Will 2021 be the turning point for tackling climate change? Many think it could be. World leaders gathered in Glasgow last October-November for the successor to the landmark Paris meeting of 2015. Paris was important because it was the first time when virtually all the nations of the world came together to agree that they all needed to help tackle the issue of a rapidly degrading environment. On November 13, 2021 the participating 197 countries agreed on a new deal, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, aimed at combating climate change.
The urgency to tackle the environmental issue was largely prompted by the red alert given by the report from the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last August. Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. These changes are observed across the whole of the earth’s climate system; in the atmosphere, in the oceans, ice floes, and on land, the report has observed.
Many of these changes are unprecedented and some of the shifts are in motion now, while some others, such as rise in sea level are already ‘irreversible’ for centuries to millennia ahead, the report warned.
However, there is still time to limit climate change, IPCC scientists think. Strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases could make air quality better and in 20 to 30 years global temperatures could stabilise. This encouraged the participants of the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (CoP26) in Glasgow last November to search for unanimous views on future actions to tackle the climate issue.
What is climate change?
First, what is climate change? Climate change refers to significant, long-term changes in the global climate. The global climate is the connected system of the sun, the earth, the oceans, wind, rain and snow, forests, deserts and everything people do.
Climate is commonly thought of as the expected weather conditions at a given location over a specified time and can be measured at a given geographic scale by statistics such as average temperatures, average number of rainy days and the frequency of droughts. Climate change refers to changes in these statistics over years, decades, or even centuries.
If climate change and global warming are two different things, global warming is the main cause of climate change. As the planet’s temperature increases more than it would increase naturally, the climate varies and behaves differently. Global warming is the slow increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere. The earth’s atmosphere has always acted like a greenhouse to capture the sun’s heat but now so much heat is being kept inside that the temperature of the earth is going up faster than any time in the past - causing unpredictable changes in climate.
World is warming faster than before
Scientists across the world have been collecting data of the earth’s surface temperature since1880. Temperatures are recorded at many thousands of locations and scientists use these raw measurements to produce records of long-term global surface temperature change. These analyses show that earth’s average surface temperature has increased by more than 1.4-degree F (0.8 degree C) over the past 100 years, with much of this increase taking place over the past 35 years. A temperature change of 1.4-degree F may not look much if one is thinking about a daily or a seasonal fluctuation but it is a significant change when it is a permanent increase - averaged across the entire planet.
According to the UN World Meteorological Organisation, the situation seems to have worsened after 2016. Global temperatures are on course for a 3 to 5 degree C rise in this century, far overshooting a global target of limiting the increase to 2 degree C (3.6F) or less.
At the 2015 Paris climate conference, the countries of the world pledged to work to limit the rise of temperature to 2 degree C, a step that will require a radical reduction in the use of fossil fuels, which are the primary cause of global warming.
A 2018 report by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that this would involve bringing CO2 emissions down by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels. Beyond 2 degree C, the earth’s non-linear feedback loops and tipping points - such as melting sea-ice and the release of reserves of methane in permafrost and seabed - become very difficult to predict.
The report calls for a root-and-branch detoxifying of human behaviour while insisting that the situation is not unassailable. Food waste for instance which accounts for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, could be slashed. The world currently throws away a third of all food produced. In richer nations, more than a half of the food produced goes to waste.
The report makes a strong case for a rapid drawdown in greenhouse gas emissions and pesticide use to improve air and water quality. This will be a difficult task given the lack of international agreement.
The rise in the global temperature and in climatic changes has a huge impact on the environment. The UN flagship report, the WMO statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019, published in early March, 2020, shows that increasing land and ocean heat, accelerating sea level rise and melting ice are having a major effect on all aspects of the environment as well as on the health and well-being of the global population. The report suggests that about a fourth of all premature deaths and diseases worldwide are due to man-made pollution and environmental damages.
The IPCC report 2021
The IPCC 2021 report has observed that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land and has found changes to the climate system at an unprecedented scale. The report finds that these changes include continued increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, an increase in human-caused surface temperature of 0.8°C to 1.3°C, with a best estimate of 1.07°C, global glacial retreat and warming of the global upper ocean.
Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as increased heat-waves, heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts, compound flooding and fire weather and an increased proportion of tropical cyclones, as well as their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2014.
The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has a lot of bad news. The rise in average surface temperature of the Earth beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2°C will be breached much earlier.
Average global temperatures will continue to rise and could increase by 5.7°C by the end of this century as compared to 1850-1900. Consequently, the land surface will continue to warm more than the ocean surface. The Arctic will continue to warm more than global surface temperature.
Extreme weather events can become worse with time: Every additional 0.5°C rise in temperature amplifies the intensity and frequency of heat waves, heavy precipitation and droughts.
The temperature on the coldest days will increase by three times in the Arctic, the report said. As a result, the frequency of marine heat waves will continue to increase in the tropical ocean and the Arctic. This will amplify permafrost thawing and loss of seasonal snow cover of land and sea ice. Land and ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) will decrease: Emitted CO2 will remain in the atmosphere.
A new global agreement to reduce the worst impacts of climate change was reached at the COP26 summit. The agreement - although not legally binding – is hoped to set the global agenda on climate change for the next decade.
It was agreed that countries will meet next year to pledge further cuts to emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) - a greenhouse gas which causes climate change. This is to try to keep temperature rises within 1.5C, which scientists say is required to prevent a "climate catastrophe". Current pledges, if met, will only limit global warming to about 2.4C.
For the first time at a COP conference, there was an explicit plan to reduce the use of coal - which is responsible for 40% of annual CO2 emissions. However, countries only agreed on a weaker commitment to "phase down" rather than "phase out" coal after a late intervention by China and India.
Another significant achievement was that the world's biggest CO2 emitters, the US and China pledged to cooperate more over the next decade in areas including methane emissions and the switch to clean energy. China was reluctant to tackle domestic coal emissions till date.
Leaders from more than 100 countries - with about 85% of the world's forests – promised to stop deforestation by 2030. This is seen as vital, as trees absorb vast amounts of CO2.
A scheme to cut 30% of methane emissions by 2020 was agreed by more than 100 countries. Methane is currently responsible for a third of human-generated warming. The big emitters like China, Russia and India haven't joined - but it's hoped they will later.
Every climate action has financial implications. It is now estimated that trillions of dollars are required every year to fund all the actions necessary to achieve the climate targets. But money has been in short supply. Developed countries are under an obligation, due to their historical responsibility in emitting greenhouse gases, to provide finance and technology to the developing nations to help them deal with climate change. In 2009, developed countries had promised to mobilise at least $100 billion every year from 2020. This promise was reaffirmed during the Paris Agreement, which also asked the developed countries to scale up this amount from 2025. The 2020 deadline has long passed but the $100 billion promise has not been fulfilled.
In COP26 countries have pledged to significantly increase money to help poor countries cope with the effects of climate change and make the switch to clean energy. There's also the prospect of a trillion dollar a year fund from 2025.
India facing the flurry of climate changes
The latest IPCC report observed that India’s 7,500-km-long coastline, largely monsoon- and river-dependent livelihoods, and vulnerability to heat and flooding extremes make its people deeply vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The report noted that the “extremity” of heavy rainfall and flooding in Chennai in 2015 was attributable to “the warming trend in the Bay of Bengal Sea surface temperatures and the strong El-Nino conditions.” More recently, floods in Maharashtra, landslides in the Himalayan region and a record number of forest fires have resulted in a substantial loss of life and property, fuelling concerns around future climate disasters.
As the third largest national emitter of greenhouse gases in the world in 2018, India’s transition to a low-carbon future will determine the trajectory of global efforts to mitigate climate change. However, its domestic mitigation efforts will be shaped not just by ‘climate-first’ policies, but by its broader economic, social and developmental choices over the coming decades. Recent Indian climate reports, such as the ‘Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region’ (Ministry of Earth Sciences in 2020), already predict increasingly frequent droughts, variability in monsoon rainfall, and a marked rise in temperature by the end of the century. The latest IPCC report confirms the weight of these findings.
India is ranked among the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change. This is due to our tropical and subtropical climate and overwhelming dependence of majority Indians on nature for livelihood. By the end of 2030, India’s temperature is projected to rise by 1.7 to 2-degree C. This will result in an increase in heat waves by eight folds. Heat waves are an occupational health hazard, especially for manual labourers. ILO has stated that due to global warming, India is set to lose productivity equivalent to 34 billion jobs. Additionally, climate change is already wreaking havoc in the agrarian sector. In 2019, about 45% of India was under drought and more than 12 states saw devastating floods.
The coastal areas are set to face more devastating cyclones like the ones faced in 2019. With melting glaciers, ice-sheets and increase in ocean temperature, major cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai are going to be severely affected by sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.
Dealing with such a crisis requires strong adaptive and resilient measures. The Indian government has been trying to address the problem through the ‘National Action Plan’ and the ‘State Action Plans’ on climate change. These plans aim to work through eight missions covering agriculture, habitat, energy efficiency, water and forestation, Himalayan ecosystems, solar energy and strategic knowledge. Despite missing targets, there have been no significant efforts on revamping these missions.
Modi promises zero emission by 2070
At the UN climate conference in Glasgow Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised India’s existing climate targets, and also announced a few new targets. Two of the targets — reducing emissions intensity and increasing the renewable mix in installed electricity capacity — are already part of India’s official Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs, submitted in 2015 as part of the requirement under the Paris Agreement.
India was already on course to achieve both these existing targets well before the 2030 deadline. India’s emissions intensity was 24% below the 2005 levels in 2016 itself, the latest year for which data are available. At the other end by November 2020, the share of renewable, including large hydropower, in total installed electrical capacity had already crossed 36%. The share of non-fossil fuel energy sources was over 38%. Most of the new capacity additions are happening in the renewable space, and therefore taking this share to 50% will likely not be too difficult.
However, Modi’s target of achieving net-zero emission status by 2070 seems to have no roadmap. But then 2070 is too far away and there is plenty of time to plan a roadmap to achieve that target.