An earth on edge

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A growing crisis and why all of us should get involved with the climate debate

Prem Shankar JhaPrem Shankar Jha
Senior Journalist

THERE IS a time bomb ticking under the world, but its leaders seem not to be aware of it. This bomb is different from any that war, terrorism and the movies have made us familiar with, because it cannot be defused at the last moment. This one has to be defused as soon as we hear it ticking. Otherwise, the countdown becomes unstoppable. All we can then do is run for shelter. Unfortunately, there is nowhere else for us to go.

The clock that we hear ticking is global warming. The term is now used as freely and frequently as ‘globalisation’, and as little understood. Most people associate it with a gradual increase in average temperatures of about a degree centigrade over this century, an increased melting of polar ice, a consequent rise in sea levels of 60 to 90 cm, the disappearance of a large number of coral islands and an increase in the frequency and fury of floods, cyclones and droughts.

Most people believe that we have the time to adapt to these changes. They could not be more wrong. The bomb that global warming could set off is what climate scientists call ‘abrupt climate change’. This is a sudden heating of the planet, possibly followed by its descent into another ice age. Were it to happen it would take place in as little as two or three decades. The sudden change will come when the earth reaches a ‘tipping point’. This is a level of atmospheric and sea temperatures at which a new set of forces generated by the earth itself, will kick in and not only speed up global warming but make it self-feeding. Paleoclimatic studies — the study of ice formed over hundreds of thousands of years dug out of the Greenland ice sheet — has shown that the earth has gone through three ice ages in the past 15,000 years. Each of these began and ended abruptly in little more than a single decade.

Till as recently as five years ago, abrupt climate change was on the unthinkable fringe of possibilities predicted by climate scientists. The fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel In March 2009, 2,500 scientists from 80 countries assembled at the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen. The congress concluded that the findings of the IPCC were out of date. The evidence collected since its fourth report was compiled showed that global warming was ceasing to be human-induced and was becoming self-reinforcing. The oceans are absorbing more of the CO2 and their acidity is rising far more rapidly than the worst case estimates that had been presented by the IPCC. The consequences for algae, plankton and other forms of life in the sea would be catastrophic.

The Arctic’s ice-melt rate in 2008 summer was what a climate change committee had predicted for 2055

In March 2009, 2,500 scientists from 80 countries assembled at the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen. The congress concluded that the findings of the IPCC were out of date. The evidence collected since its fourth report was compiled showed that global warming was ceasing to be human-induced and was becoming self-reinforcing. The oceans are absorbing more of the CO2 and their acidity is rising far more rapidly than the worst case estimates that had been presented by the IPCC. The consequences for algae, plankton and other forms of life in the sea would be catastrophic.

The mean air temperature was also rising faster than had been predicted. Five years earlier, scientists had thought that the rise, currently at about one degree celsius from the beginning of the century, could be contained at around two degrees by the end of the present century. But fresh evidence showed that this is more wish than prediction. A three degree rise is now well on the cards.

The assembled scientists pointed out that even a two degree rise in temperature rise could spell catastrophe. It could, for example, dry out the Amazon forests sufficiently to make them burst into flame at the slightest provocation. A greater rise will almost certainly mean their end.

They also found that the Greenland ice sheet, the Arctic ocean ice cap and the Antarctic shelf were melting faster than even the most determined pessimists had predicted. The rate of ice-melt in the Arctic in the summer of 2008 was what the IPCC had predicted for 2055!

They sent three key messages to the world. First, the worst case scenarios of the IPCC are being realised. For many key parameters, the climate is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. Second, the evidence being provided by the research community increasingly supports the possibility that the earth will experience ‘dangerous climate change’. And finally, action has to be drastic, immediate and coordinated. “Rapid, sustained, and effective mitigation based on coordinated global and regional action”, they warned, “(is) required to avoid dangerous climate change, regardless of how it is defined”.

AND FOR the first time the idea that the earth was headed for a tipping point received official endorsement: “Weaker targets for 2020 increase the risk of crossing tipping points and make the task of meeting 2050 targets more difficult”.

What the Copenhagen congress did not spell out was that a three degree rise in the average atmospheric temperature by the end of the century would mean an eight-to-ten degree rise in the Arctic and Greenland belt. This would cause the entire 3,000 metre-thick Greenland ice sheet to melt. The sea level would then rise not by 60 to 90cm, but by seven metres!

But even that would be the least of the world’s problems. The huge amounts of fresh, and therefore low density, water released by the melting ice would lower the density of the surface water in the north Atlantic and prevent it from sinking to the lower depths for its return journey south. This could drastically weaken, if not arrest, the thermohaline current in the Atlantic upon which the climate equilibrium of the world depends. If paleoclimatic data are any guide, this will result in another ice age.

The Copenhagen congress has therefore swept away what little pretext had remained for carrying on with business as usual and has galvanised the world’s governments into a serious consideration of their options. In the US, the Waxman-Markey bill, which aims at reducing CO2 emissions by 83 percent by 2050, has passed the House of Representatives and will soon come before the Senate. But with only six months to go before the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, which will frame a new protocol to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol, the pre-conference negotiations are close to a deadlock.

The first time this had happened was in the negotiations that preceded the signing of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 1997. The developing countries had maintained that since they accounted for only a tiny part of the CO2 released into the atmosphere every year the responsibility for bringing these down lay mainly with the developed countries. The Kyoto conference accepted this argument. The Protocol therefore bound only the OECD countries (and later, Russia) to capping their CO2 and other GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions at the 1990 level.

The developing country exception proved to be a poison pill. The Bush administration made it a pretext for withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. The European countries made a half-hearted attempt to honour their obligations. But with the US, Russia, China, India and other developing nations making no effort to curb emissions, the protocol did next to nothing to reduce CO2 emissions. For the world as a whole, energy-related CO2 emissions rose from 22 billion metric tonnes (BMT) in 1990 to 29.9BMT in 2007.

China was the main offender. Between 1990 and 2007, its CO2 emissions rose from 2.3BMT to a staggering 5.9BMT. This was only 0.2BMT less than the emissions of the US. But in the very next year, China surpassed the US when it commissioned 90,000MW of coal-fired power plants and added another half billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. India’s emissions have also grown rapidly, although from a much smaller base. These went up from 0.0006BMT in 1990 to 1.5BMT in 2007. Not surprisingly, neither country is pushing the developing country exception anymore.

But as the carefully non-committal statement issued by the G8 after the L’Aquila meet showed, that is where progress has stopped. Indeed, the pre-conference negotiations have increasingly begun to resemble those that preceded the Uruguay round of trade negotiations in the 1990s. The industrialised countries are already ‘back-loading’ their own commitments while applying growing pressure on the industrialising countries to accept obligations that will almost certainly stunt their future growth. The Copenhagen conference could therefore meet the same fate: commitments extracted from the weak through coercion and half-hearted promises made by the strong, which will be honoured mainly in the breach.

The aftermath of L’Aquila shows that rich nations have cast India in the role of villain

This negotiating process is already underway. The Kyoto Protocol had required the industrialised nations to reduce their CO2 emissions by 6.4 percent below 1990 by 2000. But the Waxman-Markey bill requires American industry to bring energy-related CO2 emissions down by 20 percent below the 2005 level by 2020.This not only means that the US wants to shift the base year to 2005, but that the actual target for 2020 is only 4.6 percent below the 1990 level and lower than the original target it had accepted for 2000.

IT IS the same story in the case of financing the shift to low carbon technologies. India has pointed out that since all low-carbon technologies are more expensive than coal or oil-based technologies, shifting to them in a big way will require large additional investments. Thus, if developing countries are asked to meet substantial targets for reducing CO2 emissions, they will need supplementary funding. For this, it has proposed a large, transparently funded and internationally administered fund preferably financed by a ‘carbon tax’ on fossil fuels. But the US and EU are opposed to a carbon tax and the US has stated categorically that developing countries will have to raise the money on the market. The EU says there can be some public funding but also wants developing countries to approach the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other regional multilateral banks. It is also willing to consider placing a part of the funds raised through carbon credit auctions and the emissions trading scheme (ETS) under a new UN-administered mitigation fund, akin to the Adaptation Fund that has been set up under the Kyoto protocol with two percent of the money raised from the sale of carbon credits. But India has pointed out that the Adaptation Fund raises barely $150 million. Even five times this amount will not come anywhere near meeting the extra cost of low-carbon technologies for a meaningfully rapid shift out of fossil fuels. By contrast, a two percent tax on crude oil alone will yield more than $25 billion a year for financing the energy shift.

These disagreements arise from a profound dichotomy between the approach of the industrialised and industrialising countries towards the reduction of CO2 emissions. The industrialised nations want to set hard yearly caps on emissions. They are confident that the desire to avoid having to buy carbon credits will make enterprises scramble to find alternate technologies. The demand will stimulate research and development and ensure a high return on innovation. To make sure that this motive remains undiluted, the US is adamantly against any dilution of intellectual property rights protection for new energy technologies.

But what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. The cap and trade system can penalise a delinquent firm, but not a delinquent country. If the US or EU fail to meet their targets in a particular year, there is nothing that the industrialising countries can do. But if the latter fail to meet their targets they will, inevitably, face a battery of trade sanctions under the guise of protection against products made with cheaper but dirtier technologies. Indeed, Wal-Mart has already announced that it will only sell ‘carbon-neutral’ products in the future.

The aftermath of L’Aquila clearly shows that the rich nations have cast India in the role of the villain. The July 13 issue of The Economist carried an intemperate attack on Shyam Saran, Dr Manmohan Singh’s special envoy on global warming. Less than a week later the New York Times carried an editorial that must rank as the most virulent attack that it has launched on India since the liberation of Goa. The editorial linked its recalcitrance on global warming to a determination to misuse the Indo-US nuclear deal to make more nuclear weapons and missiles and the singlehanded sabotage of the Doha round of trade negotiations.

This concerted attack is not only totally unwarranted but casts doubts on the Western media’s much vaunted claim to freedom and objectivity. For although 37 countries, including China, have opposed the US and EU’s proposals, neither newspaper made even a token attempt to find out where the differences lie. And neither of them has gone after China.

The only ray of light has come from UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s suggestion at L’Aquila that a $100 billion fund be created for financing mitigation. However, the scant attention paid to his suggestion by the American media suggests that it has met with a less than enthusiastic response.

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