Post Mortem

Combat climate change

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 12/13/2020 12:35:37 PM IST

 Every year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) releases an Emissions Gap Report showing the difference between estimated current greenhouse gas emission levels and the target prescribed by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change signed on December 12, 2015. The later calls for holding the increase in global average temperature in this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial-revolution level, and for trying to limit it to 1.5 degree Celsius above it.

Each report not only dwells on the gap but provides a comprehensive account of the situation and developments on the environment front during the year, what needs to be done to combat climate change, and the prospects ahead for the world. The current report, 11th in the series titled Emissions Gap Report 2020, released on December 9, 2020, presents, like its predecessors, an alarming picture. It says that the year 2020 is likely to be the warmest on record, with wildfires, droughts, storms and glacier-melting intensifying.

If one were to identify its most terrifying prognosis, it would be that the world is hurtling towards a temperature increase of over 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. And this would be despite a predicted fall of 7 per cent in carbon dioxide emissions as a result of the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The decline, however, would translate to only 0.01 degree reduction in global warming by 2050, because the emissions would rise again — and become even higher — as economies bounce back.

What all this means begins to become clear on recalling that according to the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (The Special Report), released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on October 7, 2018, the adverse effects of climate change would not be reduced even if the increase is limited to 1.5 degree Celsius. Sea levels will continue to rise beyond 2100, threatening coastal ecosystems and infrastructure. Flooding, drought and extreme weather events will wreak havoc around the world. Many species will continue to be driven towards extinction and marine ecosystems could face “irreversible loss.” What is particularly alarming, this level, according to the report, is likely to be reached sometime between 2030 and 2052. Fourteen per cent of the world’s population would be exposed to severe heat waves at least once in five years at the 1.5 degree Celsius warming level. The percentage would rise to 37 if the level rises to 2 degrees Celsius. Christopher Flavelle’s report, titled Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns, in the New York Times of August 8, 2019, quotes Edouard Davin, a researcher at ETH Zurich and an author of the report, as saying by email, “Above 2 degrees of global warming, there could be an increase of 100 million or more of the population at risk of hunger,” and adding, “We need to act quickly.” A three-degree Celsius increase in temperature, according to a report by Louise Boyle, datelined December 9, 2020, in the Independent of the UK, would cause mass extinctions and leave “swathes of planet uninhabitable.” It cites the non-profit organisation, Climate Central, as saying that 275 million people would be at risk in areas flooded by seal-level rise.

It is a grim scenario on almost every front. A 65-page “Summary for Policymakers” of another IPCC special report of 2019 stated that a food crisis loomed large, especially in tropical and sub-tropical regions, if carbon dioxide emissions continued unchecked. It added that besides significantly reducing crop yields, rising temperatures may also bring down the nutritional value of crops. Floods, droughts, storms and other forms of extreme weather conditions threatened to disrupt and, over time, reduce the world’s food supply.

According to Stephen Leahy’s report, “World food crisis looms if carbon emissions go unchecked, UN says” in the National Geographic of August 8, 2019, already, more than 10 percent of the world’s population remained undernourished. It quoted Cynthia Rozenzweig, Coordinating Lead Author of the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land, and a climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, as saying that extreme weather events had already increased in size and intensity, and are playing a role in food price spikes.

It cited the examples of extensive spring floods in the US Midwest in 2019 leading to very late planting of corn and soy crops, reducing their potential yields. It also mentioned drought playing havoc with rice crops in Thailand and Indonesia and sugarcane and oilseeds produces in India in 2019 when record-breaking heat waves in Europe were feared to be causing a 13 per cent decline in French wine production. Apart from under-nourishment and hunger, food shortages could lead to an increase in cross-border migration, which is having an unfortunate impact on politics in North America and Europe.

The question arises: What are the chances of averting the dismal future that seems to face the world? There are some glimmers of hope. The Emissions Gap Report 2020 says that the predicted emission rates could be reduced by around 25 per cent if Governments commit to a path of “green recovery” from the pandemic’s disaster. This would give the world a fighting chance to keep global warming down to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Treading this path would require the provision or direct support to zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, promoting measures like afforestation and avoiding deforestation. Trees are most important as they reduce the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by absorbing it.

Agricultural practices and global food supply systems account for one-third of the global carbon emissions. It is, therefore, important to orient them towards reducing carbon emissions. For example, steps like the draining of wetlands to make room for cultivation - as has happened in Indonesia and Malaysia to create palm oil plantations - should be avoided as that would release into the air the huge amounts of carbon dioxide gas trapped in these water bodies. Further, the Special Report on Climate Change and Land calls for institutional changes like providing farmers with better access to credit in developing countries and giving them stronger property rights. It further advocated utilisation of the skills and knowledge of indigenous and local people to devise agricultural practices aimed at promoting biodiversity conservation and combating desertification and land degradation.

Along with agriculture, the Emissions Gap Report 2020 emphasises the need for shipping and aviation industries, which account for five per cent of global emissions, to combine energy efficiency with a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

Around two-thirds of global emissions being linked to private households, changes in consumption and behaviour patterns are required. Cycling, car-sharing, and more energy-efficient housing needs to be promoted. Travel by rail rather than air is recommended for short journeys. The wealthy, particularly, need to make significant changes in their lifestyles as the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population accounts for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50 per cent. There is a special need to avoid food loss and wastage.

There are some encouraging signs. While President Donald Trump of the US walked out of the Paris Agreement and derided the idea of climate change, President-elect Joe Biden has not only decided to rejoin but has set a target for net-zero emissions no later than 2050. According to the Emissions Gap Report 2020, some 126 countries, covering 51 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, have so far, adopted, announced or are considering, a net zero pledge by 2050.

Nevertheless, optimism needs to be kept on a tight leash. Between promise and performance, and resolve and result, falls more than a shadow. In this case, the shadow will darken the future of the entire world.

Hiranmay Karlekar 

(Consulting Editor, The Pioneer)

Launched on December 3,1990. Nagaland Post is the first and highest circulated newspaper of Nagaland state. Nagaland Post is also the first newspaper in Nagaland to be published in multi-colour.

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