Averting the climate change catastrophe

— Arvind Kumar

The recently released reports by UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn about severe negative effects of climate change, especially on food security, water supplies and human health. The reports also conclude that in order to avoid what’s generally agreed to be catastrophic warming; by 2050 global greenhouse gas emissions are going to have to drop to about 40 to 70 percent of what they were in 2010. By the end of the century, they’ll have to be at zero, or possibly even less than that and more on the downward side.

The following are the negative impacts of global warming flagged by recent report of IPCC:

 Food security

 Undoubtedly, recent decades have witnessed increase in crop yields in general, but the rate of improvement would have been even faster had it not been for climate change. The signature of rising temperatures and heat stress are already showing on yield of wheat and maize. All aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change, including food access, utilization and price stability.451853435

A need for more labor to produce food to offset dropping crop yields could leave fewer workers available for other work. As food becomes more expensive, consumers may shift to cheaper foods but also spend less on other goods and services. Climate change may also increase competition for labor, capital, land and water.

Freshwater supplies

 The impact on water is unpredictable: wetter weather could yield a windfall of $3 trillion in the U.S. in the 21st century; drier weather could raise costs by $13 trillion. Ensuring enough water for industry and other consumption will cost about $12 billion a year worldwide while development of water supply and provisioning in developing countries will cost $73 billion.

As global temperature rises, so does the fraction of the human population that are affected by either water scarcity or river flooding. According to the IPCC report, climate change over the 21st century is projected to reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions.

Loss of species

 The risk of plant and animal extinctions increases under all climate change scenarios, but they get worse with higher temperatures. Loss of trees and forest dieback will be a particular problem in a warmer world, the report says. “A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species face increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century, especially as climate change interacts with other stressors such as habitat modification, over-exploitation, pollution and invasive species,” it says.

Ocean acidification 

Coral reefs and shelled marine creatures, especially the smaller animals at the base of the marine food chain, are at special risk of rising carbon dioxide concentrations, which are causing the oceans to become more acidic and less alkaline. This in turn will affect human populations that rely on sea fish as a food source.

Global economy

 481010927Economic losses due to climate change are difficult to assess and many past estimates have not taken into account the catastrophic changes that could result from the climate passing a “tipping point”. Losses, however, are more likely than not to be greater, rather than smaller, than an estimated range of between 0.2 and 2 per cent of global income loss due to a temperature rise of about 2°C.

Scientists say climate change will worsen poverty, especially in tropical, developing countries, but even in affluent countries. Climate-related diseases such as malaria and diarrhea impair children’s cognitive and physical development, while higher child death rates may lead parents to have more children, reducing the amount of money available to care for and educate each child.

Relocation of industries and communities will cost billions of dollars even in wealthy countries. Countries must also reckon with damage to transport infrastructure, homes, industries and agriculture from increasingly extreme weather, droughts and storms, especially in low-lying coastal areas.

Human security

 Climate change can indirectly increase the risk of violent conflicts, such as civil wars, by amplifying the well-documented “drivers” such as poverty and economic shocks. Climate change will also increase the risk of unplanned displacement of people and a change in migration patterns, the report says Climate change raises the risks of violent conflict such as civil wars by amplifying the impacts of poverty and economic crises, while increasing competition for scarce land, water and food. The resulting damage, deaths and instability would exact a steep toll on affected economies.

Apart from the monetary toll from damage and uncertainties connected with climate change there are many intangible impacts that can exact a price impossible to tally in monetary terms; such as human deaths, extinction of species, damage to ecosystems, and loss of cultural heritage, among many.

The potential pathways

 The IPCC reports also suggest affordable actions to be taken urgently and Charles Kolstad, a lead author of the IPCC report, has emphasized this above all else: “The longer we wait, the costlier it will be.”

The potential pathways toward change are multifaceted, complicated and, in many cases, controversial. The IPCC makes it a point not to recommend specific policies, but instead to summarize the scientific and technical knowledge available from which policymakers can then act. The following suggestions have been adapted from these IPCC report:

Switching to renewable

 Clearly, a crisis brought about by the burning of fossil fuels isn’t going to be solved by more of the same. Halving, and ultimately eliminating, greenhouse gas emissions requires eliminating their source as well. In the next two decades, according to the report, fossil fuel use will need to decline by about 20 percent — phasing out coal, in particular, would have a significant impact. Investment in low-carbon energy, conversely, will need to double.

Putting a price on carbon

 An international carbon tax could be a cost-effective way to coax those CO2 emissions down to a management level. Plus, it’s “a general principle,” 476589041the report notes, that “mitigation policies that raise government revenue generally have lower social costs than approaches which do not.”

Taking the carbon out of the atmosphere

 This one’s more controversial: If we can’t break free of fossil fuels or if we vastly overshoot our emissions goals, carbon capture and storage technology is put forth as a way of retroactively taking back what we’ve done. The controversy arises from the fact that such technologies don’t currently exist at scale, and there’s no indication that they’ll be available or affordable in the future. Preventing the need to do this in the first place, the report’s authors are careful to note, is probably a better plan.

Constructing greener buildings

 The buildings we live and work in account for 32 percent of global energy use; energy demand and the consequent emissions could increase anywhere from 50 to 150 percent by mid-century. Approaching new construction with energy efficiency in mind, and retrofitting our old buildings by the same principles, are both necessary, and would affect massive change.

Planning better cities

 About half of the world’s population has been living in urban areas since 2011; by 2050, it could be as many as 70 percent of us. The next two decades, according to the report, are therefore an important window of opportunity during which to get cities right. The best urban planning will integrate things like well-placed residential and employment centers, efficient use of land and space and access to and investment in public transportation. With that can and should come benefits to city dwellers: access to energy, limited air and water pollution and continued employment opportunities.

Bringing industry in line

 It is saddening to know that greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2010 grew at a faster rate than over the three previous decades. Industry accounted for 30 percent of that growth, is responsible for 28 percent of global energy use and currently is the source of more emissions than the transport or building sectors. As per IPCC report, wide-scale upgrading, replacement and deployment of best available technologies could reduce that energy intensity by up to 25 percent. However, the economic case for reducing emissions is sound because ‘many emission-reduction options are cost-effective, profitable and associated with multiple benefits.’ the report notes. However, there are barriers also like lack of policy and regulations, for one, and lack of experience in material and service efficiency, for another.

166309324Making better use of land

According to the IPCC report, Afforestation, also known as the opposite of what’s happening now – deforestation – has potential as another way to help remove carbon from the atmosphere, though the report notes that the evidence to suggest this is limited. Ditto planting things that can be used as biofuels — doing so could maybe help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to what extent, and at what cost, is poorly understood. Replanting forests, sustainably managing the ones we’ve got and quitting cutting them down are the most cost-effective mitigation options we’ve got, so far as forest land is concerned — in agriculture, best practices include cropland and grazing land management, along with the restoration of organic soils.

Adopting greener life style

Obviously, this is going to take more than individual action. But lifestyle and behavioral changes aren’t to be discounted — especially if we can design policies and infrastructure that encourage us to live differently. In buildings, for example, such changes could reduce energy demand by up to 20 percent in the short term and by up to 50 percent by 2050. Changes in consumption, diet and food waste are all listed as important considerations as well.

International Cooperation

Climate change is a global problem and its solution requires international cooperation. According to Robert Stavins, one of the authors of the IPCC report, effective mitigation would not be achieved if individual agents continued to advance their own interests independently. He has further emphasized the ideas of the global commons: While the benefits of taking action are global, the costs of doing so are local, and thus carry unequal weight. For some forms of geo-engineering, he added, the reverse is even possible: technologies can have local benefits but a net-negative impact on the rest of the world. This is a global problem that requires a global solution: We’re all in this together, people.

India’s Role

Many experts feel that India’s effort about the business of reducing its emissions and tackling climate change has been half-hearted. Undoubtedly, the outgoing Indian government developed a National Action Plan on Climate Change, which was a good exercise, but it has not been implemented faithfully. These experts also lament that there are certain ministries of the Government of India which have done nothing and there has been no movement on the Sustainable Urban Mission.

Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has aptly observed in this regard: “In the case of the Solar Energy Mission I see no reason why we cannot raise our level of ambition because the technology is around and it could be cost effective. We continue to import more and more coal and invest heavily in coal mines in Australia and other parts of the world. If you carry out a proper estimate of economic costs, including the externalities that we are imposing with coal burning, then you would find that in a number of areas solar energy makes sense.”

Many experts, including Pachauri, feel that the first thing the new government that will assume power soon, should do is to create a Ministry of Energy, rather than the fragmentation, which is there currently in the form of so many different parts of the energy sector under different Prakash_Javadekar01ministries. They emphasise on the need for a very senior minister to head Ministry of Energy and a Minister of State in each of the component ministries. It has been pointed out that the new government should carry out a reappraisal of national climate policy, both domestically and internationally. India is a country of more than 1.2 billion people and the impacts of climate change are going to be progressively more serious for all.

Apart from undertaking domestic measures to contain the negative impact of climate change, India should impress upon other major polluting countries to abide by the limitations imposed by the IPCC and other international agencies in the realm of climate change. With the new regime in place, and new environment and forest minister Prakash Javadekar, one could expect more changes in the offing. After all, it is a common problem that defies all geographical barriers hence its solution can only be found by our collective endeavours.

* The author is President, India Water Foundation, New Delhi and can be reached on twitter.com/drarvindkumar1


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