On the last day of the UN Climate Change (June 17-27, 2019) meeting in Bonn the key IPCC report on 1.5 C was blocked from further discussion by Saudi Arabia and an unlikely set of allies: the US, Iran and Russia. The report as the saying goes has been deep-sixed meriting only a five-para watered down waffle at the end of the agreement, so what next?
If the Paris Agreement was transformative in its democratic innovation, its voluntary aspects opened up the possibility of countries failing to meet their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) targets. These are at the heart of the Paris agreement and their voluntary nature invites democratic engagement — the example of Greta Thunberg and her mushrooming support comes to mind. Even more necessary after the Bonn meeting, democratic pressure on governments is vital to counter the fossil fuel lobby.
Also the climate change debate is framed around two temperature figures, the famous 1.5 C and 2 C scenarios. We need a rallying cry but the fact is temperature is an amorphous goal. We cannot ask countries to reduce temperature by a certain number because the whole earth is involved and it is beyond individual capacities; hence the target NDCs, the rather dull but practical numbers.
When the UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change first released its famous (now banished) 1.5 C report last October, it set off alarms. Comprising the work of hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists, it predicted a grim future and a narrowing window of action. It examined a 1.5 C rise in mean global temperature from preindustrial levels, comparing it with a 2 C rise. We are already experiencing the effects of being 1 degree above, and according to the report should reach the 1.5 C level as early as 2040. The 1.5 C and 2 C figures result from simulation exercises, although by undoubtedly respected and expert scientists.
At 1.5 C above, the report states, 70-90 percent of the world’s sea corals would be lost (with a 2C rise 99 percent would be gone); the Arctic sea ice would be in fast retreat threatening polar bears and raising sea levels; and with higher ocean temperatures we can expect worsened severe storms, rain and flooding.
There is worse for at a 2C rise the cycle becomes self-sustaining, meaning a runaway feedback loop cycle. Clearly the Paris agreement, holding temperature increase to 2C, is no longer viable if we are not to leave behind a raging planet to our children and grandchildren.
Meanwhile, Paris itself is facing a heat wave with temperatures expected to exceed 40 C (104 F) and national records for June temperatures likely to be shattered. Europe as a whole is experiencing the same, although it made little difference to the dissenters in sweltering Bonn. While climate change is usually not blamed directly for short-interval, extreme weather events, a warmer earth is still likely to be an exacerbation, and scientists might well be able to prove a closer link as research in this area matures. At the very least, it makes intuitive sense.
It has already been hot further north. Greenland had temperatures 40 F above normal in mid-June. It caused an early, unprecedented ice melt when it is more usual for big melts to occur in July. On just one day (June 13, 2019), scientists estimated a melt of 2 billion tons. If Greenland experienced a record melt in 2012, then 2019 could be a year that might surpass it. The problem of high temperatures and above normal ice melt spans the Arctic. Moreover in the Antarctic, the coldest regions, long believed to be immune, are beginning to show signs of melting.
Foreshadowing the 1.5 C report, the expected consequence has been a rise in ocean levels. These are already 7 centimeters (about 3 inches) higher than in the 1990s (keyfinding 1) of the Climate Science Special Report. Human-caused climate change is considered a major culprit. The reported rise is accelerating and is now at a rate of 3.9 millimeters a year, or about an inch every 6 years.
Coastal land flooding and loss is no longer just a problem faced by The Maldives in the Indian Ocean, or some Pacific Islands. Low-lying cities like Norfolk, Virginia have begun to flood at high-tide. This nuisance tidal flooding is expected to increase 5 to 10 fold (keyfinding 4).
Changing weather patterns also have other consequences. In California, large fires now burn twice the area they did 50 years ago, and are expected to be tripling that same area by 2050. Future projections point to both larger fires and a longer fire season. Some consequences run counter to presumptions and surprise us. Who would have expected a heat wave in Canada to kill more than 90 people in 2018? It is not the only example. The UK suffered debilitating summer heat in 2018 and 2017, and a heat wave engulfed southern Europe in 2018, where Portugal and Greece were also hit somewhat unusually by wildfires. The same in the Southern Hemisphere, for in Australia the wildfire season now starts earlier, is longer and more devastating. In Spain, a 10,000 acre fire is raging right now, caused by extreme heat self-igniting a manure pile.
The U.S. ‘National Climate Assessment’ last November did not mince words when its overview concluded: “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.” The assessment is mandated by Congress and affirmed by science agencies of the government.
President Trump, who religiously opposes climate change believing it to be a natural phenomenon that will reverse itself also naturally, had a brief response: “I do not believe it.” About the report’s estimated economic impacts, Sarah Sanders, his then press secretary, claimed the report was “not based on facts.” The “facts” on which the Trump administration reached its conclusions have not been released. The source of these quotes, Science, is the principal organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It has labeled the gap between action and what is demanded by the worsening climate-fueled weather disasters as the policy ‘breakdown of the year’. About the current administration, one prominent scientist, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, was moved to remark, “They’re in la-la-land.”
Sadly this la-la-land is not harmless because the US changing tack on climate action gives other countries leeway to do the same. One example: Brazil’s new (this year) right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has promised to open more of the Amazon rain forest for development reversing its CO2 capture into more CO2 emission. CO2 happens to be the most sensitive gas to the heat radiation wavelengths reflected from earth, returning more back.
So we have rising temperatures and scientifically ignorant politicians but all is not lost. It is quite likely we will fall short of the 1.5 C target. Yet the plain fact is there will not be a clash of cymbals and the world will not end with a bang. All that will happen will be a greater reliance on carbon capture directly with its fast developing technology, or indirectly through means such as afforestation. In short, to stop hothouse earth, we have to start removing CO2 from the air.
Carbon capture from the atmosphere has been difficult and expensive. A better alternative might be to remove it at the source. That means at power stations and factories, plus there are new processes offering hope. These include a powder that soaks up CO2 before it is expelled into the air. For CO2 already in the atmosphere, there is a resin in the form of resin trees to absorb it, and a company that promises to capture air CO2 and turn it into fuel. Yet most carbon emission comes from transportation, so it also points to a future of electric cars.
That is also the thesis of Greg Ballard’s book, “Less Oil or More Caskets.” The book’s title refers to the human and military cost of protecting the free flow of oil. A former Marine Lt. Colonel and two-term Republican mayor of Indianapolis, he is a long-term advocate of electric cars and rapid-transit electric buses, the latter underway in Indianapolis. He even managed to secure federal grants despite Trump’s opposition, proving both that Trump is not unassailable and a few Republicans are finally seeing the light.
Another avenue of individual involvement is dietary change for a sustainable future — in itself clearly at odds with the zealous consumption of meat in rich countries. Ruminants release methane through belching as food passes through their several stomachs. Over their agricultural cycle, cattle alone emit 270,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per tonne of protein, many times more than poultry. As some have noted if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions. Hence the Beyond Burger type of substitutes from vegetable sources. If it doesn’t quite make the taste test for some, there is the intriguing potential of lab-grown meat — no animals involved.
This and other innovations have been described not unappetizingly in the National Geographic. For example, crickets are an excellent source of protein offering more protein per pound than beef and their production leaves a tiny ecological footprint in comparison. Ground up into powder, this protein can be added to flour or other foods. Kernza is a perennial grain and a substitute for wheat and corn but without their annual tilling which robs the soil of nutrients and also causes erosion. There is also a new oil made from algae. Sourced originally from the sap of a German chestnut tree, it has been developed further to yield more oil, and is being sold under the name Thrive. With a neutral taste and high smoke point, it makes an excellent substitute for the environmentally destructive palm oil, where plantations have ravaged forests in Indonesia and imperiled orangutans.
All this innovation demonstrates that although the window to act narrows by the day, climate change is not unassailable, provided there is the wherewithal (clearly absent in this administration) to make the urgent and necessary changes in public policy — for example, investment in carbon capture research to make costs viable. In addition, we need the commitment to make changes in our own lives.
Author’s Note: This article first appeared on Counterpunch.
How do greenhouse gases actually warm the planet?
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – the atmospheric gases responsible for causing global warming and climatic change – are critical to understanding and addressing the climate crisis. Despite an initial dip in global GHG emissions due to COVID-19, the United Nations Environment Programme’s latest Emissions Gap Report (EGR) expects a strong rebound in 2021, when emissions are expected to be only slightly lower than the record levels of 2019.
While most GHGs are naturally occurring, human activities have also been leading to a problematic increase in the amount of GHG emitted and their concentration in the atmosphere. This increased concentration, in turn, can lead to adverse effects on climate. Effects include increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – including flooding, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes – that affect millions of people and cause trillions in economic losses.
The Emissions Gap Report found that if we do not halve annual GHG emissions by 2030, it will be very difficult to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Based on current unconditional pledges to reduce emissions, the world is on a path to see global warming of 2.7 °C by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial levels.
“Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions endanger human and environmental health,” says Mark Radka, Chief of UNEP’s Energy and Climate Branch. “And the impacts will become more widespread and severed without strong climate action.”
So how exactly do GHG emissions warm the planet and what can we do?
What are the major greenhouse gases?
Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide are the major GHGs. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years, methane for around a decade and nitrous oxide for approximately 120 years. Measured over a 20-year period, methane is 80 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming, while nitrous oxide is 280 times more potent.
Coal, oil and natural gas continue to power many parts of the world. Carbon is the main element in these fuels, and when they’re burned to generate electricity, power transportation or provide heat, they produce CO2, a colourless, odourless gas.
Oil and gas extraction, coal mining and waste landfills account for 55 per cent of human-caused methane emissions. Approximately 32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions are attributable to cows, sheep and other ruminants that ferment food in their stomachs. Manure decomposition is another agricultural source of the gas, as is rice cultivation.
Human-caused nitrous oxide emissions largely arise from agriculture practices. Bacteria in soil and water naturally convert nitrogen into nitrous oxide, but fertilizer use and run-off add to this process by putting more nitrogen into the environment.
What are the other greenhouse gases?
Fluorinated gases – such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – are GHGs that do not occur naturally. Hydrofluorocarbons are refrigerants used as alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which depleted the ozone layer and were phased out thanks to the Montreal Protocol. The other gases have industrial and commercial uses.
While fluorinated gases are far less prevalent than other GHGs and do not deplete the ozone layer like CFCs, they are still very powerful. Over a 20-year period, the various fluorinated gases’ global warming potential ranges from 460–16,300 times greater than that of CO2.
Water vapour is the most abundant GHG in the atmosphere and is the biggest overall contributor to the greenhouse effect. However, almost all the water vapour in the atmosphere comes from natural processes. Human emissions are very small and thus relatively less impactful.
What is the greenhouse effect?
The Earth’s surface absorbs about 48 per cent of incoming solar energy, while the atmosphere absorbs 23 per cent. The rest is reflected back into space. Natural processes ensure that the amount of incoming and outgoing energy are equal, keeping the planet’s temperature stable,
However, GHGs, unlike other atmospheric gases such as oxygen and nitrogen, are opaque to outgoing infrared radiation. As the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere increases due to human-caused emissions, energy radiated from the surface becomes trapped in the atmosphere, unable to escape the planet. This energy returns to the surface, where it is reabsorbed.
Since more energy enters than exits the planet, surface temperatures increase until a new balance is achieved. This temperature increase has long-term climate impacts and affects myriad natural systems.
What can we do to reduce GHG emissions?
Shifting to renewable energy, putting a price on carbon and phasing out coal are all important elements in reducing GHG emissions. Ultimately, stronger nationally determined contributions are needed to accelerate this reduction to preserve long-term human and environmental health.
“We need to implement strong policies that back the raised ambitions,” says Radka. “We cannot continue down the same path and expect better results. Action is needed now.”
During COP26, the European Union and the United States launched the Global Methane Pledge, which will see over 100 countries aim to reduce 30 per cent of methane emissions in the fuel, agriculture and waste sectors by 2030.
UNEP has outlined its six-sector solution, which can reduce 29–32 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2030 to meet the 1.5°C warming limit. UNEP also maintains an online “Climate Note,” a tool that visualizes the changing state of the climate with a baseline of 1990.
Despite the challenges, there is reason to be positive. From 2010 to 2021, policies were put in place which will lower annual emissions by 11 gigatons by 2030 compared to what would have otherwise happened.
Through its other multilateral environmental agreements and reports, UNEP raises awareness and advocates for effective environmental action. UNEP will continue to work closely with its 193 Member States and other stakeholders to set the environmental agenda and advocate for a drastic reduction in GHG emissions.
Beyond these movements, individuals can also join the UN’s #ActNow campaign for ideas to take climate-positive actions.
By making choices that have less harmful effects on the environment, everyone can be part of the solution and influence change. Speaking up is one way to multiply impact and create change on a much bigger scale.
The social aspect of biodiversity reduction in Brazil
What most people ignore is that climate change is also a social issue, arising from unawareness of the human population about the impact of their activities. Biodiversity plays a key role in ecosystems and also services benefits to the tourism industry. Marine life biodiversity specifically plays a role in attracting tourists for activities like scuba diving, snorkeling and other observation activities alike. Currently, the Brazilian Guitarfish, commonly found in the South Atlantic Brazilian waters, specifically around the South coast of Rio De Janeiro is facing massive decline in numbers, and is also on the list of critically endangered species.
One major reason for the rapid decline in numbers of Brazilian Guitarfish is overfishing of the female population for illegal, highly valued meat sale in fish markets. Most fishermen catch the female guitarfish along with their little offspring in shallow waters around Rio De Janeiro. The decline in species of guitarfish is mostly among the female population, however this impacts the long term numbers of the guitarfish population. Fishermen who catch guitarfish and engage in the illegal meat industry know little about the impact created by their fishing activities on biodiversity in the oceans. A valid solution to solving the issue of high levels of guitarfish fishing in Brazil is empowering fishermen to engage in other trades and businesses that are more sustainable with steady profits, simply raising awareness about the downside of overfishing endangered species might not be enough. A dollar is a dollar, or in this case a real is a real.
An alternate model for sustainable fishing has been developed in Fuji, specifically to protect the coastline that attracts tourism across the year. The local government in fishing villages is working in collaboration with fishers to ensure that they have access to a greater number of opportunities, even outside the fishing industry. Moreover, the local government is regulating the prices of fish meat and creating a bandwidth for sustainable profits by encouraging fishing of species that are more abundant in the local waters. This is creating a low incentive situation for Fujian fishers to fish endangered species and engage in local trade. This unique model, with a mix of government involvement and local incentives, can be amplified to other countries like Brazil too.
While most experts talk about climate change, they ignore the social aspect of climate change, which is perhaps the biggest contributor. Human activities impacting climate change don’t just arise from unawareness but also from lack of other opportunities that can incentivise a change in decision making. Creating consumer end awareness about the downside of consuming illegal meat is also crucial. The same can be done in fish markets with the use of artwork to support behavioral change. Brazilian Guitarfish also carry high content of Mercury and chemicals and are therefore not the safest to consume in the unregulated illegal meat industry, without safety approvals from the government. Making consumers aware about the fact that they are not just paying high prices for meat that is illegal but also consuming meat that can potentially give them cancer and other diseases is crucial. This can be done using artwork in fish markets, as is being done across fishing villages in Bali.
Brazilian Guitarfish are also rare in other parts of the world and attract divers to premium diving locations, fetching around $75 to $100 per dive, higher than most other locations where rare species like Guitarfish cannot be spotted. More efforts can be taken to set up dive centers in Brazil specifically dedicated towards Brazilian Guitarfish. This will not only be an attractive source of income for locals but also encourage conservation efforts. Tourism can be a major source of revenue for Brazilian fishermen and farmers, encouraging development and infrastructural promotion across major cities in Brazil, thereby creating a line of opportunities for Brazilian citizens across different industries.
With biodiversity as high as Brazil, more efforts should be taken to fuel tourism, interaction and awareness with Brazilian biodiversity, including rainforests and marine life. With the empowerment of local communities, we can together create a more sustainable future, inclusive towards all organisms.
To promote the cause of Brazilian Guitarfish conservation, I have started a movement called The Brazilian Guitarfish movement, operating via whatsapp group involving people across continents from various fields – climate researchers, marine conservationists, scuba divers, fishing industry experts, government authorities, public policy enthusiasts and tourism officials to curate solutions specific to conserving Brazilian Guitarfish. It’s a global initiative, with hands contributing from across the world to save Brazilian Guitarfish by empowering local fishers with diverse opportunities. There is always an alternate solution, sometimes all we need is a fresh approach along with fresh minds to find it. Fortunately, connecting globally in the digital world makes problem solving easier for all of us.
Global Warming Impacts Antarctic Glaciers and Wildfires
Come year end and prognosticators abound. Dire portents from the pessimists and the reverse from the optimists; from disasters of one kind or another to the stock market going sky high.
Not necessarily in 2022, yet there is the possibility with global warming of a melting Greenland ice cap or the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. The latter is the size of Florida, and its collapse has the potential of rising sea levels by 10 feet. Imagine the effect when almost 250 million people live just 3 feet above high tide levels.
The difference between Greenland and the Antarctic is that Greenland’s glaciers are on solid ground and melt from above due to warmer temperatures; the Antarctic ice shelf melts from the bottom due to warmer ocean water. As it is eaten away from the bottom it destabilizes. Cracks begin to form on the surface, a harbinger of collapse, and eventually massive chunks of ice shear off and fall into the ocean. Like adding ice cubes to a drink, it does not have to melt to raise sea levels.
It is almost impossible to predict when chunks will collapse but some cracks have been observed. In 2019, satellite images revealed a massive block of ice 15 by 21 miles cracking up in a few days. Scientists from the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration reported on cracks and fissures in the glacier’s ice shelf, predicting its fracture within five years and disappearance into the sea in less than a decade.
Then there is the case of forest fires and in particular the fire in Colorado that has been in the news. A fire in December is certainly unusual because the fire season runs from May to September although extended to November of late due to global warming. The rest of the time the trees are too wet to sustain a fire and any small fires started by broken power lines or lightning strikes during storms tend to extinguish on their own.
Thus the devastating wildfire that has swept through the Denver suburbs is unprecedented, as Governor Jared Polis observed. He has declared a state of emergency thereby permitting access to disaster funding. The fast spreading fire left residents in commuting suburbs like Superior very little time to evacuate and nearby roads were soon clogged with traffic. Fortunately, to date, no deaths have been reported and no serious injuries although three people are still missing. A substantial loss of property however, as around a 1000 houses have been destroyed. About the only explanation for a changing equation for natural disasters is global warming. It affects weather patterns, rain and snow, drought and floods.
We hear no loss of life or serious injuries and we move on to the next news story. Yet it is not too difficult to imagine the trauma of families standing in front of a heap of ashes, who have had their life’s memories swept away in a couple of hours. Nothing left except the clothes covering them.
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