Peace or environment?
Humanity&’s Healthy Existence At Stake
AMID the utter surprise over the Nobel Peace prize award on 11 October to a hitherto relatively inconspicuous entity ~ the United Nations-backed Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ~, a less covered, but all the more compelling, event was the release of the report of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the same Swedish capital Stockholm a couple of weeks earlier. After its last report drew flak for its sweeping observations on the state of play in the planet that is home to us all and how the tipping point is all set to overwhelm us all through an ecological apocalypse, the 27 September report with its 2000-plus pages written by more than 200 lead authors (scientists) and 100 bureaucrats from 195 governments disowned its previous most extreme scenarios which pinpointed the temperature would rise by more than 6C (43F) by 2100.
But the latest set of findings, fifth in a series since 1988 and the first from the UN-convened body since 2007 when its report created a ruckus among scientists and skeptics over its controversial content that global warming was happening at a faster clip, broadly bear out what its previous report released way back in 1990, described as the concern that human activities might be inadvertently changing the climate of the globe through the enhanced greenhouse effect. Concentrations of the greenhouse gases emitted when fossil fuels are burnt ~ the principal one being carbon dioxide ~ have risen to levels not seen in at least the last 800,000 years, the report said. Besides, the rate of sea-level rise is larger than in the previous 2000 years. Arctic sea-surface temperatures are among the highest in at least 1450 years. The new report forecasts an average temperature rise of 1.5 to 4.5 degree Celsius if carbon levels are allowed to double. It says sea levels have risen by 19 cm over the past century and will swell by 26 cm to 82 cm over the rest of the current one, depending on how much carbon humanity emits. Ice caps and glaciers are likely to continue their retreat, with Australia in particular likely to feel the heat. By the end of the century, the hottest day Down Under would be on an average 6 degrees hotter than now.
Asserting that it was ‘unequivocal’ that warming of the globe was happening, the IPCC said that the dominant force behind it was human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels. Without mincing words and in the direst warning, the report said that unless strong emission reduction measures are put in place across the world in the coming years, the possibility of temperature increase, as compared to industrial-age levels remaining below 2 degree Celsius (2C), are less than likely. The 2 C increase is deemed a tipping point beyond which scientists believe horrendous levels of climate change would be triggered off, disrupting the planetary ecosystem. It rightly hoisted the red signal that at current emission rates, it might be just decades before global temperatures escalate to risky levels.
A summary of the report points out that if mankind wants a 50 per cent chance of avoiding global warming of more than 2C, which countries have agreed would be perilous, we cannot emit in total more than between 820 billion and 1445 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases over the next century.
Given that we are currently emitting 50 billion tonnes of emissions every year, even if we stay at current levels, we will use up our entire budget in 15 to 25 years; and if we carry on increasing annual emissions at the present rate, we will exhaust it even quicker. Hence the IPCC report should now convince all world leaders to expedite their efforts to tackle climate change resolutely and with some radical proposals rather than banking on wishy-washy ones that marked most of the past.
It may be noted that the UN has been organising climate negotiations since mid-1990s and the high point was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, by far the world&’s only global treaty legally obliging countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Though Kyoto set emission norms for countries historically responsible for the climate problem, the target could seldom be scaled because of lack of active involvement by member countries. The world&’s biggest emitter in 1997 ~ the United States ~ never ratified Kyoto and the world&’s biggest emitter today ~ China ~ was treated as a developing country that did not have to cut its carbon pollution. As a result of this irony, emissions kept soaring to endanger the environment and the planet. It is altogether a different story how the major industrial cities of the Middle Kingdom have become a tourist nightmare and a resident evil due to ineffaceable pollution that endangers the quality of life.
In 2009, the UN convention on climate change at Copenhagen was supposed to come out with something better but it was able to craft and draft an accord only goading governments to make voluntary emission pledges to keep temperature from rising beyond 2C. Although pledges have been made, they do not collectively meet the 2C target. In 2011, countries pledged to come up with a new legally binding climate agreement by 2015 and the then French President, Mr Hollande, grabbed the offer to host the meeting in suburban Paris’ Le Bourget exhibition centre under the UN aegis in 2015.
Interestingly, the shift to low-carbon economy by burning less fossil fuel is easier said than done with the world&’s emerging economies including China, India and Brazil not willing to shoulder equal responsibility for the past excesses of the developed world on this score.
As the threat of climate breakdown looms large in the absence of a compromise on how to husband the common good of mankind, the international community must start in earnest talks on the world&’s ‘carbon budget’ ~ the amount of greenhouse gas that can be belched forth into the atmosphere without triggering insufferable climate change. But the schism on how to apportion the remaining carbon budget has become a bone of contention as it clashes with the development aspirations of a few billion people against the ostrich-like mindset of a few million in the developed world who believe in “equity and the principle of common” but not on “different responsibilities as well as respective capabilities”. Though South Africa is reported to be toying with the idea of even breaking ranks with the emerging economies by pitching for legally binding protocol on climate change, this will not do. On the other hand, the world&’s leading power like the USA, which skirted the Kyoto Protocol, should take a call on how it can work towards a new legally binding global protocol on climate change in the run-up to the 2015 conference. More than peace, what is at stake is humanity&’s healthy existence in the years to come and any postponement of hard decisions now would only condemn posterity to live in a flinty world with no predictable weather pattern to enliven their existence!
The writer is a Delhi based freelance journalist and can be contacted at [email protected])