Climate Change Umpteenth Warning

The situation is worsening. Governments need to act much faster and more robustly

By Mrinal Roy

Mankind is facing two major existential threats: the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. It is a double whammy for humanity and the world.

Extreme weather conditions caused a series of disasters in countries across the world recently. In the space of a short period, unprecedented rain and flash floods caused devastating landslides and deaths in China, Germany and Belgium and inundation in England. Destructive forest fires burned more than 860,000 acres in Oregon and California in the United States, and 3.7 million acres in Siberia, Russia. The world also registered high temperatures of 49°Celsius in Canada, conditions of tropical heat in Finland and Ireland as well as record drought across the U.S. West and parts of Brazil. These disastrous climate related events warn the world and mankind for the umpteenth time on the imperative of urgent action to robustly address the potent dangers and risks of climate change on planet Earth. It is a jolting wake-up call that time is fast running out.

The scientific evidence that the world is facing an impending catastrophe due to global warming and climate change is overwhelming. Leading climate change scientists have repeatedly warned that the world now has only nine years until 2030 to keep global warming within a maximum of 1.5°C to avoid a disastrous climate change disaster. Latest climate indicators show that the situation is worsening. Governments need to act much faster and more robustly.

Deteriorating indicators

2020 was one of the three warmest years on record. The economic slowdown caused by Covid-19 failed to stall the adverse impact of climate change. Some six years after the December 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change commitment by 196 signatory countries to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial(1850-1900) levels, the global average temperature is already about 1.2° Celsius warmer than the pre-industriallevel.

The April 2021World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report prepared with an extensive network of partners documents the deteriorating state of climate change indicators such as greenhouse gas concentrations, droughts, increasing land and ocean temperatures, sea level rise, melting ice and glacier retreat and extreme weather. It also highlights impacts on socio-economic development, migration and displacement, food security and land and marine ecosystems.

The report flagged that concentrations of the major greenhouse gases continued to increase in 2019 and 2020. The ocean absorbs around 23% of the annual emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere originating from human activity and acts as a buffer against climate change. However, CO2 reacts with seawater and causes acidification. This in turn reduces the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and adversely impacts ecosystems, marine life and fisheries, The ocean also absorbs more than 90% of the excess heat from human activities. The rate of ocean warming over the past decade was thus higher than the long-term average.

Global mean sea level has recently also been rising at a higher rate partly due to the increased melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Since the mid-1980s, Arctic surface air temperatures have warmed at least twice as fast as the global average. The 2020 Arctic sea-ice minimum extent after the summer melt was 3.74 million km2. This is only the second time on record that it shrank to less than 4 million km2. The Greenland ice sheet continued to lose mass. Approximately 152 Gt (gigatonnes) of ice were lost from the Greenland ice sheet between September 2019 and August 2020. The Antarctic ice sheet also loses approximately 175 to 225 Gt per year.

Heavy rain and extensive flooding occurred over large parts of Africa and Asia in 2020. India, South Asia, China, the Republic of Korea and Japan, and parts of South-East Asia also received abnormally high rainfall at various times of the year.

Severe drought affected Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and South Africa. In the Siberian Arctic, temperatures were more than 3°C above average in 2020. It caused prolonged and widespread wildfires. Widespread drought also caused huge fires in the United States.Major heat waves, record temperatures and extreme heat were registered in various countries in the Caribbean, Australia, East Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

The frequency and intensity of cyclones also increased in 2020. There were a record 12 landfalls by hurricanes in the United States. Tropical cyclones caused devastation in central America, Bangladesh, India, Philippines, Fiji and various Pacific islands, Storm Alex in early October brought extreme winds to western France and brought heavy rainfall in Europe.

As a result, more than 50 million people were doubly hit in 2020 by climate-related disasters (floods, droughts and storms) and by the Covid-19 pandemic. This worsened food insecurity.

Domino effect

The warnings are loud and clear. The world can no longer bury its head in the sand. Climate change is impacting the world faster than expected. Climate scientists suggest that climate change modelling may have been underestimating “the potential for the dramatic rise in persistent weather extremes.” There is patently a dynamic interaction among climate change drivers such as greenhouse gas concentrations, increasing land and ocean temperatures, droughts, sea level rise, melting ice and glacier retreat and extreme weather. Thus, the concentration of greenhouse gas (GHGs) in the earth’s atmosphere is directly linked to the average global temperature on Earth. The concentration of GHGs has been rising steadily with increasing industrialization and the burning of fossil fuels which accounts for about two-thirds of GHGs emissions choking the atmosphere.

New research on the interactions between ice sheets in West Antarctica, Greenland, the warm Atlantic Gulf Stream and the Amazon rainforest found domino effects with severe consequences for humanity.

Tipping points occur when global heating pushes temperatures beyond a critical threshold, leading to accelerated and irreversible impacts. Some large ice sheets in Antarctica are thought to have already passed their tipping points. This means that large sea-level rises in future putting at risk low coastal areas and cities. Risk analysis found that ‘ice sheets are potential starting points for tipping cascades, with the Atlantic currents acting as a transmitter and eventually affecting the Amazon.’ Does this mean that the world and humanity have less time to significantly cut down greenhouse gas emissions?

According to climate scientists, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere required to push temperatures beyond the thresholds could be reached in the very near future which means that we could be committing future generations to really severe consequences. These could include a sea-level rise of many metres caused by melting ice flooding scores of coastal cities and lowlands. Has a climate change risk analysis been done on coastal projects such as the mega Les Salines project? We must avoid a repeat of the Verdun and Bagatelle dam costly mishaps.

The way forward

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is presently preparing the most comprehensive assessment on the state of climate change indicators since 2013.Over the next two weeks scientists will meticulously review their findings with representatives of 195 governments. Experts say the report will be a “wake-up call” to governments.

Their 40-page Summary for Policymakers is expected to play an important role in guiding global leaders who will go to Glasgow in November for the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference to deal with the critical issue of concrete actions to urgently reverse the dire impact of climate change on our homeland, planet Earth.

Below par

The US has undertaken to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. Other countries have committed to significantly cut theirs by 40-55% or more by 2030 to reach a net zero target by 2050.

The commitment of Mauritius to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 is therefore patently under par. The production of energy in the country is still highly dependent on imported fossil fuels. In 2020, 86.7% of the energy requirements were still produced from fossil fuels of which 30.7% was produced from highly polluting coal. In line with best world sustainable energy policy norms, Mauritius’ high dependence on fossil fuels must be significantly reduced by ending the production of electricity from coal which emits about 1.45 times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than other fossil fuels and nearly twice that produced from natural gas and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) which is cleaner and produces roughly 40% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal. Too often plans to recast the energy production in the country has been stalled and scuttled by flawed tender procedures or tainted by corruption and wrongdoings.

It is high time to cut loose from the politics and vested lobbies which maintain the energy production policy of the country stuck in an anachronistic time warp. The country’s energy policy must be aligned with the common international objective of saving the planet from an impending climate change catastrophe. Mauritius must therefore significantly increase the share of renewable energy production in the country from the paltry 2020 level of 13.3% to at least the UNDP Climate Promise initiative target of 35% renewable energy or more by 2025, eliminate the use of highly polluting coal and markedly reduce the use of fossil fuels. The share of bagasse and cane biomass which is dependent on a dwindling sugar cane production in the energy production of the country has fallen to 11% in 2020. A plummeting production and use of bagasse cannot continue to be the ubiquitous fig leaf to mask the massive use of highly polluting coal.

The dangers and risks of climate change loom larger with each climate related disaster. This is not the time for procrastination but action. The world must unite ahead of COP26 with a common resolve to do what it takes to reverse the disastrous fallouts of climate change and steer the world towards a significantly more sustainable future.

The dangers and risks of climate change loom larger with each climate related disaster. This is not the time for procrastination but action. The world must unite ahead of COP26 with a common resolve to do what it takes to reverse the disastrous fallouts of climate change and steer the world towards a significantly more sustainable future.

* Published in print edition on 30 July 2021

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