“Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it is one we can prevent,” said Stephen Hawking in 2017, a renowned physicist and one of the greatest minds on Earth who passed away earlier this month.
What comes to your mind when you hear climate change? People all over the world have different opinions on it. There are those who agree with the science and then the skeptics who may have vested interests and choose not to believe the facts. But how many of us actually understand what it means?
The term climate change that we talk about these days refers to the anthropogenic, or human induced climate change. Gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) otherwise known as Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) are emitted due to human activities since the industrial era. This has caused the atmospheric concentration of these gases to increase. The effects of this increased concentrations combined with that of other activities have been the dominant cause of warming or increase in global temperatures since the mid-20th century.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, there is strong evidence of human influence on the climate of the Earth. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, amounts of snow and ice have diminished and sea levels have risen. Continued emission of GHGs will cause long lasting changes in the climate system of the Earth. This will result in irreversible impacts for people as well as natural ecosystems.
In order to combat these global challenges, the nations of the world got together at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in 2015 held in Paris. They agreed on a framework by which every country can work towards reducing the risks and impacts of climate change. This is a loose-fitting framework, known as the Paris Agreement.
According to the Paris Agreement, nations of the world agreed to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2oC and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. In order to achieve this, every country submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are ways in which they would combat climate change. Now what does this mean? Global temperatures annually have been increasing since the industrial era due to the combustion of fossil fuels for development. Economic development and population growth have been the major reasons for the increased use of fossil fuels. Other human activities also lead to the emission of GHGs. This has caused changes in the climate of the Earth as well as an increase in the global average temperature.
As per the 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC, increase in global mean temperatures will lead to more frequent hot and fewer cold days, higher frequency and longer duration of heat waves, occasional extreme cold weather as well as changes in rainfall patterns. The oceans will get acidified, ice cover in the arctic region will decrease and sea levels globally will rise. It will also lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, cyclones and other such natural calamities.
Already today, we are witnessing some of these extreme changes. 2017 was the hottest year recorded, with global temperatures already 1.05oC above pre-industrial levels. We experienced a series of extreme weather events in the Atlantic Ocean in the second half of last year like hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose to name a few. This winter has been the hottest winter in the Arctic, while parts of Europe and North America are shivering under a massive cold spell. Right here in Mumbai, we experienced rainfall during the festival of Diwali in October, something that was unheard of. Summer has already set in much earlier this year. A friend was surprised at the lack of availability of mangoes in the markets on Gudi Padwa, which affected certain family traditions.
Indian agriculture is still rain-fed in most parts of the country. Variations in rainfall and weather patterns severely affect agricultural production. This in turn affects our food security. Farmer suicides are now becoming frequent all across the country, especially in Maharashtra. Mumbai recently witnessed the huge numbers of farmers walking into the city asking for their loans to be waived. Cape Town in South Africa is the first major city in the world which will completely run out of clean drinking water this year. Bengaluru in India is amongst those cities across the world to face a similar situation in the coming years if our consumption patterns remain unchanged. The impacts of climate change globally are most severe for those who have little or no role in contributing to it.
Adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change is vital in order to respond to the impacts of climate change that are already happening, while at the same time prepare for future impacts. We need active involvement of not just the governments, but also national and international organizations, public and private sectors and civil society. Different adaptation measures like developing flood and drought tolerant crop varieties, preserving wetlands and open spaces to protect the coasts from flooding and erosion from storms and sea level rise, planting trees and expanding green spaces in cities to reduce the “urban heat island” effect, protecting and restoring water bodies to safeguard water resources are a few to begin with.
Limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5oC means trying to limit the rate of change of the climate to one where humanity and other natural systems can function. It would mean that current extreme weather events would become the new normal. There will be heatwaves, dry spells, coral bleaching, rainfall variations, etc. However, in a world that is 2oC warmer, the climate system would move into unchartered territory. For humans as a species, our survival will be at risk.
We need strong mitigation strategies to reduce emissions and stabilize the levels of GHGs. Improved land management to increase soil carbon storage, afforestation, reforestation, forest management and reduced deforestation, switching from coal as an energy source to renewables (hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy), cleaner fuel efficient vehicles, more efficient lighting, electrical appliances and equipment are among a few ways in which we can work towards a low carbon society. This transition needs to be made in the fastest and most efficient way.
The current NDCs of countries to limit climate change leads to a global temperature increase of 3oC to 4oC. We are nowhere close to the 1.5oC to 2oC goal mentioned in the Paris Agreement. We need to remember, that the Paris Agreement is just a framework for countries to follow and not a law. Countries need to step up and take charge of the change needed. We need major changes in behavior and production methods to achieve our common goal. Individuals like you and me have to realize our roles and rise up to the challenge in front of us. It is clear that the governments of the world aren’t doing enough. The future is ours and we need to ensure that each and every one of us do our bit in limiting global temperature rise to 1.5oC.