The Financial Express

It is 'now or never' for capping global warming

| Updated: April 20, 2022 20:38:02

Bangladesh is vulnerable to climate change. The July 2, 2002, photo shows that people wade through flood water in search of a dry ground in Jamalpur, Bangladesh. 	—Xinhua Photo Bangladesh is vulnerable to climate change. The July 2, 2002, photo shows that people wade through flood water in search of a dry ground in Jamalpur, Bangladesh. —Xinhua Photo

International Panel on Climate change (IPCC), a body of climate scientists appointed by the UN to provide scientific facts and figures on  climate change to government policymakers for taking necessary actions, has been producing six yearly assessment reports (AR) since 1990. The latest in this series, the sixth AR was released on March 31. In the past, the release of the report was covered extensively by media all over the world attaching great importance to it and governments also took it seriously, at least publicly. But this time, the raging war in Ukraine seems to have eclipsed the release of the IPCC Assessment Report (AR), resulting in limited discussions and analyses in media and the various inter-governmental forums. The major actors in the discussion of climate change issues and organisers of international meetings, the UN, America and Europe are so preoccupied with the war in Ukraine that the latest  AR  has been almost sidelined and placed in the backburner. As a result, the grim warning in the AR has become muted and secondary in importance. This is symptomatic of the traditional  approach to global crisis that treats one crisis at a time, rather than addressing them simultaneously. Another aspect of this traditional approach is that 'burning emergencies' like war receive not only prior attention but more time and policy actions than emergencies that are creeping in nature and not loud or in the nature of clear and  present danger. By being  'imminent', these crises are made to wait for the time being, when a  more pressing crisis is on hand. This approach is unfortunate, because it overlooks the more grievous and widespread emergency that threatens the lives of many more humans and in more countries. Needless to say, climate change with global warming as its most dangerous manifestation, posing existential threat to humans and all other living species, requires immediate and urgent attention of policy makers, alongside the crisis of war. The substitution of widespread and more lasting crises by short term ones, however acute, does not speak of a heightened level of pragmatism, nor does justice to the painstaking works of scientists who have been working, not for months, for years together. Surely, there are ways of taking both 'loud' and short term emergencies along with those of creeping and long term ones. The one-at-a-time approach to emergencies smacks of the inability to comprehend the broad picture and shortcoming in policy making that fails to prioritise in tandem, that is simultaneously.

Now, let us see what is new in the sixth AR of IPCC for which it demands immediate and urgent attention with a view to taking required actions. But before that let us look back and see why are we you here at this tipping point in respect of climate change. The warnings about the risks to the planet and its flora and fauna by burning fossil fuels were, first, made in 1950s. If those early warnings were heeded by countries we wouldn't be talking about global warming today. But the governments, business companies and  individuals who burn fossil fuels most did not listen. Had we taken steps as agreed in the Kyoto Climate Conference in 1997, we would not have the dire last minute warning by IPCC now. But countries failed to comply with their commitments, allowing the global warming to worsen. Finally, had countries  fulfilled their pledges made in 2015 Paris Climate Accord, the doomsday scenario presented by IPCC in their sixth AR would not have materialised. Contrary to commitments made to cut down on carbon  emissions, the race is now on to drill for more oil and gas and dig  out more coal following Russian invasion of Ukraine. The life style of people, particularly in the West, depending on ever-increasing use of  fossil fuel, on the other hand, has not changed even a bit to slow down the global warming juggernaut. Americans in particular, are full of wrath for having to pay one hundred dollars to fill their gas guzzling SUVs and heavy duty trucks. Their government has responded with, not appeal for change in life style based on austerity, but releasing energy from the national stock kept for emergencies. So, the war that should have been the occasion to cut down on fossil fuel (the main culprit for global warming) has, instead, has triggered efforts to have more oil and gas from alternative sources. Even the Covid pandemic's impact on economic activities based on fossil fuel did not see any significant let up in the industrial and transport sectors. If the pandemic effected even a temporary reduction in the use of fossil fuels emitting carbon dioxide (CO2),  the sixth Assessment Report of IPCC would have been different-- less sombre. But thanks to human avarice and  cavalier attitude of governments regarding climate change, it was not to be.

The message conveyed by the sixth AR is stark and full of dark forebodings. It bluntly says, the window for limiting global warming to 1.5 C is closing fast. Without any reservation the scientists who wrote the Report have said that the tipping point in global warming has arrived  and it is now or never to put a cap on  carbon emission before global warming wipes out lives of all species, including humans. Such a stark picture and stern warning have not been delivered by IPCC before. It has unequivocally held  human activities responsible for climate change, whereas in previous reports this cause and effect relationship was described as 'possible'. The scientists are now certain that unabated use of fossil fuels releasing CO2 into atmosphere has created a situation where the prospect of the Doom's Day clock striking zero appears probable. Shortly after releasing the sixth AR, the lead author of IPCC Helen Connick told BBC, 'I think the Report tells us that we have reached the now-or-never point of limiting global warming to 1.5 degree centigrade'. She further said, 'we have to peak our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions before 2025 and after that cut emissions very rapidly and deeply. And we have to do negative emissions on CO2 removal (through carbon capture and storage) shortly after 2050, in order to limit  warming to 1.5 C as agreed in 2015 Paris Climate Change Accord'.

The sixth Assessment Report of IPCC is the most comprehensive estimation of climate change to date. It has used the strongest words yet to assert that humans are causing climate change, with the first line saying: It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.

The Report describes possible scenarios depending on how rapidly the world cuts off fossil fuel use to reduce carbon emission. But even the severest of cuts are unlikely to prevent global warming of 1.5 degree celsius above the pre-industrial level of temperatures, the Report says. In the absence of immediate steep emission cuts, global warming may cruise past 2 degrees celsius by the end of the century, it has been concluded. The climate scientists also tracked events considered less likely but still possible, events such as the loss of Arctic ice and the denudation of forests. The Report points out that weather extremes considered once rare or unprecedented are becoming more common, a trend that will continue even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees celsius. Among other scenarios are : (a) severe heat waves that occurred once  every 50 years  will now happen once every decade, as in recent decades; (b) tropical cyclones will become more frequent and stronger; (c) more land areas will see more rain or snowfall every year; (d) severe droughts will  happen 1.7 times more often; and (e) fire storms will be more frequent  and intense,

According to the Report, sea levels are sure to keep rising, even if global warming is halted at 1.5 degrees centigrade. The average sea level would rise to about 2 to 3 meters or more. Sea level rise has picked up  speed as polar ice sheet is melting and warm ocean water expands. Already flooding in many coastal areas have doubled since the 1960s, with coastal surges set to occur at regular frequency.

The Report, says meeting the Paris Climate Accord  goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C  will require sticking to a carbon budget, that refers to how much  additional carbon can be pumped into atmosphere before that  goal is likely to be out of reach. The world is now on track to use up that  budget limit in about a decade. In quantitative  terms that means 400 billion tons that can be added after the addition of 2.3 trillion tons of CO2  to atmosphere since 1800s,which caused the average global temperatures to rise by 1.1 degree celsius.

According to the Report, the next four years  are critical because if emissions are not curbed by 2030, it will  be impossible to cap warming later in the century. Key to that are the short term remedies  of using alternative sources of energy e.g., solar, wind etc. Not to speak of having new oil and gas plants for energy production, even the existing ones have to be winded down to reach the emission target, according to the Report.

The IPCC Report mentions that only 22 countries have taken concrete steps to curb carbon emissions. The UN Secretary General came down heavily on countries that are doing much less than they promised, saying 'some countries are lying', strong words not used before. The IPCC Report, the sixth since 1990, reveals developments in climate since the last Report in 2014, which are stark and grim. The scale and speed of change in use of fossil fuel are massive. Aiming for 1.5 C  requires coal use to drop by 95 per cent and gas by 45 per cent by 2050.Yet countries cannot throw hands in despair if the apocalyptic consequences of  unabated rise in global warming are to be avoided. This is not an option for any country and each one has to contribute its bit to limiting warming. For developed countries the change in life style is easier  but the will to effect this at individual, corporate and government levels has be mustered.  For low income and emerging countries, it is not a question of political will as they are on the middle of growth path and have very little space for mitigation measures on their own. Any  international agreement on climate change should make this distinction and provide for an  action plan based on present capabilities of countries. But first of all, all countries have to take serious note of the warning by IPCC: It is now or never. At the next stage, the UN should convene a meeting (COP 27?) to discuss the AR and review actions taken as follow up of the 2015 Paris Accord. In convening this special meeting the same urgency should be shown as has been the case in holding meetings of security council and general assembly to discuss the war in Ukraine. Anything short of this will imply the world body and member countries treating existential threat to the whole of humanity as of secondary importance compared to the same in one country. Let IPCC' s Sixth Assessment Report be a game changer in the matter of addressing global crises and a point of departure from the traditional approach. Time is running out for the entire planet and all species living on it. The individuals, corporate sector and governments involved in global warming and its mitigation  have been warned by the IPCC for the sixth and perhaps the last time.


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