Line of people waiting for food
As a result of drought, a famine disaster is currently taking place in Africa, with its center in Somalia and South Sudan. Photo: Farah Abdi Warsameh AP.

The EU Commission funds three research projects that study the consequences of high-end climate change. In the recently published report “High-End Climate Change in Europe: Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation” , three years of research by more than 150 researchers is summarised. The impacts of high-end climate change can lead to major socio-economic challenges.

The world has managed to stabilize the emissions of carbon dioxide. For the third consecutive year, we are not releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the previous year. But we need to quickly reduce emissions to have a reasonable chance of reaching the Paris agreement’s target of a temperature increase “well below” 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. If we continue on the current path, temperatures will rise above 2 degrees, with potential increases of 6 degrees or more.

High-end climate change affect a range of areas and sectors of society:

  1. Dramatically raised sea levels. If warming continues beyond 2 degrees, sea level is estimated to rise faster than at any time during human civilization. At a temperature increase of 5 degrees by 2100, sea levels will rise 1.8 meters along 80 percent of the world’s coastline (the restoration of the large area and transit hub of Slussen in Stockholm accounts for only one meter of sea level rise in the next 100 years). Such a development would be catastrophic since 40 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal regions, and many areas of settlement may have to be abandoned.
  2. Soaring costs due to increased flooding. Floods are expected to lead to vast global costs. Estimates in our report indicate that annual flood costs in Europe could increase from 5,3 billion euros today to 20-40 billion by year 2050 and up to 100 billion by 2080. If the costs amount to 100 billion, it corresponds to a quarter of Sweden’s GDP in 2016, or almost as much as the entire world’s total development aid funds the same year (122 billion).
  3. More extreme heat waves. The frequency and intensity of heat waves will increase, which is associated with acute mortality and disease, as well as reduced productivity when people cannot work. In 2003, Western Europe suffered from a heat wave that caused an estimated 70,000 deaths. Though we cannot calculate the exact consequences of future heat waves, we can certainly say that heat waves like the one in 2003 will become more common as a consequence of high-end climate change.
  4. Threatened food security. Today’s agriculture is adapted to a stable climate. It is not used to long periods of droughts, extreme precipitation or storms resulting from high-end climate change. These changes can have an impact on food markets and food security worldwide. Sudden and rapid increases in food prices have previously been shown to lead to both food shortages and increased instability and riots. It is likely we will see more of this in the future.
  5. Major regional differences. Climate change hits every region differently. In some cases, differences will level out, but in most cases, we can expect increased differences because of a changing climate. In Europe, for example, the already weak Mediterranean economies are more affected than those in northern countries. In the south, climate change impacts are amplified: temperature changes will generally be greater and, at the same time, these regions are highly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as food production and tourism. This development may lead to the demand for compensation, for example, within the framework of EU’s common agricultural policy.
  6. Globalized climate effects. Climate impacts always occur locally, but via globalization, local impacts are transferred to other parts of the world. For example, food security can be threatened by the weakening of local farming conditions (such as drought), but other import-dependent countries will also suffer from food shortages as food is no longer available for purchase. Another example is that Swedish businesses are largely dependent on suppliers in different parts of the world. Swedish production will therefore be affected if suppliers suffer from the impacts of local climate change.

How severe the impacts of climate change will be depends on two factors:

  1. How wide-ranging will climate change be? and
  2. How will our future society look like?

The major impacts of climate change will hit future societies, not today’s society. As an example consider Nigeria’s future food supply. The average temperatures in Nigeria could increase 3 degrees until 2050, implying major consequences for the country’s agriculture. During that same period, Nigeria’s population is expected to increase from 180 million to as much as 400 million. It is this double-faceted challenge that the world face.

A future with high-end climate change is unfortunately quite possible. We must attempt to avoid it at all costs, but at the same time plan for the worst-case scenario. Either we do it now, when we have the financial resources, institutional capacity and time to act, or we put it off and become forced to manage the urgent consequences of climate change.

The new climate policy framework recently passed by the Swedish Parliament is a good start. But even if all countries follow Sweden’s model, these ambitions are not enough. Sweden’s vision of becoming the world’s first fossil-free welfare state does not account  for the fact that we live in a globalized world. Sweden should instead, as the first  high-income country, develop a vision which helps avoid high-end climate change by setting targets and measures for emission reductions derived from Swedish consumption of imported goods.

Sweden should take a global responsibility. As researchers, we deal with climate change as a global issue every day and we urge the Government to do the same. Anything else would be irresponsible.

This Op-Ed originally appeared in Dagens Nyheter on 14 July 2017 and was translated by Anneli Sundin (SEI).