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Updated: February 2, 2010 22:10 IST

Challenge of climate change, post-Copenhagen

R. K. Pachauri
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R.K. Pachauri, Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
AP R.K. Pachauri, Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Are the world and human society in general ready and willing to take action on critical issues that require a major change in the manner in which we produce and consume goods and services?

The science of climate change is now well established. This is the result of painstaking work of over two decades carried out by thousands of scientists drawn from across the globe to assess every aspect of climate change for the benefit of humanity. The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was produced in the year 2007, and highlighted, on the basis of careful observations extending over a long period of time, that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.” It was also stated clearly that most of the “observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations. It is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent (except Antarctica).”

It is important to remember that changes in climate are not limited merely to an increase in temperature, but in fact involve several impacts such as an increase in intensity and frequency of floods, droughts, heat waves and extreme precipitation events. Therefore, these pose serious implications for the availability of water in several parts of the world and could have negative impacts on the yields of several crops.

In fact, IPCC’s projections indicate that in Africa, for instance, as early as 2020, between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. By the same year, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 per cent. As a result, agricultural production including access to food in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised. This would affect their food security adversely and exacerbate the problem of malnutrition which is already quite serious in several countries of Africa. In India, too, we are likely to witness climate change in several manifestations, which are likely to be far more serious than anything we have seen in the 20th century, in case no action is taken to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) globally.

In the light of these projected changes in climate and their various impacts, it was hoped that the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties (CoP) would be able to arrive at a binding agreement to ensure that all countries of the world take effective action, firstly in agreeing to reduce global emissions of GHGs with a sense of urgency. Secondly, given the serious nature of impacts in some of the poorest regions of the world it was anticipated that the developed countries would provide significant financial resources and facilitate access to technology by which these countries could adapt to the impacts of climate change and, at the same time, undertake mitigation measures. It was also seen as urgent that developed countries reduce their emissions adequately in keeping with their historical responsibility for human-induced climate change. Global efforts are required to bring the earth’s climate into some degree of stability.

One of the favourable outcomes of the Copenhagen conference last December was the acceptance of a 2°C limit on temperature increase that the countries who are part of the Copenhagen Accord laid down as a target. However, this Accord, which was reached in the final hours of the extended meeting, is not yet universally accepted, and in fact is likely to receive some resistance from a number of countries. At the same time, we know that if the world is to stabilise temperature increase to between 2.0-2.4°C, then certain conditions would require to be met. The first of these conditions would imply that global emissions of GHGs would have to peak no later than 2015. This outcome is now greatly in doubt, because the world has not come to any agreement on developed countries reducing their emissions of GHGs by 2020 at levels that would aim to bring about stabilisation of GHG concentration. Unless we have a clear roadmap for reduction in emissions by 2020, we cannot expect peaking of global emissions to take place any time before that year. It is also significant that the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) have announced voluntary targets for reduction in intensity of GDP growth.

The world has been providing a great deal of attention to action on the part of several countries in the world, and many political leaders responsible for policy have been visible in their efforts to bring about global action on climate change. The U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, organised a high level meeting on September 22, 2009, where over a hundred world leaders including heads of state and heads of government participated in deliberations dealing specifically with climate change. The Copenhagen conference attracted an even larger number of world leaders, and this initially provided promise of action by which the world would deal with various aspects of this challenge. However, despite the fact that in many countries there is strong grassroots support for action and several world leaders have not only articulated but shown through domestic action their desire to act firmly, the result globally has been far less than satisfactory.

This situation raises a major question on whether the world and human society in general are ready and willing to take action on critical issues that require a major change in the manner in which we produce and consume goods and services. Since industrialisation began the world has moved on a path of escalating production and consumption of newer and newer goods and services, which has had serious impacts on the environment and the natural resources of this planet. Fortunately, in the developed countries, several longstanding chronic problems like air and water pollution, deforestation and loss of biodiversity have been brought largely under check, but the emissions of GHGs continue unmitigated against the need for a rapid transformation of the economic system. Unfortunately, the desired transformation is being blocked effectively by vested interests which see a loss in their own economic power and financial benefits likely that change in economic activities may bring, for instance, towards a greater use of renewable energy and reduced use of fossil fuels.

In any area of new knowledge, historically the world has witnessed a number of people who remain sceptics and resistant to change in conventional ways and customs. Today, the power of sceptics has become extremely high because economic interests which resist change support them on a substantial scale. The Center for Public Integrity in Washington D.C. issued a report in March 2009, in which it reported that 770 companies had hired an estimated 2304 lobbyists to influence federal policy on climate change. That represented a 300 per cent increase in numbers in just five years, amounting to four climate lobbyists for every member of Congress. As it happens, this enormous economic power and manifestation of vested interest is not confined to Washington alone, and the lobbyists and the sceptics are flexing their muscles right from Australia to Britain to North America. The current situation is reminiscent of the brutal no-holds-barred campaign carried out by the tobacco lobby when scientific evidence on the link between smoking and cancer became overwhelming and was seen as a threat to their profits.

The outcome of the Copenhagen CoP has only emboldened those who resist change to try every tactic by which they can stall action both at the international as well as the national level in many countries. As a result, therefore, the legislation that is now with the U.S. Senate, as proposed by Senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, is running into stiff resistance, and it is possible that this piece of legislation may not see the light of day in the near future. Yet, in the absence of the U.S. being an important component of a global accord, any agreement would remain inadequate and ineffective.

The challenge and opportunity facing human society is, therefore, to launch urgent grassroots action by civil society, business and local governments towards a pattern of sustainable development. National governments and multilateral initiatives would follow inevitably.

(Dr. R.K. Pachauri is Director-General, The Energy & Resources Institute, Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Director, Yale Climate and Energy Institute.)

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