Climate change: Act fast or perish
For 27 years after creation of United Nations in October 1945, environmental issues were not major concern of the UN
For 27 years after creation of United Nations in October 1945, environmental issues were not major concern of the UN. It was during the first Earth Summit, also known as United Nations Scientific Conference, held in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 1972, a declaration was adopted for setting up principles for preservation and enhancement of human environment. The declaration, for the first time, raised the issue of climate change, warning governments to be mindful of the activities that could lead to climate change and evaluate likelihood and magnitude of climate effects. But only in 1988 when global warming and depletion of Ozone layer got prominence in international debates and political agenda, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a forum for examination of greenhouse gases warming was established.
Subsequently, when the urgency of climate change was felt, in the United Nations Conference of Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, there was opening of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with an aim to stabilise atmospheric concentration of "greenhouse gases" to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with climate system. In December 1997, Kyoto Protocol in Japan was adopted to UNFCCC with an objective to reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases by atleast 6-8 percent below 1990 levels by the industrialised countries. The Conference of Parties (CoP) are being held by the UN every year in different countries, India also hosted CoP-8 of UNFCCC during 2002 in New Delhi.
The most important UNFCCC, the COP-21 was held in Paris, France from 30th November to 12th December 2015. The Conference resulted in Paris Agreement. Paris Agreement's central aim was to strengthen global response to the threat of climate change by keeping global temperature rise this century well below 2 degree Celsius above pre- industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit temperature even further to 1.5 degree Celsius. The agreement sought financial support from developed nations to developing countries, providing new technologies and capacity building framework in line with their national objectives. The Agreement requires all parties to put forward their best efforts through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead. The last CoP 25 was held in Madrid, Spain in December 2019. In Indian context, sea levels along the Indian coast are projected to rise varyingly by 3.5 inches to as much as 34 inches (2.8 feet) by the end of the century due to global warming, posing potent threat to vast stretches of the western coast including Mumbai as well as major delta in east India. As per the studies of the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services, Hyderabad, Mumbai and other stretches such as Khambhat and Kutch in Gujarat, parts of Konkan and south Kerala were "most vulnerable" to sea level rise. Threat posed by sea-level rise have direct implications for India's food security as hundreds of millions of people are dependent on river water systems that could be adversely impacted by possible inundation.
As per last World Bank report, In India, about 600 million people live in locations that could either become moderate or severe hotspots by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. States in the central, northern and north- western parts of India emerge as most vulnerable to changes in temperature and precipitation. By 2050, Chhattisgarh and MP are predicted to be the top two climate hotspot States and are likely to experience a decline of more than 9 percent in their living standards, followed by Rajasthan, UP and Maharashtra. Almost half of the South Asia's population, including India, now live in the vulnerable areas and will suffer from declining living standards that could be attributed to failing agricultural yields, lower labour productivity or related health impacts. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita will have a decline of 14.4 in Bangladesh, 9.8 percent in India and 10 percent in Sri Lanka by 2050.
Global warming is expected to make vegetables significantly scarcer around the world. By the end of this century, less water and hotter air will combine to cut average yields of vegetables which are crucial to a healthy diet by nearly one-third, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. A 4-degree Celsius increase in temperature, which scientists expect by 2100 if global warming continues on its present trajectory, reduces average yield by more than 31 percent. Pauline Scheelbeek in the same report suggested that if we take a "business as usual" approach, environmental changes will reduce the global availability of these important foods.
At the current level of action committed by each signatory, called NDC's, global temperature is said to increase by 3.2 degree Celsius by 2030. If all governments maintained similar NDC's as Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, global temperatures would rise by 4 degree Celsius by 2030. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Turkey and US are likely to miss their NDC targets for 2030. Heat stress would add another set of dangers, even at 1.5 degree Celsius 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 heat waves such as those experienced in 2015.
The major constraint, especially for developing countries is funds for reduction of emissions keeping their sustainable development and poverty alleviation. For example, our country has taken a lot of steps for mitigating the emissions – with the result India's emission rate is about 1.3 tonnes per capita against a global average of 4.2 tonnes, but a lot needs to be done for achieving the targets as per Paris Agreement.
Looking at the challenge, it would be better if the countries around the world go for Renewable Energy sources on a large scale, steadily reducing reliance on fossil fuels, shifting substantially to electric mobility and adopting green industrial processes. It would be desirable, as pointed out by IPCC, to emulate few programmes like Ethiopia's Climate resilient Green Economy Strategy, Mozambique's Green Economic Action Plan and Costa Rica's Ecosystem and Conservation driven Green Transition Path, to combat climate change impacts.
India has been striving to introduce policies and programmes to reduce GHG's emissions by encouraging renewable energy, production and adoption of ecologically sensitive technology, despite many odds like lack of capital and production of more energy to feed large population. The government is also targeting a total forest cover of one- third of the land area. The rapid electrification of India's Railways, establishment of metro rail systems in many cities, the push towards CNG vehicles etc are the positive steps taken up by the government.
I remember during November 2018, thousands of schoolchildren demonstrated on streets of many Australian cities. They were protesting against their government's lacklustre response to climate change. They were protesting with the demands like closure of coal mining projects. They were conveying feeling that Natural Catastrophe would make academic attainment meaningless. Similarly, during Conference Of Parties (COP-24), at Katowice, Poland in 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old activist from Sweden shook the gathering with a message, "Until you start focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope." A United Nations report, in the end of 2018, says that the window of opportunity to climate change will close within a decade or so. Who will understand the implications of it better than children? Therefore, it is advisable to introduce Environmental Sciences – which specifically refers to the dangers of global warming and impending disasters associated with climate change, in the curriculum in schools across the globe on the pattern of Sweden and Australia.
Therefore, it is time now for the humanity as a whole including the political leaders around the world to work together for the mitigation of Greenhouse Gases for common good. If the heat trapping carbon dioxide emissions continue at the current levels, by the year 2300, the globe will experience 35 to 50% of the extinction seen in the "Great Dying" long long back wherein about 90% of sea life and 70% of land life went extinct. But this time the only difference is the human race will be an active catalyst for this extinction. At a stage when survival of mankind is at stake, does the global human community want it to happen yet again?
(The writer is a retired IFS official based in Warangal. Views expressed are personal)