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Our Collective Failure

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By Pratik Patil


We are running out of time to contain Global warming within scientifically recommended and internationally acknowledged safe limits of 2oC. Our planet is approaching the threshold beyond which it will be extremely difficult to prevent disastrous consequences of human induced climate change.

This is the underlying conclusion of string of recent study reports by major international agencies.

The World Bank report titled 'Turn down the Heat'1 cites that there's nearly unanimous agreement among scientists that "countries? current United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change emission pledges and commitments would most likely result in 3.5-4°C warming.? The 4°C scenarios are devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

(For sake of perspective, it is useful to note that 4°C is the difference between temperatures today and those of the last ice age. And current rate of change in temperatures is stupendously faster than any time during Earth's recent history)

More worryingly, Third Emissions Gap Report2 by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) demonstrates that countries are failing to meet even these moderate and inadequate pledges to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, by wide margins. In fact, each successive emissions gap report since 2010 has shown an increase in the gap between projections and pledges of CO2 Emissions. The latest figures from the Global Carbon Project, 3 show that global emissions have been growing at an average of 3 per cent each year since 2000.

Other studies4 are showing that IPCC assessment reports under-estimated scale of potential temperature changes by failing to account for runaway effects of melting in Arctic regions, resulting in enormous CO2 and methane releases trapped by permafrost.

Seen in this context, COP-18 agreement in Doha, to extend Kyoto Protocol (which is restricted to countries whose share of global emissions is less than 15%; with big polluters like US, China, Russia and Canada excluded) up to 2020, is clearly too little and too late. It is the final death knell to hopes of achieving reasonable climate change mitigation.

As the delegate from Seychelles put it (while speaking to BBC), "We're past the mitigation [emissions cuts] and adaptation eras. We're now right into the era of loss and damage."

On a slightly positive note, there was one potentially significant "agreement in principle" that rich countries should compensate poor, vulnerable countries for damages due to climate change. This is an implicit admission of guilt on behalf of rich polluters. But in the absence of meaningful enforcement mechanism at the international level, there's not much substance in it. Like they've done before, rich countries can simply walk away from any ‘binding’ commitments without impunity (one such example is, US and Canadian departure from Kyoto protocol).

What is the reason behind our dismal failure to heed scientific warnings on climate change?

At the fundamental level, I think there's huge lag between exponential rate of technological revolution (roughly dictated by famous Moore's law) and our comparatively linear, moral evolution. End result is that, although we are technically masters of the planet, we lack wisdom to be good shepherds.

Climate change is but one such example of our collective failure to evolve.

In his book, World on the Edge5, eminent environmentalist Lester R Brown notes, ?”A 2002 study by a team of scientists aggregated the use of the earth’s natural assets, into a single indicator: the ecological footprint. The authors concluded that humanity’s collective demands first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. By 1999, global demands on the earth’s natural systems exceeded sustainable yields by 20 %. On-going calculations show it at 50 % in 2007. Stated otherwise, it would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our current consumption. Environmentally, the world is in overshoot mode.”?

Yet, as underpinned by response to current financial crisis, our utmost concern is not how to achieve sustainable development (i.e. development that ?meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs") but to ensure perpetual GDP growth at all costs.

Lester R Brown presents us with thought provoking question:

“How can we assume that the growth of an economic system that is shrinking the earth’s forests, eroding its soils, depleting its aquifers, collapsing its fisheries, elevating its temperature, and melting its ice sheets can simply be projected into the long-term future? What is the intellectual process underpinning these extrapolations?”

Our failure to combat climate change and wider sustainability challenges with traditional ‘economic’ solutions should compel us to fundamentally rethink our dependence on perpetual economic growth paradigm. For example, under the current economic regime, GDP growth is essential for employment generation. But with over 50% youth unemployment in countries like Spain, it’s high time that we take radically different course. Reducing work hours to accommodate more people in the workforce could be one solution. This may seem radical but we need to start thinking about these options seriously to overcome our current predicament, in which neither human societies nor natural systems are coping well.


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1. http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_Heat_Executive_Summary_English.pdf
2. http://www.unep.org/publications/ebooks/emissionsgap2012/
3. http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/12/hl-compact.htm
4. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22549-arctic-permafrost-is-melting-faster-than-predicted.html
5. http://www.earth-policy.org/books/wote
6. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/the-desertec-solar-energy-project-has-run-into-trouble-a-867077.html
7. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20002801


Pratik Patil is an analyst with IA-Forum's international affairs division.
email - pratik.p.patil@gmail.com


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