Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Burning Apocalypse for Earth?

Mumbai and Delhi are ranked 7th and 8th in British risk consultancy Maplecroft's fifth annual 'Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas 2013'. By 2070, according to the study, an estimated 11.4 million people and assets worth $1.3 trillion would be at peril in Mumbai due to climatic extremes. For decades, India’s collective conscious has been, to a great extent, defined by the enduring charm of that mythical utopia called Bollywood. Hundreds of thousands flock to the metropolis squeezed into trains every year hoping to escape struggle and squalor forever. However, a greater and speedier exodus may not be far if the powers that be have their way. And this power is not the state. Numerous studies and experts in recent times have rung alarm bells that unless we act now, Mumbai would be among the earliest scalps of global warming.

On one hand, surging concrete density of the city is causing solar radiation to get absorbed faster especially in last 2 decades causing something called the urban heat island effect (UHI). In this, rising concrete structures and greater green house gas (GHG) emissions is causing city temperatures to rise consistently. Increased temperatures form low-level ozone from volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxides which already exist in the air due to pollutants from factories. The circulation of this warm air with the cooler air from nearby rural areas will cause extreme weather patterns, says Subimal Ghosh, an Associate Professor of Civil Engineering from IIT Bombay. An OECD study in 2010 in which Ghosh contributed predicted more intense Asian summer monsoon causing excessive rainfall and flooding in Mumbai. Also, the mean average temperature of Mumbai would rise by 3.6 degree Celcius, further exacerbating the severe rainfall and flooding effect by 2070. Would anyone who was in Mumbai during the July 25, 2005 rainfall flooding in Mumbai want their children to face a similar and even more harrowing nightmare again?

Fen Montaigne, a climate change expert at Yale University, has warned that the present way of life would make Karachiand Delhi’s temperatures soar beyond limits of human endurance by end of this century. And to all those who think everyone could afford ACs and refrigerators by then, here’s the reality check – it’s the explosion of ACs and refrigeration systems in India, most of which still emit harmful aerosols and GHGs which will be biggest contributor to this unliveable temperature in our cities. But Mumbai would be hit hardest andearliest. As per Stan Cox, scientist and author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, around 2030 or just after, due to 40% of energy in Mumbai used in air conditioning which emits the above gases, “scary feedback loops” will be created and surging oil, gas and coal use will cause brown sulphurous cloud formation in the Arabian Sea creating unusually large storms. This can surely cause a storm Sandy like situation which killed hundreds in the US recently.

Not just India, hit Google and you’ll be drowned by the amount of credible, peer reviewed research stating that almost all the developing world, where populations beehive in the tropical regions near the coasts, will witness minor ‘Mayan Apocalypses’ within this century. As yet another year approaches and the majority of global population is on a shopping spree for the Holiday season amid cold and snow, a warming planet would be the last thing on their mind. How many of us remember that just recently, another UNFCCC meet was held in Doha, Qatar, which was the 18th annual edition of the global climate change conference? While the symbolic implications of the fact that Doha is the highest carbon emitter per capita on the planet had environmentalists sneering from across the globe, the event still held hope of squeezing out a clear agreement on charting out a legally binding treaty to curb global carbon emissions. And, we were not disappointed since post the media frenzy and then the anti climax at Copenhagen 3 years ago which yielded ‘voluntary commitments’ (read nothing ), Doha offered another labyrinthine mazeof words and terminologies paving no way on the ground.

The developed countries especially the US maintain their status quo that developing countries must also take binding commitments. Reason? China is now the world’s largest GHG emitter and India is 3rd. The other 3 are US(2), Russia (4) and Japan (5). While China, India and Russia, being developing nations, are not mandated to cut emissions as per Kyoto Protocol, the only existing legally binding treaty to curb carbon emissions, US never signed the treaty and Japan has refused to sign the treaty’s second phase beginning January 2013. Thus, only 15% of global GHG emissions are covered under the Kyoto Protocol beginning 2013. While the ancient Mayans may have been proven wrong, it just might be that either they got the date wrong or we misinterpreted their ancient texts. How? A few numbers can explain.

All global climate negotiations in the last 15 years are based on the premise that restricting global average temperature rise to 2° Celsius would avoid runaway effects of climate change. We have already raised the average annual temperature of the planet by 0.8° Celsius leaving us with a 1.2 °C window. And what has 0.8 °C done. One third of the Arctic ocean sea ice is gone. Oceans are already 30% more acidic resulting in warm air over them holding more water which can create greater intensity cyclones and storm surges some of which are already flooding and wreaking havoc in coastal cities across the globe. Most importantly, many island nations, who have lived in peace and harmony both with nature and other nations are about to be gobbled up by the sea within decades. Simply put, millions will not have a country to live in by the 2nd half of this century because their lands will be under water. Numerous experts like MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, former World Bank Chief Biodiversity Advisor Thomas Lovejoy and Nasa scientist James Hansen have categorically stated that the 2 °C limit won’t suffice because of what has mother nature thrown at us for a mercury surge of just 0.8 °C.

Some scary numbers highlighted by data compiled by the Guardian newspaper state that in 2000, the Earth had a total capacity of 886 gigatons of carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions to be put in the atmosphere by 2050 to keep the temperature rise below 2 °C. Now we have already added an estimated 383 gigatons of CO2 in the 12 years from 2001-2012. That leaves us with a credit of just 503 gigatons for the remaining 38 years till2050. Can we do it? Yes we can, atleast technically and physically. Will we do it? I doubt. Why? Because that requires reigning in the sources of biggest emitters on the planet – the oil and gas behemoths.

According to the UK based investment advisory Carbon Tracker, top 5 oil companies by revenue made $137 billion in profits last year, more than twice than Microsoft, Google and Apple put together. Here comes the scary part. While the Earth’s carbon credit is just 500 gigatons to avoid a destructive climate change cycle, the oil and gas giants have 2795 gigatons of fossil fuel reservewhich is shown as $20 trillion in assets in their financial books. And this is not taking into account China’s oil and gas reserves which remain largely unknown. If most of that fossil fuel is not allowed to get burnt, it will mean nearly $20 trillion in asset writedowns for these companies resulting in a sureshot global recession or worse - depression. This will affect large swathes of developed country populations who invest in the capital markets. And since nearly a billion people in developing countries are dependent directly or indirectly on their exports to developed countries, this will mean rampant unemployment and civil unrest in them. Thus, observing from the lens of current economic models, it appears a tough choice between economic hardships for 1/6th of global population mostly in the middle class OR a near wipe out for around 10% of human race by the end of the century.

However, the solutions to avoid either of the above scenarios lie in the details of how we should change the way we live albeit some tough choices and consequences will have to be endured by certain sections of the global middle and upper classes for some years. A simple example will be shifting subsidies and incentives from oil, gas and coal towards renewables and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) – the most volatile political issue in the developed world. But, the pivot upon which a rescue can still be salvaged depends on execution of an unprecedented political and public will – in essence, the greatest sustained paradigm shift unforeseen in all of history.

(the most feasible solutions to curb emissions, continue growth and save our planet will be followed in my next article).  

(thanks to my friend Anupam for valuable insights into the writing of this piece)  

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