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Note

Checking Climate Change

Bharat Dogra

Climate change is an extremely disturbing example of a global problem whose alarming seriousness has been recognized for at least three decades and yet the actual record of controlling or checking this problem has been extremely dismal.

The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increased from 385 parts per million (ppm) in 1994 to 412 ppm in 2018.

The global temperature was 0.250C above pre-industrial level in the early 1990s. It was 1.10C above pre-industrial level in 2018.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) annual emissions today are 60% higher than 1994 levels. In 2018, global carbon dioxide emissions increased by 2.7%, one of the highest annual increases.
In 1994 about 80% of the global primary energy supply came from fossil fuels. This figure was more or less the same 24 years later in 2018.

According to the International Energy Agency the 2018 growth rate for energy consumption was almost thrice the average growth rate since 2010. Nearly 70% of the energy demand growth was from burning fossil fuels.

The increase in extreme weather events during the last three decades or so is widely believed to be related to a significant extent to this failure to check climate change, although certainly other factors are also at work. Between 1997 and 2016, extreme weather events caused more than 500,000 deaths and economic losses amounting to approximately $3.16 millions at world level.

Since 1980 earth has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat. The deadly European heat wave of 2003 killed as many as many as 2000 people a day.

In mid 2017 when President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement it was a big blow to the existing efforts to check climate change as the USA potentially can play the most important role in this task. Prof. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, a leading expert, spoke to Robinson Meyer of the Atlantic (June 3, 2017—'Avoiding two degrees of warning is now totally unrealistic')

"We don't have much time to avoid the two degrees of warning that would destabilize ice sheets, entail extreme heat waves, and potentially undermine food security. And this decision (regarding the USA leaving the Paris Agreement) is just enough to push us over the edge, in my view. I think it is totally unrealistic now to believe that we care going to meet that objective.

"So in a personal way, for someone who has worked on this issue for decades, this more than any other setback, seem to indicate that it's highly unlikely that we can make the two degrees goal. The Trump action pushed us over the edge, and basically Trump owns the responsibility now for this problem."

Given such warnings of climate change being extremely serious, are we at present preparing to make amend for past mistakes? While the need is to move ahead of Paris goals, even if we speak only in terms of meeting Paris goals by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry will have to be approximately reduced by half in each decade. According to Global Warning of 1.5 degrees Report of the IPCC released in October 2018, carbon dioxide emissions will have to be reduced by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels and reach net-zero by 2050.

As compared to such goals, look at the reality that more than 1600 new coal plants are due to start generation in the next few decades (most under contract from Chinese companies). The Trump administration in the USA is offering new subsidies to coal companies. In addition new projects involving exploitation of oil sands ( tar sands ) and oil shale in Canada, the USA and some other countries appear to indicate preparations for prolonging high levels of oil use, that too of varieties which have higher than normal GHG emissions and in overall terms are also more polluting.

Hopeful projections of keeping global warming to 1.5 degree C are also based on the unrealistically optimistic assumption that very big technological breakthroughs for large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere will be possible.

Rob Jackson, Chairman of the Global Carbon Project, was asked about this by Robinson Meyer of the Atlantic (January, 15, 2019). Jackson replied, "It's a very dangerous game, I think. We're assuming that this thing we can't do today will somehow by possible and cheaper in future. I believe in technology, but I don't believe in magic." Such realistic appraisal of the current situation is needed.

Given such realities it has been argued that adequate and timely reduction of GHG emissions to escape tipping point levels may not be compatible with the existing framework of tackling climate change or even with the existing overall economic system. If this is the reality, then this must be faced squarely and we should prepare for the bigger economic and governance changes.

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Frontier
Vol. 51, No. 47, May 26 - Jun 1- 18, 2019