Mercury Rising

3 December 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • To limit long term global temperature within 2C; Mean Sea Level will continue to rise  to one metre
  • COP21 in frantic talks to safe life on earth

 
COP21, or the United Nations Climate Change Conference, just started in Paris on November 30 and will continue till December 11.  It is the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and hence the acronym.
 
More than 150 heads of states and heads of governments attended the ‘leaders event’ on the inaugural day making the conference create history as the UN summit attended by the highest number of Heads of States, and Governments on a single day, but more importantly, underscoring in the process the criticality of the stakes of the conference – the stakes of our common home, the planet earth.

The overarching goal of UNFCC is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the long term global temperature rise to be within 2C above the pre-industrial levels, which is the absolutely necessary condition to have any reasonable chances that the global warming will not result in catastrophic climatic events endangering the life on earth in the long run.  COP 21 strives to achieve as its main objective, a binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations.

In this backdrop, it is pertinent to shed some light on the root cause of today’s environmental concerns – burning of fossil fuels. 

Obviously, the global economic development during the past one and a half century, driven mainly by those technologically advanced global economic powers of today, has obviously been predominantly fossil-fuel powered.

While on the one hand, the world has come to a stage where the days, or more realistically the decades, of fossil-fuel-powered economic activity are numbered, and the world is destined to witness the exhaustion of fossil-fuels, in an economic sense, during the next three to four decades, on the other hand, the staggering volume of carbon-dioxide that the burning of these fossil fuels continue to emit to the atmosphere, bring about untold misery to the whole humankind, in a multitude of forms, including irreversible, catastrophic changes in climate.

What this entails is all too well-known: increasingly frequent and intense natural disasters such as tropical cyclones, floods and droughts, inundation of low-lands, salination of rivers, impacts on bio-diversity, food-security and water-security, depletion of the ozone layer, health-hazards due to radiation, and many more.

It is generally anticipated that the Cop 21 deliberations for reaching a global, legally binding treaty on reducing carbon emissions, will be based to a large extent, on the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

Therefore, it is important to reflect on some of the key findings, assessments, and projections made in the report, particularly in its section entitled ‘summary for policymakers’. The report re-establishes the fact that warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass. Glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic Sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent.

The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia.

The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. 
The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.

Given those past observations, the report proceeds to project the possible future trends on the basis of multiple climate modelling scenarios. 

According to the same, global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st Century is likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850-1900 period for all but one modelling scenarios, while under certain scenarios it could exceed 2°C or even 2.5°C. 

The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, meaning large variations in rainfall.

While the Global Mean Sea Level will continue to rise during the 21st Century, under all modelling scenarios, a rise as high as almost one metre (0.98m) is projected under one scenario.


Sea Level rise

While this could certainly endanger the very existence of small Island Nations, the possible impact on our own country would be substantial under continued ‘business-as-usual’ global emissions of greenhouse gases. 

The figure illustrates the possible impact of sea level rise on our coastal belt under such uncontrolled emissions. Ironically, comparison of this sea-level-rise vulnerability map with the satellite image of night-time-lighting, the latter being a reliable indicator of the extent of urbanisation, indicates the possible economic impact.

At the global level, according to a study by the Asian Development Bank, global warming, if continued at present rate, would cause the global economy to shrink by as much as 6.5 % per annum by the end of the century, meaning an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude. 

However, this economic dimension of the crisis, despite its severity, should not overshadow the real dangers of the possibility of irreversible and catastrophic extreme climatic events that could threaten the very life on the earth, bringing the planet to the brink of a man made great extinction, if ‘business as usual’ is allowed to continue with no firm action.

It is in this context, the universal agreement to be reached by Dec 11 in Paris should be a firm climate regime for 2020 and beyond. The agreement, while providing the long term vision and strategy to guarantee 2 degree centigrade goal, it must send a clear signal to markets that the low-emission transformation of the global economy is inevitable. 

The plan should be sufficiently robust to accommodate the changes in global economy so that the need for re-negotiations should not arise. The agreement should incorporate effective measures for striking a judicious balance between the commitments of the developed countries and developing countries based on their capability and level of development, while adequate safeguards are included to protect the interests of the poor and the vulnerable.

Lastly, in order to ensure proper implementation of the climate regime that would be agreed upon, effective financial commitment of the developed nations, extending beyond the currently pledged annual amount of $ 100 billion, depending on the actual requirements, should be guaranteed.

This is because the outcome of COP21 could potentially determine the very fate of the human civilization as well as the life on planet Earth. 
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