Climate change

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    18th Dec, 2019

Context

The 16 year old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, was declared ‘person of the year’ by Time magazine. CoP 25 summit was held in Madrid, Spain in December 2019.

Background:                                  

  • Climate Activism: With Greta Thunberg creating more consciousness in the world against risks of climate change, there is an attitudinal change about the issue and world’s youth is leading the demand for action. Many youth climate activists have marched in streets across the world demanding their leaders to take action against climate.
  • Climate Conference 25 (Cop25): CoP25 to UNFCCC was held in Madrid in December 2019 with the aim to finalise rules for the 2015 Paris climate accord, which required countries to limit global temperature rises to "well below" 2C above pre-industrial levels, and even further to 1.5C.
  • UN ‘emission gap’ assessment: The UNEP released annual "emissions gap" assessment, according to which, the world is on track to being 3.2C warmer, and needs to cut carbon emissions by 7.6% each year, every year, until 2030 to hit 1.5C limit.
  • Cost of climate change: Climate change could directly cost the world economy $7.9 trillion by 2050 (3% of world GDP). In general, developing countries are less resilient to climate change than richer ones.

Analysis

Evidence of climate change:

  • 2010s hottest decade: According to the UN, 2010s is the hottest decade in history as emissions are on the rise. Each of the last four decades has been hotter than the last. According to World Meteorological Organization (WMO), global temperatures are roughly 1C above pre-industrial average for 2019. WMO suggests an increase of 3-5C by the end of the century.
  • Climate related calamities: Heat waves and floods which used to be 'once in a century' events are becoming more regular occurrences. Examples include:
    • Deadly heat waves and drought in southern Europe, Australia and Japan
    • Super storms in southeast Africa
    • Wildfires in Australia, California, South America and eastern Siberia
    • Unusual Cyclonic conditions in the Indian ocean and Bay of Bengal
  • Permanent ecological damages: Apart from calamity occurrences, climate change is causing permanent ecological damages. The can have devastating consequences for the environment and sustainability of the planet.
    • Amazonian deforestation releasing carbon in atmosphere
    • Ice vanishing from both poles, especially West Atlantic ice sheet
    • Many rainforests turning to desert
    • Rising sea levels flooding into interior of continents
    • Irreversible loss of diversity among plants and animal
  • Ocean warming: Healthy oceans absorb carbon and provide a buffer against climate chaos, so damage to them is damage to the climate, and vice versa. Oceans absorb 90% of additional heat in the atmosphere and they are heating up at an unprecedented scale.
    • Oceans have absorbed 20-30% of anthropogenic CO2, have undergone increased acidification, and loss of oxygen from the surface down to the depth.
    • According to studies, rapid warming in Indo-Pacific is behind the change in global rainfall patterns.
  • Displacement: Disasters rooted in climate change have forced 20 million people to leave their homes annually over the past decade. Pacific nations, especially low-lying islands like Fiji, are particularly vulnerable to tropical storms and rising sea-level caused by climate change. Given the risk submergence, they must consider displacement of populations living close to the sea. People are three times more likely to be internally displaced because of climate change than conflict.

Causes of climate change

  • Co2 emission on rise: According to the Global Carbon Project, CO2 emissions are on rise by 0.6% in 2019 (2.1% in 2018). The reductions are not enough to stop global warming. Despite a significant decline in coal consumption in US and Europe, the higher global emissions are attributed to growth in natural gas and oil usage.
  • Industrial heat: Industrial products are essential to construction, infrastructure and manufacturing, but making them requires a lot of heat—heat that emits more carbon dioxide than all the world’s cars and planes. Many industrial processes start with melting rocks by burning fossil fuels, and development of alternative technologies is far behind and expensive.
  • Land degradation: Land degradation, mainly due to human activities like deforestation, mining/quarrying, construction, roads, other infrastructure for economic development, human settlements for increasing population, etc., is a contributing factor to climate change. Even agriculture and related activities are degrading land, including groundwater resources.
  • Meat consumption: IPCC report ‘Climate Change and Land’ emphasises the ever-increasing global meat consumption and the resulting distorted land-use pattern to meet this requirement, as a cause contributing to climate change. The EAT-Lancet Commission report also supports this; it adds biodiversity loss, natural water depletion and carbon emission to the associated risks.
    • Creating pastures to feed cattle causes huge deforestation. Processing, preservation and packaging of cattle slaughtered is also highly GHG-generation intensive process.
    • Cattle itself is responsible for producing high quantities of methane, which has a far greater carbon footprint compared to carbon dioxide.
  • Disregard for ocean health: Overfishing, plastic pollution, micro-plastics, flow of fertilisers and chemicals etc. is suffocating fish and damaging ocean health. More than 1 billion people depend on the oceans. Ocean health is vital to biodiversity, healthy fisheries and to regulate the climate.

New-age measures adopted/suggestions to control climate damage

  • Carbon markets: Creation of ‘carbon markets’ under the Paris Agreement allows countries, or industries, to earn carbon credits for emission reductions they make in excess of what is required of them. These credits can be traded to the highest bidder in exchange of money. The buyers of carbon credits can show the emission reductions as their own and use them to meet their own emission reduction targets.
  • Climate- Neutral Europe: In a ‘Green Deal’, Europe has vowed to become the first ‘climate-neutral’ continent by 2050, as it aims to eliminate its net discharges of greenhouse gases. This will be done through creating single set of definitions, to determine what economic activities are sustainable and should count as green, in areas ranging from finance to design of cities.
    • Stricter emission limits for industries from cars to chemicals; revamped energy taxes; new rules on subsidies for companies; greener farming; and a possible environmental import tax.
  • Markets pricing carbon risks: For long climate specialists warned about a “carbon bubble” in which markets ignore or massively undervalue the risks to companies from climate change. But latest studies suggest that especially since the Paris Agreement of 2015, financial markets have seriously started to factor in ‘carbon risk premiums’ in their price settings and valuation of stocks.
  • Carbon capture: Carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) is essential to reducing carbon emissions from heavy industry, especially cement and steel production. It is more affordable than most other option—far cheaper and more readily available than electrical heating or burning biomass.
    • CCUS also supports production of one of the most viable and versatile low-carbon fuels: hydrogen.
    • Low-carbon hydrogen is known as “blue” hydrogen.
    • CCUS can create future opportunities for “green” hydrogen, made from zero-carbon electricity and water.
  • Shift to vegetarianism: While the entire process of agricultural production also generates significant GHG, but there is scientific evidence that its carbon footprint is much less compared to meat production. A much less area of land is needed globally to feed the population if we to shift to a plant-based diet.
  • New Climate Economy: Studies suggest that shifting to a low-carbon economy represents USD 26 trillion growth opportunity that could create 65 million new jobs by 2030. Today, the fastest-growing job creators in several economies are those related to solar, wind and geothermal energy and related businesses.

Kuznets Curve:

Kuznets curve hypothesis postulates that climatic pressure increases up to a certain level as economic growth goes up, but after a threshold the relationship reverses. GDP is taken as a measure of growth.

Alternate measures of growth:

It is argued that it is impossible to achieve sustainable decision-making aiming at sustainable progress and economic well-being if welfare is being considered from a purely financial point of view. Alternate measures, instead of GDP, as proxy measures for growth:

  • Happy Planet Index by New Economics Foundation: based on factors such as life expectancy and ecological footprint per capita, and one subjective indicator ‘life satisfaction’.
  • Economic Freedom Index by Heritage Foundation and Fraser Institute.
  • Genuine Progress Indicator (proposed in 1989) could be a superior measure to proxy the growth and well-being of individuals, primarily in the field of ecological economics. It is often debated that it

Concerns

  • Europe’s Climate-neutral stand requires scrutiny: Europe will create standards for green investments, which will require its banks to back sustainable assets. But any capital relief for green assets must be based on clear evidence that they are less risky than non-green assets.
  • China’s international activity: China is financing construction of many new coal plants in other countries. China’s reliance on coal can undo the positive work being done to address the issue; hence Chinese involvement is critical in fighting climate change.
  • Non-meaningful action by countries: US has threatened to walk out of the Paris Agreement. UN’s Production Gap report estimates that the world is on track to produce 150% more coal in 2030 than compliance limit. Some other countries are suggesting a Paris walkout. Climate action by three major fossil fuel producers, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, is estimated to be critically insufficient. Seven large economies—the US, Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Japan are not on track to meet their NDC targets for 2030.
  • Accumulated carbon credits: A carbon market already existed under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (getting replaced by Paris Agreement in 2020). Several countries walked out of the Kyoto Protocol, resulting in lack of demand for carbon credits. Developing countries like India, China and Brazil had accumulated huge amounts of carbon credits, which are now in danger of getting redundant.
    • Some countries want the accumulated carbon credits to remain valid under the new carbon market to be instituted. But developed countries are resisting this suggestion claiming that weak verification mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol had allowed dubious projects to earn credits.

Where does India stand in the fight against climate change?

India is also facing the brunt of climate change; with erratic monsoon, unusual rainfall, differing season patters, drought conditions, cyclonic disturbances, flash floods, rise in average temperatures, etc. Electricity generation is the largest source of carbon emissions in India, with 72% of electricity being generated by burning coal. India launched the National Solar Mission in 2010 and set up the International Solar Alliance (ISA) in 2015. Its current commitment to set up non-fossil fuel power in the country is 450 GW. India must also consider becoming net carbon neutral.

Conclusion

Climate change is outpacing humanity's ability to adapt to it. Since steps needed to address climate change are costly in the short run, governments, businesses, and individuals often make climate change someone else’s problem. Governments must fulfil their national commitments made under various global treaties, businesses must become more responsible, and individuals must become more conscious of their carbon footprint. This is the only way to avert the looming climate crisis.

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