Global warming, a chance to reset development paradigm

The United Nations has marked April 22 as the International Mother Earth Day, and this year the theme is “Environmental and Climate literacy.” Literacy, which refers to the knowledge-status of a person, drives change. At this juncture, the Mother Earth is stressed from overuse and pollution.

Hence, promoting literacy about environmental degradation and global warming is necessary to create a demand for adjusting the trajectory of modern development towards sustainability and wellbeing.

The pursuit of development has led to the current global warming trend. It is a manmade planetary scale phenomenon. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), impacts of global warming are evident in the sea level rise, melting of polar icecaps and increase in extreme climate events.

Global warming poses a direct threat to the sustainability of food production, fresh water supplies and human health. Release of carbon dioxide from human developmental activities is the major cause of the current global warming.

The IPCC has reported an average global warming of 0.850C between 1880 and 2012, and for 2016, independent sources report a warming by 1.10C above the pre-industrial level (1850). Further, warming up to 60C is projected by 2100.

Recognising the global warming trend, the Paris Climate Agreement adopted in 2015 aims to limit the global warming to below 20C (above the pre-industrial levels), as warming limited to below 20C is likely to substantially reduce the risks and impacts. However, the need for adaptation to the impacts of global warming would still be demanding - socially, politically, economically and technologically.

Industrial revolution and scientific discoveries have changed human behaviour forever as the realised capability to make things and overcome hurdles has boosted human confidence immensely. In the present carbon-fuelled (fossil fuel and biomass), technology-driven modern world, human confidence recognises no boundaries for development.

The impacts of haphazard and indiscreet developmental activities carried out at the local level are adding up at the global level and causing environmental degradation — fossil fuel burning for energy production and transportation leading to ocean acidification.

Development is a natural corollary of persistence. While persistence of life on the earth has led to the development of increasingly complex web of species, human societies have persisted and developed by securing themselves against the uncertainties pertaining to food, shelter and diseases. About 1.2 billion people lived below the poverty line at $1.25 a day in 2012 and were not able to meet their minimum nutrition, sanitation and health needs.

Nonetheless, consumption trends in the developed countries are unrelenting and create unsustainable demand on Earth’s resources. In 2016, on August 8, we began to use more from nature than our planet could renew in the whole year. With each passing year, we are reaching such Earth Overshoot Day earlier than preceding years!

In order to promote sustainable consumption, and with an intention to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all, the global community has adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015. This UN sponsored development agenda contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and 169 targets pertaining to a range of concerns including poverty, illiteracy, inequality and environmental degradation.

The web of life (or biota) which is unique to our planet, can help in dealing with the warming trend. Biota denotes the total assemblage of plant and animal species, and includes their interactions amongst themselves and that with their physical environment. Biota originated about 3.5 billion years ago and gradually started to influence the physical conditions on Earth to promote itself, primarily the oxygenation of atmosphere. Evolution and spread of biota has now reached a stage where, if geological and celestial factors remain unchanged, it is capable of maintaining the most critical physical condition for life on Earth — the average global temperature of 14.50C.

Greenhouse effect

Life-conducive 14.50C temperature is maintained owing to the biota-regulated greenhouse effect of Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major greenhouse gas constituting the atmosphere; and, its higher concentration produces higher greenhouse effect, and thereby the warmer temperature on Earth.

The size of active carbon pools in the atmosphere, ocean and land are almost equal, about 700 billion tonnes each. Biota — aquatic and terrestrial — responds by increased removal of CO2 through photosynthesis process in case the concentration of CO2 increases in the atmosphere, thus maintaining atmospheric CO2 levels and regulating its greenhouse effect to maintain the average ambient temperature.

The other factors that enable the regulatory capability of biota are sunlight and water. Availability of water in all the three forms — solid ice, liquid water and water vapours — is unique to our planet. Presence of biota-mediated environmental conditions for water to exist in different forms drives physical processes of the climate system such as transportation of heat from equator towards poles through the movement of air and ocean currents.

Water found concurrently in liquid and vapour state also drives life processes. For example, liquid water drawn from soil through plant roots transports nutrients to leaves where plants make food (photosynthesis) and release water through pores (stomata) as water vapours (transpiration); discharge of water in the form of vapours from leaves creates pressure for suction of liquid water from soil and enables these processes.

In conclusion, the need to arrest and reverse global warming is urgent and conservation of biota can enable it. Biota maintains the productive environmental conditions on our planet. A shift to environmentally compatible green development can help in achieving the twin objectives of development and ecology. Without environmental conservation, economic development and social development are unsustainable.

(The writer is an Indian Forest Service officer)

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