World climatic changes and technology riddles

Highlights

World climatic changes and technology riddles, K S Chalam, Governmental Panel on Climatic Change. In this context, we may look at the IPCC (Inter Governmental Panel on Climatic Change) Fifth Assessment Report on Climatic Change-2013.

The adverse impact of World climatic changes on human life according to some policy makers could be resolved through technology. But, scholars have noted that the present global climatic change would lower growth rate by 0.6 in median poor countries until 2099 and make them 40% poorer. These calculations are based on certain assumptions, are warning signals for our policymakers. In fact, the 19th century economist W S Jevons, one of the founders of the Neo-classical Economics wrote on the Coal question in 1866 indicating how even technology is not going to solve the problems of climatic change. He said that, ‘now, if the quantity of coal used in a blast-furnace, for instance, be diminished in comparison with the yield, the profits of the trade will increase, new capital will be attracted, the price of pig-iron will fall, but the demand for it increase; and eventually the greater number of furnaces will more than make up for the diminished consumption of each.’ Modern economists have worked on the theme and developed “rebound’ and “backfire” concepts to indicate how the technological improvements do not lead to the reduced use of a resource. Therefore, several scholars claim that the key to avoiding the Jevons Paradox is to adopt the principle that neither efficiency improvements nor any other approach to reducing resource use (including voluntary conservation), can be allowed to reduce the cost of consumption. Based on empirical studies, scholars have suggested that energy efficient technologies will not work. Rather, energy efficient technology improvements are counter-productive, promoting energy consumption. Instead of recommending an undesirable policy, we can introduce taxes, rates, concessions as incentives and penalties to circumventing the Jevons paradox. National governments should tax more energy-efficient appliances and use such revenue only for expanding natural reserves such as; setting aside forests, reducing the use of fossil fuels etc.

In this context, we may look at the IPCC (Inter Governmental Panel on Climatic Change) Fifth Assessment Report on Climatic Change-2013. It has stated that each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years. Given the position of earth in the solar system for the last millions of years, the average temperature in the troposphere according to the scientists, became warmer since 20th century. The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature data as calculated by a linear trend, show a warming of 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C3, over the period 1880 to 2012, when multiple independently produced data sets exist. The total increase between the average of the 1850–1900 period and the 2003–2012 period is 0.78 [0.72 to 0.85] °C, based on the single longest dataset available.

The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased, to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification. The mean rates of increase in atmospheric concentrations over the past century are, with very high confidence, unprecedented in the last 22,000 years.

The Co2 emissions into the atmosphere through fossil fuels during the period 1750 to 2011 is estimated to be at 375 GTC (Giga Tonnes of Carbon) while deforestation and other changes in land use released 180 GTC making the total 555 GTC. Further, the long- time scales of heat transfer from Ocean surface to depth, Ocean warming will continue for centuries. Depending on the scenario, about 15% to 40% of emitted Co2 will remain in atmosphere longer than 1000 years. It is virtually certain that global mean sea level rise will continue beyond 2100, with sea level rise due to thermal expansion to continue for many centuries. It is very likely that the number of cold days and nights has decreased and the number of warm days and nights has increased on the global scale. It is likely that the frequency of heat waves has increased in large parts of Europe, Asia and Australia. There are likely more land regions where the number of heavy precipitation events has increased than where it has decreased. The frequency or intensity of heavy precipitation events has likely increased in North America and Europe. In other continents, confidence in changes in heavy precipitation events is at most medium.

Methods that aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change are termed as Geo-engineering. It is used for comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system. CDR methods have biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on a global scale. There is insufficient knowledge to quantify how much CO2 emissions could be partially offset by CDR on a century timescale. Modeling indicates that SRM methods, if realisable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification. If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing CDR, SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale.

Despite the above warnings, the Neo-classical economists have provided growth models that take into consideration coal tax or green tax to contain environmental damages within market through substitution and income effects. They advocate that growth in GDP under the freedom to choose takes care of the adverse effects of climatic change. But, the IPCC report noted above gives threatening indication for the future. It is here we may get back to the Jevons paradox cited by environmentalists who specified that “technological energy-efficient improvements such as hybrid cars may represent a crucial component of a different trajectory of evolution of the metabolism of households in developed countries. However, the adoption of hybrid cars per se will not solve the problem of the unsustainability of modern lifestyles if adopted by a world population of 9 billion people. If the energy-environment situation is to improve, consumers will need to change their behaviour patterns by including concern for the environment among the priorities determining their choices.” Thus, it is not technology or capitalist expansion that safeguards our future generation, but our consumption habits. Humans have to accept losing something in order to be able to retain something else as technology has limits. It sounds like a Buddhist precept that a finite world must handle an infinite greed, prioritising our wants!

(The writer is a Professor and former member of UPSC and can be reached at chalamks@hotmail.com)

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