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Planet in Peril

The GHG molecule does not know about political boundaries. It’s never heard of passports. It has no brain, so it does not understand national sovereignty. It’s just blown by the winds, moved by the circulation of the planet.

Jaydev Jana |

In Greek mythology, the beauty of Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam, caught the eye of the archer-god Apollo, who bestowed upon her the gift of prophecy but later placed a curse upon her that no one would ever heed her predictions. However, despite Cassandra’s accurate foresight of the destruction of Troy, her predictions were met with disbelief. Today, scientists are under a similar curse. No issue is more illustrative of Cassandra’s curse than global climate change. 

Climate change is real. It is a reality that is not going away. We are in the midst of the worst heatwave in a century. We are already experiencing doomsday scenarios that climate scientists had projected for the distant future. In 1988, in recognition of the potential importance of climate change, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO, a UN Agency) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has been conducting periodic reviews (every six or seven years) of the state of scientific knowledge on climate change for the last 30 years. It prepares Assessment Reports about the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, its impact and future risks, and options for reducing the rate at which climate change is taking place. It also produces Special Reports on topics agreed to by member governments, as well as Methodology Reports that provide guidelines for the preparation of greenhouse gas inventories. Hundreds of climatologists, meteorologists, and other scientists from around the world are involved in the preparation of IPCC reports as authors, contributors, and expert reviewers. 

IPCC assessments and special reports are prepared by three Working Groups, each looking at different aspects of the science related to climate change. Working Group I (The Physical Basis), Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability) and, Working Group III (Mitigation of Climate change). The IPCC also has a Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories, whose main objective is to develop and refine a methodology for calculation and reporting of national greenhouse gas emissions and removals. 

The Working Groups and Task Force handle the preparation of reports, selecting and managing experts that work on them as authors. The activities of each Working Group and the Task Force are supported by their Technical Support Units (TSU). 

In 1990, the First IPCC Assessment Report (FAR) under- lined the importance of climate change as a challenge with global consequences and requiring international cooperation. It played a decisive role in the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the key international treaty to reduce global warming and cope with the consequences of climate change. The Second Assessment Report (SAR, 1995) provide important material for governments to draw from in the run-up to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Third Assessment Report (TAR 2001) focused attention on the impacts of climate change and the need for adaptation. The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) laid the groundwork for a post ~ Kyoto agreement, focussing on limiting warming to 2OC. The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was finalised between 2018 and 2014. It provided the scientific input into the Paris Agreement. Currently, the agency is in the process of publishing its Sixth Assessment cycle where it will prepare three Special Reports, a Methodology Report and the Sixth Assessment Report. 

On 9 August 2021, the IPCC released the first part of its report – the verdict of Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). The report is considered the largest ever with inputs from over 14,000 scientific papers and the first after 2013. Prepared by IPCC’s Working Group 1 (WG-1) on the Physical Science Basis it has grim forecasts on how global warming has impacted us and will impact us in the near future. It took just 120 years for humans to alter the planet’s climate.
The planet is hardly recognisable or comparable to the one that existed in 1850-1900 ~ the pre-industrial period ~ when the climate was still without the perceptible influence of greenhouse gases
(GHGs that include long-lived compounds like CO2, N2O and some fluorinated gases) released from fossil fuels consumption. Since then humans have played a dominant role in driving climate change, triggering extreme weather events, altering the pattern of seasons and causing sea level rises, states the IPCC report, which reads like a self-inflicted death sentence. 

In the words of Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, “The IPCC Working Group 1 Report is a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are defeating and the evidence is irrefutable. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.” 

Following the first instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, Working Group II’s report released on 28 February 2022 draws from 34,000 studies that involved 270 authors from 67 countries. It provides one of the most comprehensive examinations of the intensifying impacts of climate change and future risks, particularly for resource ~ poor countries and marginalised communities. The IPCC also published the third instalment of AR6 on 4 April 2022. The report prepared by the IPCC Working Group III focuses on the mitigation of climate change i.e., the solutions necessary to halt global warming. The full report collates the latest scientific research from across the world and extends to thousands of pages. But a condensed 63-page summary titled the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) captures the highlights. 

According to the report, Earth’s average surface temperature will cross 1.50 C in the next 20 years, and 2OC by the middle of the century if there is no drastic reduction in GHG emissions. Even if emissions are brought to the net zero by the middle of the century, there will be an ‘overshoot’ of the 1.5O C limit by 0.1OC. The threshold of 2OC will be ‘exceeded during the 21st century’ without deep emission cuts ‘in the coming decades.’ During the first two decades of the 21st century, the average global surface temperature was 0.99o C higher than the 1860-1900 level. But in the decade 2011-2020, the rise was 1.09oC above the historic base period, indicating faster warming of the planet. “The estimated increase in global surface temperature since AR5 is principally due to further warming since 2003-2012 (adding +0.19 o C),” scientists found in the IPCC report based on consultation of as many as 1400 scientific reports. Other recent reports have indicated that for specific months or years, the world might cross the 1.5OC mark in the next five years. Though this would not translate to the world’s overall crossing the 1.5oC mark, it does indicate the unprecedented levels of warming humans are causing. 

In the best-case scenario, known as the C1 pathway, the IPCC outlined what the world needs to do to limit temperatures to 1.5OC, with limited, or no ‘overshoot’. To achieve the C1 pathway, global GHG emissions must fall 43 per cent by 2030 compared to 2019 levels, amounting to 31 GtCO2e (Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2030. And the use of coal, oil, and gas must decline by 95, 60 and 45 per cent respectively by 2050 compared to 2019. 

The 3,000-page report of WGIII reveals that in 2019, global net anthropogenic GHG emissions were at 59 GtCO2e, 54 per cent higher than in 1990. Anthropogenic emissions refer to emissions that originate from human-driven activities like burning of coal for energy or cutting down forests, burning of fossil fuels and industrial sectors, as well as methane emissions. Net emissions refer to emissions accounted for after deducting emissions soaked up by the world’s forests and oceans. The average annual rate of growth slowed to 1.3 per cent per year in the period 2010-19, compared to 2.1 per cent in the period 2000-09. At least, 18 countries have reduced GHG emissions for longer than 10 years on a continuous basis due to decarbonisation of their energy system, energy efficiency measures and reduced energy demand. 

Widespread system transformations are required across the energy, buildings, transport land and other sectors, to achieve 1.5oC and this will involve the adoption of low-emission or zero-carbon pathways of development. Solutions are available at affordable costs. The cost of low emissions technologies has also fallen continuously since 2010. On a unit costs basis, solar energy has dropped 85 per cent, wind by 55 per cent and lithium-ion batteries by 85 per cent. 

Their deployment, or usage, has increased manifold since 2010 ~ ten times for solar and 100 times for electric vehicles. The IPCC report ascribed this success to ‘public R&D, funding for demonstration and pilot projects and demand-pull instruments such as deployment subsidies to attain scale.’ 

The report also states with confidence that several mitigation options, solar energy, wind energy, electrification of urban systems, urban infrastructure, energy efficiency, demand-side management and reduced food waste and loss, are technically viable, increasingly cost-effective and are generally supported by the public. 

Reducing fossil fuel use in the energy sector, demand management and energy efficiency in the industrial sector and adopt- ing principles of ‘sufficiency’ and efficiency in the construction of buildings are among the solutions the report outlines. It adds that demand-side mitigation, i.e. behavioural changes such as adopting plant-based diets, or shifting to walking and cycling “can reduce global GHG emissions in end-use sectors by 40-70 per cent by 2050 compared to baseline scenarios and improve wellbeing.” Investing in decarbonisation would have a minimal impact on global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Says Priyadarshi Shukla, the Co-Chair of IPCC WGIII, “Without taking into account the economic benefits of reduced adaptation costs or avoid- ed climate impacts, global GDP would be just a few percentage points lower in 2050 if we take actions necessary to limit warming to 2OC or below, compared to maintaining current policies.” 

Global warming ~ as well as ozonosphere depletion, nuclear winter, acid rain, and other new global environmental problems ~ has a new character. The GHG molecule does not know about political boundaries. It’s never heard of passports. It has no brain, so it does not understand national sovereignty. It’s just blown by the winds, moved by the circulation of the planet. A planet is a unit. We cannot continue mindless growth in technology, with widespread negligence about the consequences of that technology. It is well within our power to curb technology, to direct it to the benefit of everyone on Earth.