Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Global Warming: A Global Challenge to Overcome

One of the major global challenges facing every single person in this world is about climate change. It is challenge that puts to question the way we live our lives. The subject of climate change came into limelight largely because of Nobel Peace Prize (2007) being awarded jointly to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore (a former US Vice President) for their efforts on study and campaign for the cause of climate change. In recent times the political landscape has changed a lot especially in terms of the concern at the highest echelons of power. The past few weeks has seen hectic negotiations for the upcoming yearly meet in December in Denmark. Perhaps, we thought it would be appropriate to brief you up on this important issue at this time by giving you a broad overview on the subject.

Global warming: What is it?
Global warming is the phenomenon of warming predicted to occur as a result of the increased emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. The gases get trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and increase the temperature by blocking some of the sun’s radiation within the atmosphere which otherwise would have been reflected out from earth's surface.
Global warming is largely caused by the human activities, especially by the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal, etc. and the biggest contributors of greenhouse emissions are the industrialized countries. US itself is estimated to have contributed to 25% of all the greenhouse emissions in the industrial era. In recent years, large developing countries like India & China have also emerged as the large contributors. The contribution is not just limited to the manufacturing sector but also extends to households where a significant increase in energy consumption has taken place in the last 2-3 decades. In fact, every time we burn some wood or drive our car or switch on the AC, we too are unknowingly contributing to global warming.

Impact of Climate Change:
Many experts around the world has put forward various possibilities for global warming in the coming decades. Though nobody can exactly say how things would unfold and in what time frame, virtually all experts agree that the following consequences are more likely to happen if we to not take adequate & timely measures...
  • The climate will continue to get warmer putting pressure on food & water resources, including mountain glaciers
  • Change in weather patterns of regions with stronger rainfalls, floods and droughts occurring more frequently
  • Sea levels to rise by few meters submerging coastlines
  • Pressure on ecosystems where plants, animals, marine life will face the challenge to migrate & to survive in changed climate
There are also some voices that speak of benefits of global warming, especially in cold countries. Although there may be some who benefit, the global list of negative impacts is much longer and ignoring the implications of the same is like taking a big risk and it cannot be done. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has strongly recommended that “dangerous human interference” with climate should be avoided and to do that, the global emissions of green-house gases have to be kept steady. As per IPCC, nearly 70-80 percent of current levels of greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 2040-2050.


Global annual average temperature and Carbon Dioxide concentration trend (1880-2007)
urce: World Development Report 2010, World Bank


The challenge of global warming demands a concrete international response & consensus with defined framework for action. Fortunately, over the past decade, the momentum for enabling international cooperation is built up and many countries and regions are taking appropriate measures today.
The first step towards an international response was forging of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC), an international environmental treaty made in June 1992. The objective of the treaty is to stabilize greenhouse gases at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. The treaty being non-mandatory provides for updates (called "protocols") that would set mandatory emission limits. The famous principal update is the Kyoto Protocol (enforced in 2005) that sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing emissions to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.

The protocol recognises that the developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of emissions as a result of over 150 years of industrial activity and thus places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Further, since the developing world would still like to develop, the developed world has to make substantial emissions reductions. Till date about 184 parties have ratified the same. However, the only country that has no intention of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol is the US.

There is also a scientific body established in 1988 by UN called as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which is tasked to evaluate the risk of climate change caused by human activity. The IPCC reports are widely referred and cited in almost all debates on climate change. The panel as considered authoritative by national, international and scientific communities.

India & Climate Change:

Much of India’s population today lives in rural areas where dependence on agriculture as occupation and nature as resource is huge. Further, a large part of India is also is dependent on the river systems that originate from the glacial mountains, in addition to the large coastlines. All this makes India, a developing country with its huge population, vulnerable to the effects of global warming.

India thus must and is in fact playing an active role in constructive global climate talks. Back home, a National Action Plan on Climate Change is put in place which has defined eight missions, two of which, the Solar Mission and the Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency, has already been approved. The Ministry of Environment & Forests also recently unveiled 20 initiatives as part of their action plan for climate change.

As far as the Kyoto protocol goes, there are no obligations defined for India, China & other developing countries, since they were not the main contributors to emissions in the industrialisation period. However, India, being a signatory is committed to share the common responsibility of all countries to reduce emissions. India today stands by the Kyoto Protocol seeking deeper cuts from developed countries.

India, now entering a phase of high economic growth, has to make key decisions on the issue of energy and the climate policy. The only acceptable and practical approach for India's participation in global efforts would be the one that aligns with it's core interests of economic development and energy security. The direction to follow is for commitment to long term goals of emission reductions but not at the cost of the core interests.

The future:

The future of climate change is largely dependent on the actions that we take in the near future. R. K. Pachauri, the head of IPCC believes that the world has less than a decade left to impose drastic and effective reduction measures. While the number of years can be debated, there is no doubt that urgent international cooperation & consensus on the issue is most critical.

The Kyoto Protocol commitment period expires in 2012 and currently efforts are on for a new agreement to be set in place for the period from 2012. The last negotiating session concluded just recently and now the big event in December 2009 is awaited, where world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen (Denmark) in an effort to seal a successful climate deal.

Topping the list of agenda for talks are the positions of India, China and the US. There is US insistence that India and China, now among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, accept binding caps on the emissions and an equally strong demand from developing nations, especially India & China, that US accepts the protocol obligations first. There is a lot at stake for each of these large countries and achieving the breakthrough will be more than welcome.

Today the need for international agreement that covers all essential elements of a fair and effective deal with a clear action plan is stronger than ever. Emergence of such a consensus could prove to be turning point in our fight against global warming. It is something that our future generations need and expects from us today.

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