsustainably. The world’s forests are being depleted rapidly, and this limits the planet’s ability to absorb the excess carbon in the atmosphere. Demand for timber has left many forests barren, on the brink of disappearing entirely. In Brazil, home to the Amazon rainforest, land covered by trees has fallen by 15% since 1990. In Paraguay, forest area has declined by over a third during the same period.
Human actions are harming the animal kingdom too. The loss of biodiversity triggered by rising temperatures, more frequent extreme weather events and the destruction of natural habitats means an increasing number of species—both animals and plants—now face extinction. The loss of natural capital rarely factors into economic decision-making, suggesting that many calculations grossly underestimate the severity of the risks we face. Once these species are gone, they will be lost forever.