Global warming and climate change have become a part of our lexicon during the past couple of decades. Prior to that these were not issues that concerned the average citizen. But today, as heatwaves, erratic weather and severe unseasonal storms seem to have become the norm, more and more of us are aware that something is very amiss.
In 2015, the signatories to the Paris climate agreement (India included) tasked a United Nations-backed panel of scientists and experts to assess how fast global warming was taking place and what could be done about it. This body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recently released a special report warning of an impending catastrophe. It basically said the world had just 12 years before global temperatures increased to 1.5 degrees Centigrade or more above the level that existed during pre-industrial times.
Anthropogenic emissions (meaning those caused by human activities) such as greenhouse gases and aerosols have already pushed up average global temperatures by at least 1 degree Centigrade above pre-industrial levels, according to the report.
The bad news is that if global warming continues at the current rate it would reach 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels anytime between 2030 and 2052. Worse still, it is quite possible that global warming could exceed this by a maximum of at least another 0.5 degrees.
A mere half-degree rise in temperatures would have an astonishingly high impact on today’s world, crammed as it is with marginal populations clinging on to a precarious existence in many parts of the world. South Asia is particularly vulnerable with its huge population and vast poverty.
The need of the hour is to push for measures that would restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees. For a rise of another half a degree would have catastrophic effects, including the complete extinction of corals in our oceans and a drastic reduction of insects that are critical for pollinating our crops.
Scientists point out that humans have evolved within a temperature band less than what exists today. A 2-degree or more upward shift could have unforeseen consequences not just for our planet but for humanity as a whole. As it is, several land and ocean ecosystems have already changed due to global warming.
The current threats include risks to small islands, even to entire nations like the Maldives, low-lying coastal areas and deltas. Apart from submergence there are the issues of salinity, flooding and damage to infrastructure. Many marine species are becoming extinct and even with a 1.5-degree rise, coral reefs are expected to decline by 70 to 90 per cent, which in turn would have a devastating effect on marine life as a whole.
The brunt of the climate changes would be felt by Arctic ecosystems, dryland regions, small-island developing states and the least developed countries, India included. Poverty too is bound to rise with erratic weather, fluctuating food production and ecological devastation.
One of the worst affected regions would be the Bengal delta, comprising a vast area of India and Bangladesh. This area would experience more tidal surges, increased river salinity and salt water intrusion. The impact would be devastating on local agriculture.
Heat stress would add another set of dangers. A 1.5-degree rise would expose more than 350 million people living in today’s megacities including Lagos (Nigeria), Shanghai (China), Kolkata (India) and Karachi (Pakistan) to deadly and persistent heatwaves such as those experienced in 2015.
For India, perhaps the biggest uncertainty revolves around the likely effect rising temperatures would have on the monsoons, on which the entire country depends. Problems could be caused by the increasing differentials in land and sea temperatures upon which the monsoon currents are based. Any upset could lead to a collapse of the monsoon system, although it could also lead to more rainfall — some of it calamitous, as we witnessed this year in Kerala.
The latest report, though ominous, is not a doomsday call. The panel believes that halting increases in carbon dioxide emissions and other human activities contributing to global warming is possible and could be done within a matter of decades.
The IPCC is working to prepare a roadmap to strengthen international efforts to counter the threat of climate change and put in place policies for sustainable development and poverty eradication.
However, reversing some of the effects caused by current levels of global warming would be extremely difficult. This includes the acidification of oceans and rising sea levels. The panel’s scientists believe that the seas will continue to rise beyond the next century even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees in this century. Melting ice in the polar regions could lead to rising sea levels over hundreds of years.
The good news is that a number of countries are doing their best to curtail greenhouse emissions and switch to more sustainable practices in agriculture and industry.
The panel points to the example of programmes in some countries that are worthy of emulation. These include Ethiopia’s “Climate-resilient Green Economy Strategy”, Mozambique’s “Green Economy Action Plan”, and Costa Rica’s ecosystem- and conservation-driven green transition paths.
India too has been striving to introduce policies and programmes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage renewable energy production and adopt ecologically sensitive technology. It has been doing this despite many odds which include the shortage of capital, the desperate need to produce more energy and feed its ballooning population.
The rapid electrification of India’s railways, the establishment of metro rail systems in many cities, the push towards electric and CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicles, the huge expansion in solar electricity generation are some of the positives.
This has happened in India despite the fact that the environment is not exactly an election issue. On the other hand, the world’s largest contributor to global warming, the United States, is planning to exit the Paris climate agreement. Some other countries, like Brazil, are threatening to implement policies that have a potential to destroy large swathes of stable ecosystems. The biggest danger today therefore is not humanity’s ignorance but its apparent inability to work together for the common good....