It is a critical time for the state of the planet and human wellbeing.
The number of people living on the planet has never been higher, their levels of consumption are growing and changes are taking place in the environment.
Science can help us to understand these trends, what drives them, and how they might affect us in the future. Science can also uncover and develop solutions, from reducing our impact on the environment to making societies more resilient to changes.
Changes in the environment and climate
Our report People and the planet explored the rapid and widespread changes in the world’s human population which, coupled with unprecedented levels of consumption, present profound challenges to the natural environment.
Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities. As we describe in our short guide to climate science, if emissions continue on their present trajectory, then warming of 2.6 to 4.8 °C (4.7 to 8.6 °F), in addition to the 0.8 °C which has already occurred, would be expected by the end of the 21st century. Global warming of just a few degrees will be associated with widespread changes in regional and local temperature and rainfall.
Climate change is also likely to affect the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and heatwaves. Our report Resilience to extreme weather shows how and where these might change, analyses options which can protect communities from these hazards and recommends policy changes to build broad resilience.
Decision makers need to take action to address these environmental challenges if they are to place the world on a more sustainable development path. Unsustainable consumption in the most developed and the emerging economies must be reduced. Global population growth needs to be slowed and stabilised through voluntary family planning and education.
Mitigating actions, in particular reducing greenhouse gas emissions, would reduce the impact of climate change. However, emissions targets are not being met, despite technologies that can help being both available and affordable. In our report Geoengineering the climate we assess ‘plan B’ options to counteract the climatic effects of greenhouse gas emissions.
Sources of energy
Industrial development has been founded on cheap and abundant energy from burning fossil fuels. The consequent release of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere has led to measurable changes to Earth’s climate.
There is no single solution to sustainably and affordably meeting the world’s energy requirements in the next century. Instead a diverse range of technologies such as nuclear, wind, marine, solar and carbon capture and storage will be needed.
Some countries, including the UK, are considering nuclear power to help meet their climate change and energy security needs, requiring careful consideration of best practices for managing the nuclear fuel cycle when developing new programmes.
In conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineering, we reviewed the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) in the UK. Our experts found that the health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively through strong regulation.