Global warming has become perhaps the most complicated issue facing world leaders. Warnings from the scientific community are becoming louder, as an increasing body of science points to rising dangers from the ongoing buildup of human-related greenhouse gases — produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and forests.
Global emissions of carbon dioxide were at a record high in 2011 and were likely to take a similar jump in 2013, scientists reported in December 2012 — the latest indication that efforts to limit such emissions are failing.
Over all, global emissions jumped 3 percent in 2011 and are expected to jump another 2.6 percent in 2013, researchers reported.
The new figures show that emissions are falling, slowly, in some of the most advanced countries, including the United States. That apparently reflects a combination of economic weakness, the transfer of some manufacturing to developing countries and conscious efforts to limit emissions, like the renewable power targets that many American states have set. The boom in the natural gas supply from hydraulic fracturing is also a factor, since natural gas is supplanting coal at many power stations, leading to lower emissions.
But the decline of emissions in the developed countries is more than matched by continued growth in developing countries like China and India, the new figures show. Coal, the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, is growing fastest, with coal-related emissions leaping more than 5 percent in 2011, compared with the previous year.
Emissions continue to grow so rapidly that an international goal of limiting the ultimate warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees, established three years ago, is on the verge of becoming unattainable, said researchers affiliated with the Global Carbon Project, a network of scientists that tracks emissions.
Yet, nations around the world, despite a formal treaty pledging to limit warming — and 20 years of negotiations aimed at putting it into effect — have shown little appetite for the kinds of controls required to accomplish that goal.
The conflicts and controversies discussed are monotonously familiar: the differing obligations of industrialized and developing nations, the question of who will pay to help poor nations adapt, the urgency of protecting tropical forests and the need to rapidly develop and deploy clean energy technology.
Scientists learned long ago that the earth’s climate has powerfully shaped the history of the human species — biologically, culturally and geographically. But only in the last few decades has research revealed that humans can be a powerful influence on the climate, as well.
A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that since 1950, the world’s climate has been warming, primarily as a result of emissions from unfettered burning of fossil fuels and the razing of tropical forests. Such activity adds to the atmosphere’s invisible blanket of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping ‘greenhouse’ gases. Recent research has shown that methane, which flows from landfills, livestock and oil and gas facilities, is a close second to carbon dioxide as an impact on the atmosphere.
That conclusion has emerged through a broad body of analysis in fields as disparate as glaciology, the study of glacial formations and palynology, the study of the distribution of pollen grains in lake mud. It is based on a host of assessments by the world’s leading organisations of climate and earth scientists.
In the last several years, the scientific case that the rising human influence on climate could become disruptive has become particularly robust.
Some fluctuations in the earth’s temperature are inevitable regardless of human activity — because of decades-long ocean cycles, for example. But centuries of rising temperatures and seas lie ahead if the release of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation continues unabated. In addition, a report released by the I.P.C.C. in November 2011 predicted that global warming will cause more dangerous and “unprecedented extreme weather” in the future.
Despite the scientific consensus on these basic conclusions, enormously important details remain murky. That reality has been seized upon by some groups and scientists disputing the overall consensus and opposing changes in energy policies.
Steps toward a response
The debate over climate questions pales next to the fight over what to do, or not do, in a world where fossil fuels still underpin both rich and emerging economies.
With the completion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit in 1992, the world’s nations pledged to avoid dangerously disrupting the climate through the buildup of greenhouse gases, but they never defined how much warming was too much.
Nonetheless, recognizing that the original climate treaty was proving ineffective, all of the world’s industrialized countries except for the United States accepted binding restrictions on their greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated in Japan in 1997. That accord took effect in 2005 and its gas restrictions expire in 2012. The United States signed the treaty, but it was never submitted for ratification in the face of overwhelming opposition in the Senate because the pact required no steps by China or other fast-growing developing countries.
The Group of 8 industrial powers also agreed in 2009 to a goal of reducing global emissions 50 percent by 2050, with the richest countries leading the way by cutting their emissions 80 percent. But they did not set a baseline from which to measure that reduction, and so far firm interim targets — which many climate scientists say would be more meaningful — have not been defined.
At the same time, fast-growing emerging economic powerhouses, led by China and India, opposed taking on mandatory obligations to curb their emissions. They said they will do what they can to rein in growth in emissions — as long as their economies do not suffer.
In many ways, the debate over global climate policy is a result of a global “climate divide”. Emissions of carbon dioxide per person range from less than two tons per year in India, where 400 million people lack access to electricity, to more than 20 in the United States. The richest countries are also best able to use wealth and technology to insulate themselves from climate hazards, while the poorest, which have done the least to cause the problem, are the most affected.
A global initiative led by the U.S.
In February 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a joint international effort focused on reducing emissions of common pollutants that contribute to rapid climate change and widespread health problems.
Impatient with the slow pace of international negotiations, the United States and a small group of countries — Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico and Sweden as well as the United Nations Environment Programme — started a programme that will address short-lived pollutants like soot (also referred to as black carbon), methane and hydro fluorocarbons that have an outsize influence on global warming, accounting for 30 to 40 percent of global warming. Soot from diesel exhausts and the burning of wood, agricultural waste and dung for heating and cooking causes an estimated two million premature deaths a year, particularly in the poorest countries.
Scientists say that concerted action on these substances can reduce global temperatures by 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 and prevent millions of cases of lung and heart disease by 2030.
The United States intends to contribute US $ 12 million and Canada US $ 3 million over two years to get the programme off the ground and to help recruit other countries to participate. The United Nations Environment Programme will run the project.
Officials hope that by tackling these fast-acting, climate-changing agents they can get results quicker than through the laborious and highly political negotiations conducted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Carbon credits gone awry raise output of harmful gas
When the United Nations wanted to help slow climate change, it established what seemed a sensible system. Greenhouse gases were rated based on their power to warm the atmosphere. The more dangerous the gas, the more that manufacturers in developing nations would be compensated as they reduced their emissions.
But where the United Nations envisioned environmental reform, some manufacturers of gases used in air-conditioning and refrigeration saw a lucrative business opportunity. They quickly figured out that they could earn one carbon credit by eliminating one ton of carbon dioxide but could earn more than 11,000 credits by simply destroying a ton of an obscure waste gas normally released in the manufacturing of a widely used coolant gas.
That is because that byproduct has a huge global warming effect. The credits could be sold on international markets, earning tens of millions of dollars a year. That incentive has driven plants in the developing world not only to increase production of the coolant gas but also to keep it high — a huge problem because the coolant itself contributes to global warming and depletes the ozone layer. That coolant gas is being phased out under a global treaty, but the effort has been a struggle.
So since 2005 the 19 plants receiving the waste gas payments have profited handsomely from an unlikely business: churning out more harmful coolant gas so they can be paid to destroy its waste byproduct. The high output keeps the prices of the coolant gas irresistibly low, discouraging air-conditioning companies from switching to less-damaging alternative gases. That means critics say that United Nations subsidies intended to improve the environment are instead creating their own damage.
The United Nations and the European Union, through new rules and an outright ban, are trying to undo this unintended bonanza. But the lucrative incentive has become so entrenched that efforts to roll it back are proving tricky, even risky.
China and India, where most of the 19 factories are, have been resisting mightily. The manufacturers have grown accustomed to an income stream that in some years accounted for half their profits. The windfall has enhanced their power and influence. As a result, many environmental experts fear that if manufacturers are not paid to destroy the waste gas, they will simply resume releasing it into the atmosphere.
In the plantation sector, there could be both direct and indirect impacts. Direct impacts will result from increased carbon dioxide levels, which affect photosynthesis and rising temperature which, in turn, cause heat stress and increased evapo-transpiration in crops.
Indirect impacts will result from changes in moisture levels, an increased incidence of pests and growing spoilage of agro-products as a result of enhanced microbial activity. These effects could result in reduced yields and shifts in productivity.
According to current climate change predictions for Sri Lanka, the effects of climate change by 2050 will be marginal, reaching only +0.50C for temperature increase and +5 percent for evaporation/rainfall (wet season only) in the high scenario.
However, in the scenario for 2012 the changes become quite significant.
The trends also suggest that within the averages, the intensity of dry weather and rainfall may increase. Therefore, climate change could have increasingly significant effects even in the scenario for the year 2070.
(N. Yogaratnam can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)