Untying knots over climate change issues

As the Copenhagen climate change convention draws near, there is increasing rhetoric on the issue of climate change. Meanwhile, there is a world of myth and fact, all entangled. Here are a few myths that need looking into.

Plants convert all CO2 into oxygen at night
Plants do play a major role in converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. In fact, during the northern spring, the Keeling curve which maps the CO2 levels in the air shows a drastic drop year on year. However, there is a queue!
Each molecule of CO2 needs to practically wait for a hundred years before its chance to get broken down into “carbon and oxygen” in its cycle of life. What this does mean is that 56 per cent of all carbon dioxide that we have emitted since the major industrial activity started about 100 years ago, is still in the air. No wonder that the CO2 level in the air increased from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to 380 parts per million now.
Climate change is a problem of the future and our children will be better equipped to deal with it.

Let’s look at the demographics. If we take 2050 as the year of drastic changes in the earth’s environment (and mind you most of the scientists are now coming to a conclusion that we could be seeing extreme weather conditions as soon as 2030), then over 70 per cent of the people living today would still be alive going by the current life expectancy figures. Being a young country, where 55 per cent of the population was born after 1980, and with improving life expectancy, that figure would be much higher for India. In effect, climate change will affect almost every family alive today. As per the United Nations’ IPCC, mankind must stabilise carbon emissions by 2015 to limit the temperature rise by 2.0 degrees. Every year of delay thereafter would mean an enhanced commitment to temperature rise. We need to bring the emissions down to 50 per cent of 1990 levels by the year 2050 to limit the temperature rise to two per cent.

A two-degree change in climate change is no big deal. After all, the temperature changes by 10s of degree during seasonal changes
There are two issues that usually go unnoticed here. a) Most of the species on earth (plants and animals) can survive a 3-4 degree temperature variation in their natural cycle. Seasonal changes drive reproductive cycles in most species and any change in the seasons’ timings or weather conditions disturbs their reproductive cycle leading them to extinction. b) We have already witnessed a temperature rise of 0.8 degrees compared to the pre-industrial times. Any rise in temperature results in a positive feedback loop as a hotter climate would release carbon trapped in the sea, and would greatly reduce earth’s capacity to reflect heat radiations back into space. Effects of an increase of over 2.5 degrees temperature rise are difficult to simulate accurately, thereby leading us into a completely unpredictable, dangerous and irreversible situation.

Our biggest energy challenge is that we will run out of fossil fuel soon
Not really. There does seem to be plenty of fossil fuel available though a lot of it is un-economical to tap. The issue is that if we were to burn just a quarter of all the fossil fuel currently available in the ground (including gas, coal and oil), carbon-di-oxide levels in the air would bring humanity to the 50-50 point of tipping into dangerous climate change. Our total budget for carbon emissions from 2000 to 2050 stand at 1400 giga tonnes which at current rate of consumption, we will exhaust by 2025 or earlier. Our challenge is moving to alternate fuels swiftly before causing a permanent damage to a fragile ecosystem that supports life on earth.

As someone said, if you take away all the insects on earth, life on Earth would end. If you take away all humans, life would flourish!

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