Global warming, Kyoto Protocol and developing countries | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 28, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 28, 2007

Global warming, Kyoto Protocol and developing countries

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In the face of mounting debate on the disastrous effect of greenhouse gases, scientists agree on the other hand that as a natural process the effect makes life on earth possible. This is a process by which various gases act like the glass of a greenhouse, trapping heat near the earth's surface. The greenhouse gases are naturally occurring and include carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour and other trace chemicals. But it is now known that man-made chemicals have caused a massive build-up of greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere. Precisely true, human activities are changing and enhancing the greenhouse effect. We are, so to say, thickening the walls of the greenhouse. And those activities that contribute to the build up of these gases include the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, certain agricultural activities and industrial practices. Scientists have warned time and again that this sort of profligacy with nature, this wanton destruction of forest wealth will only invite grim and disastrous consequences for us like the colossal deluge we have witnessed in 1988, 1998, 2004 and the most recent one.
A cursory look at the world consumption of fossil fuels will reveal that we are adding a net three billion tons a year of carbons to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons popularly known as CFCs. The world population that now stands at almost six billion will double in another 40 years from now. To combat the pollution problem associated with population boom and industrialization, vis-a-vis the global warming caused by greenhouse effect, we need trees and a lot of them, to absorb the carbon produced by such growth.
Countries irrespective of their position in the globe need at least 25 per cent as forest zone to sustain life without disastrous environmental hazards. In Bangladesh this ratio has now come down to seven percent because of our senseless action of cutting down trees without replenishing them. Reports have it that chopping down of trees in the Madhupur forest, Cox's Bazar, Sylhet and the mangrove forest of the Sundarbans, often with official patronage in exchange of hefty kickbacks continued unabated till before the take over by the present caretaker government.
What actually happens in the warming trend in the aftermath of the carbon accumulation in the atmosphere? Sunlight is always falling on the earth, the laws of physics decree that the planet has to radiate the same amount of energy back into space to keep its books balanced. The earth does this by sending infrared radiation out through the atmosphere, where an array of molecules (best known as carbon dioxide) form a kind of blanket, holding outgoing radiation for a while and warming the earth surface. The molecules are similar to the glass in a greenhouse, which is why the warming process is called greenhouse effect.
The greenhouse effect is nothing new; it has been operating ever since the earth formed. Without it, the surface of the globe would be rigid 20 degree centigrade, the oceans would have frozen, and no life would have developed. So the issue we face in this millennium is not whether there will be a greenhouse effect, but whether humans, by burning fossil fuels, are adding enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to change it -- in a sense our climate -- in significant ways.
One might think that knowing what causes greenhouse warming, it would be an easy matter to predict how hot the world would be in the next century. Unfortunately things aren't that simple. The world is a complex place and reducing it to the climatologist's tool of choice -- computer model -- isn't easy.
There is one fact though that everyone agrees on : the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing steadily. It is near 360 parts per million today, vs 315 p.p.m in 1958 ( when modern measurements started) and 270 p.p.m in pre-industrial times ( as measured by air bubbles trapped in Greenland ice sheet). An analysis of the admittedly temperature records indicates that the world's average temperature has gone up about 0.5 degree centigrade in the past century.
The most authoritative predictions about future warming come from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a worldwide consortium of more than 2000 climate scientists. The current forecast is that by 2100 the earth's temperature will go up 1 degree to 3.5 degree centigrade, with the best guesses being an increase of 2 degree centigrade However, experts are not sure till now as to how much carbon dioxide will be added to the atmosphere by human activity. Experts think that they can probably develop technologies to deal with excess carbon --some scientists talk about removing it from the smokestacks and stashing underground -- but the most direct way to control carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not to put it there in the first place. This is the essence or point of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol -- signed by 84 nations but not ratified by the U.S Senate -- which would limit developed countries' carbon emission from cars, power plants, and other major users of fossil fuels.
US President George Bush during his tenure of office has seen the worst of upheavals that global warming has wreaked in his own country, but he still holds the view that it makes no sense to 'overreact' to the prospect of global warming, but he should gracefully accept that it makes no sense to ignore it either. A prudent policy that stresses conservation and alternate energy sources seems to be wise insurance in an uncertain age.
Kyoto Protocol
The Kyoto Protocol that was adopted by over 160 nations on December 11, 1997 setting binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for developed countries has been opposed by the polluting industries in the US on the plea that it will result in massive job losses and reduced living standards for all Americans. But these critics have misled the media and public for a long time revealing only one side of the story: the costs and not the benefits of steps to prevent global warming.
It is worth mentioning that eight Nobel laureate economists supported by 2400 of their colleagues made it known to the world as early as 1998 that this one sided story does not provide a true picture of the impact on the US economy in implementing the treaty It is true that costs of reducing greenhouse pollution are not insignificant since these include costs of research and development , new technology and job loss in a few specific field of the economy but it is also true that more balanced economic analyses anticipate substantial economic benefits including cost saving from increased efficiency, improved competitiveness, job gains and increased investment in several high-tech sectors of the economy.
Despite skepticism from the developed countries studies have concluded that the economic benefits from the climate policies far exceed costs. for example, a National Academy of Science study in the recent past concluded that the US can reduce energy consumption by 20 per cent or more (resulting in substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions ) at a net economic benefit taking advantage of high efficiency motors, computerised controls, cogeneration and industry specific technologies, annual energy savings to US industry between 11 and 37 per cent by 2015 or an estimated $183 billion a year by 2010 is likely to be achieved.
The Protocol set out binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for 38 developed countries. The countries accepted varying targets based on the principle of “differentiation” which recognises that some countries are more capable of reducing their emissions than others because of how they produce and reduce their energy, their access to clean technologies and their relative levels of pollution, among numerous other factors.
The Protocol commits the US to reducing its emissions to an average of 7 per cent below its 1990 levels. The European Commission has a target of 8 per cent and Japan a target of 6 per cent below its 1990 levels and Australia a target of 8 per cent above its 1990 levels. Parties were given a target of 2008-12 , a five year average instead of a single year so that they will not be forced into non-compliance by unavoidable short term jumps.
The protocol restricts emission of six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluoro carbons (PFCs)and sulphur hexafluoride
Taking it for granted that the US, the biggest polluter, does not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and the warming trend goes on, there are ways to combat greenhouse effect in our day to day activities. Surely we must realise that forests are giant utilities providing indispensable service to the stability of the planet earth in which case Bangladesh is no exception. Stated in obvious terms trees are carbon dumps. Trees extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, emit oxygen and store the carbon in the branches, leaves, roots and soils. Can't we care for more trees?
Notably reports in recent times reveal that most developing countries have already cut a greater proportion of their greenhouse gas emissions than industrialised countries. Six developing countries like China, Mexico, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Brazil are cutting carbon emissions twice as fast as the industrialised countries. Encouragingly, some of the developing world's largest greenhouse gas emitters have launched energy efficiency and renewable energy programmes.
What all this requires is self discipline on the part of the world's haves and increased assistance to have-nots. Today a billion people live in a degree of squalor that forces them to deplete the environment without regard to its future. Similarly in developing or underdeveloped countries, governments are often too crippled by international debt and corruption to afford the short term costs of ecological prudence and that underscores the fact that protecting the global environment is inextricably linked to eliminating poverty.
Md. Asadullah Khan is a former teacher of physics and Controller of Examinations, BUET.

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