Running away from responsibilities?
At a time when the world stands on the precipice of significant change, Climate Vulnerable Forum, comprising of the most vulnerable countries, has just concluded its third meet in Dhaka. Presence of the UN Secretary General gave the Forum a profile and importance that should serve it well in the upcoming Conference of Parties meeting (COP17) in Durban in a few weeks, but what the Forum is actually able to achieve remains to be seen.
Understandably, adaptation measures and funding thereof, access to technology, risk reduction and climate induced displacement were rightly flagged as areas of major concern, as was the need to agree on a peak year for emissions, limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, vocal nationally and internationally in the climate change debate, expressed her disappointment at commitments made on fast-start finance in Copenhagen not having been acted upon. The UN Secretary General stated that promises could not be empty shells and also urged urgent action on part of the developed world.
As the backlog on unrealised commitments builds, the trust deficit between developed and the developing continues to widen, making the task of coming to an agreement all the more difficult.
Given that Bangladesh and the vulnerable are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, which is also occurring far more rapidly than envisaged, the focus on adaptation is understandable and necessary.
However, we also have to note that we cannot go on adapting indefinitely and adaptation has its natural limits. The more we mitigate, the less we have to adapt, and at the end of the day, the optimum and most sustainable form of adaptation is mitigation/deep emission cuts.
Stabilising greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration in the atmosphere necessitates deep cuts in emission of GHG. This, however, is where the real challenge lies. Whilst imperative for resolute action to curb global warming from use of fossil fuel is on one hand increasingly urgent, on the other it is becoming more difficult and less likely from the point of view of taking measures to ensure that this is indeed so in practice.
Policy makers in the developed world perhaps feel that such actions are costly and unpopular with the electorate in current global context of slowing growth, higher unemployment and unsustainable government debts, which have helped raise the spectre of yet another, and much deeper meltdown. Austerity demands that governments cut costs and hence they opt to continue to use coal, oil and natural gas because they regard these to be cheaper than low or zero carbon alternatives.
Reviving economic growth is being viewed through the lens of cheapest possible and existing energy options promoting increased consumption of goods and services. This has been the tried and tested method since the coal-based industrial revolution in Britain in the 1750s but is a recipe for disaster in the overheated and climate sensitive present-day world.
A rational and international response to the problem demands a rapid shift to clean energy growth, a zero-fossil-fuel and zero-emission future and economy. This can be accomplished by dramatically scaling up the utilisation of zero carbon energy technology in the global energy mix so that at least 70% of the energy sources will be carbon neutral in the medium term. De-carbonisation to prevent "tipping point" requires global energy investments to rise to $2 trillion, double of today, but from the recent financial bail outs, this is not an impossible amount to mobilise.
Climate change provides both an obligation and an opportunity to reconfigure energy strategies so that they meet needs of present generation without compromising the future generations' ability to meet theirs. There is an urgent imperative to define a new vision for global sustainable development based on clean energy and a low-carbon economy.
IEA (International Energy Association), in its just released annual report on outlook for energy use, warns that expansion of electricity generation, industry and urban centres based on fossil fuel burning is happening so quickly that the world may not be able to limit global temperature rise to safe levels unless a binding climate control deal is agreed upon soon.
With emissions of CO2 already at 390 ppm (parts per million) and rising, we do not have the luxury of time on our side. CO2 emissions last year rose to top 30 billion tonnes. A business as usual approach would mean that by 2035, CO2 released into the atmosphere would rise by 20% to 36 billion tonnes, and this would lead to temperature rise of between 3.5 degrees to 6 degrees Celsius. This will undoubtedly radically change the earth's ecosystem and lead to extinction of many species.
To limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, let alone the 1.5 degrees we are demanding, requires a 4.8% increase in carbon intensity every year till 2050, meaning emissions would need to grow by 4.8% less than the economy every year over that period. However, in 2010, global emissions rose by 5.8% whilst GDP increased by 5.1% and hence, rather than a decrease, last year witnessed an overall increase in carbon intensity.
Increased global warming will have two severe impacts.
First, the planet's ability to soak up carbon dioxide will be compromised and may become irreversible. At present, around 50% of man-made carbon emissions are absorbed by the sea and by plants on land.
However, as temperatures rise, the amount of carbon dioxide that can be absorbed decreases and we soon reach a dangerous tipping point from which temperatures will go up even faster. Runaway climate change in this context thus becomes a terrifying, fatal and distinct reality.
Secondly, as the oceans and atmosphere warm, there will be huge surges of carbon due to release of natural gas hydrates. Hydrates contain methane trapped by freezing temperatures and high pressure in sea floor sediment. Methane in the atmosphere warms the earth over 20 times more per molecule than CO2. Worldwide, methane from hydrates is estimated to total a staggering 20 trillion tonnes, more energy than in the remaining coal, oil and gas reserves combined.
Based on present trends of global warming, between one and two-thirds of the Earth's permanently frozen land, or permafrost, would disappear by end of the century. This would spew into the atmosphere the equivalent of about 20% of the total amount of carbon already there today.
A climate change bomb is thus ticking away on land, sea and air, and diffusing it amid global economic stress will be a major challenge. It is a challenge that must however we met. As the Climate Vulnerable Forum Declaration points out, this is a global problem that demands a global fix.
It is thus not a question of saving one country or a group of countries at the expense of other(s). If we fail to save one, we will have failed to save all, and at the end of the day, the planet itself is vulnerable.
The question for COP17 in Durban is, will we prevent runaway climate change or will we instead run away from our common and differentiated responsibilities, denying the present and betraying the future?