Decarbonisation needs to begin today

  •  The present concentration of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere is the highest in 2 million years. 
  • The average atmospheric temperature in the decade 2011-2020 is 1.1oCelsius warmer than 1850-1900. 
  • The average temperature will reach 1.5o Celsius earlier than the timeline envisioned by the 2015 Paris accord.
  • Human actions are the reasons for this change. 
  • It is real, here and everywhere on planet Earth.
  • This new normal will make weather events more erratic, abrupt and extreme. 
  • Unexpected climate events can occur simultaneously.

That in a nutshell are the main findings of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I sixth assessment report (AR6) released on 9 August. The report is a meta-study of 140,000 scientific papers reviewed by 234 experts. It confirms what scientists and analysts have been saying for decades about rising greenhouse gases (GHGs) on our planet’s atmosphere. 

Everywhere across planet Earth, we are observing more extreme rainfall, severe floods, longer droughts, more intense hurricanes and cyclones, worse forest fire, and intense heat waves. This year, unprecedented floods ravaged China, India, Western Europe, and many other places. 

Northwestern US, Canada and Siberia are still being ravaged by record-breaking heat waves forest fires. Rise in average temperatures, together with increased humidity, will continue to increase the heat problem in many regions of the world, including the densely populated regions of South Asia. 

In this year’s monsoon, Nepal’s trans-Himalayan districts of Manang and Mustang that historically receive little rain and snowfall -- experienced intense rainfall. The upper watersheds of Melamchi River faced catastrophic debris floods bringing major devastation to the region. 

Preliminary reviews show that these weather events were more severe, unlike in the past, and could be attributed to localised changes in temperature and precipitation brought about by climate change. Scientific studies must examine these new local dynamics and their implications on lives, livelihoods and development.  

Nepal and Bangladesh are both countries at high risk from the impact of climate change. Nepal has seen extreme weather events unleashing landslides, debris flows, glacial melting and have sparked extensive wildfires. Bangladesh, situated in the Ganga-Bramhaputra delta that drains the Himalaya is at risk from increased flooding, and sea level rise as a result of global warming.

The AR6 reiterates that the burning of fossil fuel releases GHGs, causes climate change, which results in more frequent extreme weather-related events. It adds that some climate impacts may be irreversible. Yet, GHG emissions continue unabated, and human civilisation is becoming more carbon intensive. This is happening despite the commitment of nation states to meet the 2015 Paris accord’s goals of keeping average temperature rise to 1.5o and 2o above the pre-industrial average. 

Why are GHGs being emitted? It is not because of the lack of evidence about the sources of GHGs, increasing emission levels, or their harmful impact. For 250 years, fossil fuels have propelled industrialisation with their high energy density. The technology to extract, store, transport and distribute fossil fuels is strongly entrenched. 

The backbone of modern economies such as transportation, manufacturing of steel, pig iron, ammonia, cement, plastic, rubber and other chemicals are dependent on use of fossil fuel as feedstock or fuel. Widespread government subsidies ($5.2 trillion in 2017 according to the IMF) continue to support fossil fuels. With such massive inertia in our energy system, how can transformative change be achieved?

Over the past few years, improvements in technology like wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries have expanded the share of renewable energy in modern energy grids. More renewable energy can help make industrial processes less carbon intensive. Increased penetration of electrical vehicles can help decarbonize transportation if energy is supplied by renewable sources. 

De-coupling of GDP and energy consumption and efficiency in energy use can mitigate GHG emissions, but such options are limited to mostly developed countries. Carbon dioxide capture and storage technology need much more research for scaling. Conservation and expanded forest coversustainable agriculture, solid waste management, water conservation, managing of forest fire, etc. are other measures, but each has its own social and political challenges. Overall these structural constraints limit immediate ‘transition’ of the global energy system to a less carbon-intensive one. 

While the US and other developed western countries share the responsibility of highest cumulative emission historically, China and India have become first and third largest annual emitters of GHGs respectively. Those two countries and developed countries must make strong national commitments to curb emission. 

Other developing countries must also begin transitioning to a greener future, with technology, knowledge and financial support from developed countries and investors for mitigation and adaptation committed under the Paris Agreement. Marginal and low-income families will need social support so that they can stay resilient in face of more climate-induced disasters. Just transition and climate justice must be part of conversations for economists and financiers. 

The kind of climate action needed for the decarbonisation of the global energy system must begin today. Governments making strict commitments to allocate a percent of the annual GDP for transiting to clean energy and supportive adaptation actions can be good starting points. 

At the same time, private investors with resources that overshadow government’s allocation must contribute to the decarbonisation process while industries expedite transition to clean energy uses. At international level, GHG reduction compliance must be monitored carefully with periodic assessments. 

Ajaya Dixit is Senior Advisor of Kathmandu-based ISET Nepal. 

Monirul Q Mirza is an Adjunct Professor at University of Toronto Scarborough and an IPCC author.