Countdown begins to save planet

Last Updated 24 April 2014, 17:31 IST

In case you missed it, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the third and final part of a report on April 13 in which it says bluntly that we only have 15 years left to avoid exceeding the ‘safe’ threshold of a  2°C  increase in global temperatures, beyond which the consequences will be dramatic.

And only the most myopic are unaware of what these are — from an increase in sea level,  through more frequent hurricanes and storms (increasingly in previously unaffected areas), to an adverse impact on food production.

Now, in a normal and participatory world, in which at least 83 per cent of those living today will still be alive in 15 years, this report would have created a dramatic reaction.

Instead, there has not been a single comment by any of the leaders of the 196 countries in which the planet’s 7.5 billion ‘consumers’ reside. It’s just been business as usual.

Anthropologists, who study human beings’ similarity to and divergence from other animals, concluded a long time ago that humans are not superior in every aspect.

For instance, human beings are less adaptable than many animals to survive in, for example, earthquakes, hurricanes and any other type of natural disaster.

You can be sure that, by now, other animals would be showing signs of alertness and uneasiness.

The first part of the report, released in September 2013 in Stockholm, declared with a 95 percent or greater certainty that humans are the main cause of global warming, while the second part, released in Yokohama at the end of March, reported that “in recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans.”

The IPCC is made up of over 2,000 scientists, and this is the first time that it has come to firm and final conclusions since its creation in 1988 by the United Nations.

The main conclusion of the report is that to slow the race to a point of no return, global emissions must be cut by 40 to 70 per cent by 2050, and that “only major institutional and technological changes will give a better than even chance” that global warming will not go beyond the safety threshhold.

It is worth noting that roughly half of the world’s population is under the age of 30, and it is largely the young who will have to bear the enormous costs of fighting climate change.

The IPCC’s main recommendation is very simple: major economies should place a tax on carbon pollution, raising the cost of fossil fuels and thus pushing the market toward clean sources such as wind, solar or nuclear energy.

It is here that "major institutional changes" are required.

Ten countries are responsible for 70 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas pollution, with the United States and China accounting for over 55 per cent of that share.

Both countries are taking serious steps to fight pollution.

Efforts in vain

US President Barack Obama tried in vain to obtain Senate support, and has used his authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution from vehicles and industrial plants and encourage clean technologies.

But he cannot do anything more without backing from the Senate.

The all-powerful new president of China, Xi Jinping, has made the environment a priority, also because official sources put the number of deaths in China each year from pollution at five million.

But China needs coal for its growth, and Xi's position is: “Why should we slow down our development when it was you rich countries that created the problem by achieving your growth?”

And that gives rise to a vicious circle.

The countries of the South want the rich countries to finance their costs for reducing pollution, and the countries of the North want them to stop polluting.

As a result, the report's executive summary, which is intended for political leaders, has been stripped of charts which could have been read as showing the need for the South to do more, while the rich countries put pressure on avoiding any language that could have been interpreted as the need for them to assume any financial obligations.

This should make it easier to reach an agreement at the next Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Lima, where a new global agreement should be reached (remember the disaster at the climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009).

The key to any agreement is in the hands of the US.

The US Congress has blocked any initiative on climate control, providing an easy escape for China, India and other polluters: why should we make commitments and sacrifices if the US does not participate?

The problem is that the Republicans have made climate change denial one of their points of identity.

(Published 24 April 2014, 17:31 IST)

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