Levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high, according to a report issued on Thursday by the United Nations weather agency, which reveals that there is no sign of reversal of this trend, responsible for climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather.
“The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed,” said World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
The WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin shows that global concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide have been increasing steadily over the past years. In addition, the report notes a resurgence of a potent greenhouse gas and ozone-depleting substance called CFC-11, which is regulated under an international agreement to protect the ozone layer.
The WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin reports specifically on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, which are what remains in the atmosphere, following a complex process of emissions and absorptions.
Since 1990, there has been a 41 per cent increase in the warming effect by the various greenhouse gases on the climate – known as “radioactive forcing.” CO2 specifically accounts for about 82 per cent of the increase in radioactive forcing over the past decade, according to figures quoted in the WMO report.
“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, when the temperature was 2 to 3°C warmer and sea level was 10 to 20 meters higher than now,” said Mr. Taalas.
The WMO report comes on top of the evidence presented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on global warming issued in October, which sounded the alarm on the need to reach zero net emissions of CO2 by mid-century, in order to keep temperature increases to below 1.5°C.
The report showed how keeping temperature increases below 2°C could reduce the risks for the well-being of the planet and its people.
“CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the oceans for even longer. There is currently no magic wand to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere,” warned WMO Deputy Secretary-General Elena Manaenkova. “Every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and so does every part per million of greenhouse gases,” she insisted.
This new report adds yet another building block of scientific evidence to inform decision-making at the upcoming UN climate change conference – the COP 24 – planned from 2 to 14 December in Poland. The key objective of this meeting is to adopt an implementation plan for the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Against the backdrop of the sobering report, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has sent a letter to all States, telling them they have legal obligations under international human rights law to prevent climate change and try to mitigate its effects.
“Human rights are under threat from a force which challenges the foundations of all life, as we know it, on this planet we share,” she said, pointing out that the decisions taken CO P24 will govern climate action under the Paris agreement “for the indefinite future,” and said that “the rights of the millions of people [are] threatened by climate change.”
The global averages presented in the WMO Bulletin are based on a rigorous tracking of the changing levels of greenhouse gases as a result of industrialization, use of fossil fuels, unsustainable agricultural practices, increases in land use and deforestation.
The UN calls for urgent actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the national and sub-national levels.
I love the the Green New Deal but …
Ever since out first ancestor lit a fire, humans have been pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Add to that the first herder because ruminants are another large emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG).
Some people want to declare a national emergency and ban fossil fuels within ten years. How? I am for it and all ready to go. But please tell me how. Think of the quarter billion vehicles in the U.S. and the infrastructure supporting them; the myriad gas stations and repair shops and the people employed in them; the thousands of miles of domestic gas pipelines to homes using gas stoves and gas heating. Think of the restructuring, the replacement, the energy required, the megatons of metal and other materials used and their production which all require one thing — energy. And what about air travel and the shipping industry?
What of the millions of jobs lost? Think of the jobholders and their families. Most of these workers cannot switch skills overnight. These are not just the million and a half employed in the industry directly, but include gas company employees, your gas furnace repair and maintenance man, the people building furnaces, gas stoves, the auto repair infrastructure — electric motors of course are darned reliable and need attention only to brakes, tire rotation and battery coolant checks for the most part — and so on.
When you offer this laundry list, the response is likely to be, “Well I didn’t mean that.” In effect, it defines the problem with the Green New Deal: It is remarkably short on the ‘whats’ and especially the ‘hows’. Funny though I first searched for the Green New Deal at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (whose courage I admire greatly) official web page and surprisingly found … well nothing. Why not something practical like mandating solar collectors on new homes constructed?
So you want to suck the CO2 out of the air; you can. It takes 300MW to 500MW of electrical energy per million tons annually. To put it in perspective, we need to remove at least 20 billion tons (20,000 times more) each year to remove the minimum of a trillion tons expected to be emitted by the end of the century. The 10 million megawatt electrical base required for this is ten times the current total US electrical power grid of 1.2 million megawatts.
You want to bring carbon emissions down to zero. I am all for it even though our ancestor — the one who lit the coal fire — could not. Just tell me how. If you want to talk about carbon neutrality … now there’s an idea. But “switching immediately away from fossil fuels” as I read from one advocate recently … I wish it was possible.
The rest of the goals are equally laudable — in fact I have advocated many including the necessity for well-paying jobs, infrastructure spending, eating less meat, and even net-zero emissions. The big question is ‘how’ against entrenched interests.
In the meantime, would someone please electrify my local suburban train. The 1950s diesel-electric locomotives spew black smoke and the carriages were designed in the same era. Worse still, the service is chronically late. Electrification of rail lines and improving public transport in the U.S. should be job one. But every activity — and change particularly — uses energy.
Author’s note: This piece first appeared on counterpunch.org
Seven ways to fix a warming planet
Many people across the world, including schoolchildren, are demanding bolder action on climate change by governments, businesses and investors. There are tremendous opportunities here to “think beyond, solve different,” transform our economies, and change the way we live.
Climate change actions are key to sustainability, and part and parcel of globally agreed efforts in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Agriculture and food
According to UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2018, food systems from production to consumption have the potential to mitigate up to 6.7 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, which is second only to the energy sector. We need a global food transformation in the next 12 years in which food waste is halved and diets and health are improved through decreased animal protein intake. We also need to incentivize climate-smart and sustainable agriculture and end the current unjust food situation in which over 820 million people are undernourished.
Buildings and cities
Responsible for some 70 per cent of energy use, buildings and construction account for 39 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Vast amounts of urban infrastructure are to be built in the coming 15 years as rural-urban migration accelerates. There are huge opportunities here to retrofit existing buildings, improve building standards, and rethink urban planning such as by providing incentives for mini-grid solutions. We also need to tackle human-induced methane, nitrous oxide and CF11 emissions, and find smarter solutions for cooling, heating and waste management.
Educate girls: educated women have fewer and healthier children. Improve global access to, and education on, family planning. We need to focus on economic, social and political inclusion to leave no one behind. Education, skills, and awareness-building are essential ingredients for meaningful inclusion.
Invest in renewables and stop commissioning new coal-fired power plants. We need to redirect fossil fuel subsidies to incentivize large-scale investment and job creation in renewable energy. At the same time, we need energy efficiency standards for electric equipment (lighting, appliances, electric engines, transformers) and a transition towards efficiency-labelled electric equipment.
Help poor countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. According to UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2018, renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in developing countries could significantly cut emissions by 2020 if industrialized nations made good on their pledge to mobilize US$100 billion a year of climate funding. While energy investment is flowing increasingly towards clean energy, it is not flowing at the rate necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals.
Forests and land use
Protect and restore tropical forests. Plant a trillion trees to boost carbon capture, with associated benefits for biodiversity, food security, livelihoods and rural economies. To do this we need to scale up investment to halve tropical deforestation by 2020, stop net deforestation by 2030 globally, and raise around US$50 billion per year to reach a target of 350 million hectares of forest and landscape restoration by 2030 in line with the Bonn Challenge. So far, 168 million hectares of restoration have been pledged by 47 countries. We should avoid any further conversion of peatlands into agricultural land and restore little-used, drained peatlands by rewetting them. We also need to plant more trees on agricultural land and pastures.
Transport is responsible for about one quarter of all energy-related CO2 emissions, and set to increase to one-third by 2050, growing faster than any other sector. With the right policies and incentives, significant emission reductions can be achieved. For this to happen, we need to put in place vehicle efficiency standards, incentives for zero-emission transportation and invest in non-motorized mobility. For example, the Indian government is prioritizing policies that are helping to shift freight transport from road to rail.
New Environmental Studies Raise Alarms
New environmental research continues to alarm as three studies published within the past week amply demonstrate.
Danish scientists report a significant increase in winter rain over Greenland. The rain-induced melt refreezes forming a dark crusty layer which acts as a greater heat absorber than white fresh snow. After decades of more frequent winter rain, the snow-pack contains many such layers speeding up its melting under the summer sun.
Rain has also increased during the rest of the year and the average air temperature in the last three decades is up 1.8C in summer and 3C in winter. The warm moisture-laden winds from the south are not new but rising ocean temperatures mean their moisture content is greater. More clouds lingering longer form a blanket over the warm air bringing them, increasing the melt even after the rain abates.
It used to be that most of the loss of ice came in the dramatic form of large icebergs shearing off with thunderous cracks, and floating away on the sea. But satellite monitoring in recent years has shown that 70 percent of the loss is due to ice melt.
The 270 billion tons lost between 1992 and 2011 from Greenland’s 1.7 million square kilometers of ice has raised sea levels by 7.5 mm. The rest could raise it another 7 meters obliterating many island nations and submerging lower Manhattan and coastal areas. The eventual consequences are indeed alarming.
Also this week the Environmental Integrity Project, assisted by Earthjustice, concluded a study of ash pollution from coal-fired electricity generating plants across most US states. Using industry data recently made available through news regulations, they analyzed data from 4600 groundwater monitoring wells around the ash dumps of approximately three-quarters of US coal-fired stations. Their findings are disquieting.
The coal ash waste ponds are poorly and cheaply designed with less than 5 percent having waterproof liners, and most built to levels near or lower than the groundwater tables. It is not a surprise then to find 60 percent of the plants polluting the groundwater with dangerous levels of lithium (associated with neurological damage) and 52 percent with unsafe levels of arsenic, which can cause cancer and impair the brains of developing children. The worst ones have lithium at 150 to 200 times safe levels, cobalt, molybdenum, cadmium and selenium (lethal to fish) also at similar or higher levels.
The third study this week by Bangor University in Wales and Friends of the Earth has found microplastics pollution (pieces per liter) in all the ten sites studied: from pristine Loch Lomond (2.4) and Wordsworth’s beloved Ullswater (29.5) in the Lake District to the River Thames (84.1) and the awful River Tame (>1000) in Greater Manchester.
The scientist who coined the term “global warming” left a message for the world before he passed away at the age of 87 last month. He was the first to predict rising CO2 levels would be the cause at a time when many saw it as a boon to enhance forests, crops and produce.
The message he left calls for the world’s scientists to study and prepare extreme measures because our decision-makers are not confronting the problem and within a decade it will be too late. According to him creating a solar-shield will become vitally necessary. The general idea is a sulfur blanket in the earth’s atmosphere to stop the sun’s rays, a blanket that can be dispersed after the earth has cooled sufficiently. How this will be done is up to scientists and engineers unless nature obliges with another Mt. Pinatubo-like eruption.
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