The Financial Express

Working towards greener world

| Updated: October 24, 2017 20:11:02

Shams-il Arefin Islam Shams-il Arefin Islam

FE: As a young professional, how do you look at the crisis of climate change from an academic point of view? What will you say about the global climate change policy?
Islam: We have surpassed 410 ppm of C02 in our atmosphere, higher than what we have found in ice core samples from the last 800,000 years. Land and sea temperatures are expected to rise, possibly reaching 4.0 degrees Celsius above present levels-enough to devastate crops. Both low and high-income countries such as Bangladesh and the US are falling into the firing range of climate change; experiencing sea-level rise, stronger storms, and severe heat waves. Bangladesh, India and Nepal saw 42 million people affected by the 2017 monsoons and over 1,200 lives have been lost. California just came out of a severe drought in 2011-16, and Texas was battered by extreme rainfall after the Hurricane Harvey, setting the record for most rainfall, at 52 inches, at any one place in the US in the past 50 years. The total financial damage of around US$ 160 billion will surpass that caused by the Hurricane Katrina. While some mainstream media are quick to generalise that the US does not believe in climate change, they should read the Yale University's climate change public opinion research. Data shows that 2 out of 3 Americans believe that global warming is happening. Furthermore, the Quadrennial Defence Review report released by the US Department of Defence highlighted climate change in its 2014 report, "The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition…these effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors…such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions..."
Unfortunately, the poor are on the frontlines of climate-related extremes. We have also seen in Syria the mass migration which was correlated with a civil war. While it is hard to peg a definitive cause-effect relationship between record breaking drought and war due to a plethora of variables, evidence shows that diminishing existential needs were a catalyst. Some years ago, the UN was considering a Peace Keeping Mission which would essentially step into conflicts resulting from falling resources. When considering changing blue helmets to green, someone quipped: what would the green helmet forces do? Shoot people with green bullets as they run to the well for water to remain alive?
We often underscore the beginnings of addressing environmental degradation at the 1992 Earth Summit. However, it was the 1972 Stockholm Conference when the engine to sustainability gained momentum. This conference (incubated under PM Pierre Trudeau), was the quintessential moment that led to the creation of UNEP. However, a missing element in the Stockholm conference was the plight of the 3.0 billion people who lived on less than a dollar a day. At the conference, Indian PM Indira Gandhi brought the perils of the poor through the following: "On the one hand the rich look askance at our continuing poverty--on the other, they warn us against their own methods. We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further." This culminated in the 1987 Our Common Future highlighting three pillars of sustainability: Economic, Social and Environmental.
FE: The Paris Accord raised hope but the US position has changed. How would this impact the future of the Paris Accord?
Islam: This was not the first time the US became ambivalent about climate accords. In 1997, after signing the Kyoto Protocol, the US avoided ratification due to economic concerns. However, we can postulate that the failures of Kyoto ushered in need that an agreement must be reached at Paris. US Special Envoy Todd Stern had a monumental challenge because the US had to address not ratifying the top-down approach of the Kyoto Protocol. However, the success of Paris did not come easily, representatives from various countries engaged in a tug of war and last-minute phrase and word changes. In fact, just hours before the final "take it or leave it" document, the US became aware of an obligation. The word that was 'mistakenly' put on the document was "should." The word "should" or "shall" would take the entire Paris Agreement to go from encouragement to legally binding. It was only when a last-minute effort was put by the French officials that the document was changed to 'shall.' A mere syntax but with far-reaching repercussions.
It is important to note that should the US formally leave the Paris agreement, the remaining signatories to the Paris Accord will still account for 80 per cent of global emissions. Therefore, the work is already cut-out for the remaining countries, making the only long-term issue--tapering of US contributions. Former Legal Adviser of US Department of State Professor Harold Koh at Yale described international agreements in the 21st century as such: "stickier than it might be assumed." Thus, even if the leave is confirmed, the final withdrawal would not be effective until 2020.
I believe a critical challenge is not the US leaving but how COP (climate change conference) meetings will address looming challenges of the Paris Agreement. The new agreement is more of a bottom-up framework for broader participation (where each nation will determine how much they can reduce). This lack of a globally agreed target enabled its success but will soon face difficult challenges along the road ahead.
Furthermore, verification will be a major obstacle. A recent BBC article stated "Our estimate for this location in Italy is about 60-80 tonnes of HFC-23 (GHG) being emitted every year. Then we can compare this with the Italian emission inventory, and that is quite interesting because the official inventory puts it below 10 tonnes..." Another example is the exporting of pollution to more vulnerable nations. Foreign Affairs Journal reports that while China has cancelled the building of 103 coal burning plants including increasing the efficiency and stringent emission controls, it is working to help Egypt and Pakistan build 140 coal plants. A new oxymoron in our lexicon is the use of "clean-coal." Coal extraction, transportation and use as 'clean' fuel are open to debate. Unfortunately, the world still relies on 29 per cent of its entire energy from coal and unless we actively move towards cleaner forms of energy, we are only delaying our response to climate change. So, can investing in coal burning plants be termed green investment?
FE: What should Bangladesh be focusing on to address the climate change issue? What leadership role(s) can the younger generation undertake?
Islam: The Green Climate Fund was created in 2010 for US$ 100 billion per year by 2020 to help nations combat climate change impacts. One study showed that at least US$ 12 trillion is needed to keep the average temperature rise below 2.0 degrees. According to another report, in Bangladesh the annual adaptation cost in the energy sector could be $ 89.3 million by 2030 and that is exactly where opportunities are embedded. We need to work with financial institutions for better private sector investments with higher impact. This can be achieved through risk management instruments with high leverage green energy bonds that focus on renewables. Bloomberg research shows investments in renewables have soared with South Africa posting 329 per cent growth to $ 4.5 billion and Chile up to $ 3.5 billion. The International Energy Agency calculates the cost at $ 50 to $ 80 per MWh for on-shore wind projects and $ 80 for large-scale solar projects. This brings the cost closer to coal-based energy systems. So, when the world is showing such a promise, why should Bangladesh be far behind?
When it comes to the role of the young generation, they need to develop awareness about the risks of climate impacts while connecting personal experiences to their everyday motivation. I vividly recall a massive storm as a child in London, no tree seemed to be spared. My aunt would place me on a low branch in Kew Gardens to play and to my great dismay this massive tree was gone. When I was 11, a tree replantation project was started and with great passion I planted saplings with our Scout leaders. I received a British Cub Scouts Badge, which I still proudly cherish today. In retrospect, their motto was to replant resilient trees that would withstand the next storm, and unknowingly that was my first experience with weather adaptation and probably paved the way to my academic trajectory.
Students should study to broaden knowledge and work for various organisations that address climate change such as at DU, BRAC, IUB, NSU, BRRI. They can learn about ethical green investments, mitigation and adaptation activities, and liaison with people working in the US, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK to both receive assistance and give back. Bangladesh Youth Environmental Initiative can be the starting point for individuals to network with people who share a common passion. (The founder was recently honoured by HRM Queen Elizabeth II) My own experience has led me towards Ashoka Fellows Mr. Sinha and Enayetullah at Waste Concern, Nobel Laureate Professor Yunus and Ms. Lamiya Morshed who have given their entire lives to work tirelessly with stakeholders at all rungs of the ladder. They provide vanguard support to causes greater than their individual selves. It is critical to note that these change-makers set aside temporal, partisan ideologies that separate us and instead use those divisions to find underlying connections that makes us humans. No matter what race we belong to, what religion we wish to follow and what political leanings are there, we all share our limited resources on one planet, with all living things. Thus, as intelligent species, shouldn't the onus be on us to take care of it?
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