We spent most of the past three decades in giving pep talks on climate change and came to realize that the greenhouse gas emissions haven’t decreased by any measure.Climate change, in the next few decades, will dramatically transform our modern way of living on this planet. Even after taking drastic preventive measures now, it is highly likely that we will be living in a completely different world within the next couple of decades.
Life in the 21st century is largely influenced as well asshapedby science and technology surrounding us, for better or for worse. As a resident of planet Earth it feels wonderful to acknowledge the fact that never before in our known history have we been technologically more advanced, powerful and, for the most part, able to lead more comfortable lives, so to speak.Yet, ourscientists, global leaders, and people from all walks of life seem overwhelmed by the catastrophicimpacts of rapid climate change around the planet.
Climate change is, without doubt, the most serious and challenging issue of our time; acrisis hovering over our heads, right now.It is, in fact,threatening our entire existence in this planet we call home.Rapid climate change, like the COVID-19, knows no boundaries and respects no nationality. Its dire consequences are evident everywhere; from glacial lakes of the Himalayas down to the sea levels. Since the problem is a global one, it clearly can’t be solved by a group of activists, organizations, leaders or even countries, for that matter.
Human activities,over the past couple of centuries, are responsible for causing excessive Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, thereby influencing climate system of the planet.The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)in its 6th assessment report-2021 confirmed “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterrestermed it “Code red for humanity”.
Many decades ago, scientists reached an undisputed consensusthat the GHGsin the atmosphere absorb energy from the Sun and transfer it back to our atmosphere causingglobal warming.And more recently, SyukuroManabe was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in physics for clearly demonstrating how increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2; major constituent of GHGs) in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth.
Too much CO2 leads to increased global warming and irreversible climate change.This intensifiesspecific weather conditions and climate events, such as extreme heat waves, heavy rainfalls, floods, landslides, wildfires, warmer winters and severe summers. Earth’s dry regions become drier and wet places even wetter.
Over the time climate-related disasters willbecome a common phenomenon. Soon entire biosphere will be impacted and ecosystems will start dying. Biodiversity will decline significantly whilethe rising sea levelswill start swallowing coastal cities around the globe.Although theexplanation sounds simple on the surface, the complicationscreated by the rapid climate change are certainlynot that simple, to say the least.
Climate Change is Complicated
Some people think GHG emissions can be tackled by simply focusing on coal plants, automobiles, air conditioning, airplanes and cow burps. Therefore, they mostly tend to limit themselves within simplistic solutions, such as arrays of solar panels, large wind farms, biking to work, organic farming, sustainability blah-blah, and not to forget your “personal responsibility”. Nonetheless, stopping rapid climate change is much more complicated.
It seems that the advanced, powerful and comfortable lives that we acquired over the last two hundred years came with a huge cost. We are forced to sincerely question whether we are on the right track, or we shall have to make extensive corrections in our life-style. The reason being that, if we look closely, everything we do to make our lives easier is causing destruction to our environment; whether it be the clothing we put on, air-conditioned houses we live in, the way we travel, the foods we consume, the roads we drive on or the electronic gadgets we use, etc.Somehow or other, they all have impacted air, water, soil, wild life, marine life and the environment as a whole.
As more and more people are taking serous note of the GHG emission, carbon footprint, global warming and climate-induced disasters,they are starting to talk more and more about the severe impacts caused bythe coal-fired power plants, deforestation, beef farming, transport vehicles and airplanes. However, there are major GHG emitters we often forget to include in our list of polluters.
Let’s start with the waste we generate. The Earth’s total landfill emissions can be easily compared to all the jet aircrafts flying in the air. All the homes of our planet emit more CO2 than all the cars running on the road.
Furthermore, building just two meters of road is equivalent to the emissions produced by manufacturing one new car.Therefore, switching to electric cars might not be enough unless we also have substitute for building roads.
Recent studies by the Brown University and the Lancaster University showed that the Department of Defense is the U.S. government’s largest fossil fuel consumer and that the U.S. military emits more GHGs than most countries across the globe. I wonder how the numbers would look, if we combined all the military emissions of the planet.
Methane from rice contributes same as all the air traffic emissions in the world, and could grow substantially in coming days. Overall, agriculture contributes nearly 30% of global GHG emissions and nearly 60% of food emissions come from animal-based foods, such as meat, cheese and eggs.As per UN projections our global population will reach 10 billion by 2050. It is highly unlikely that we could feed them without emitting even more GHGs.
In the battle against rapid climate change it is clear that fixing one part of the system leads to yet another problem which might have its own offshoots of problems and so on. Sometimes even if we have solutions right in front of us, they are not easy to implement. Situations get even more complicated when we are confronted with the reality of wealth inequality around the world.
The Great Dividebetween Rich and Poor
We live in a world which is deeply divided between rich and poor. This is no hidden fact that there is a clear and positive correlation between the prosperity of nations and their carbon emissions.So,what if we simply ask the richcountries to cut back on their energy consumption and luxurious lifestyles? This may sound rationalto some but not a workable solution for obvious reasons; you cannot expect billions of people giving up their business as usual overnight.
Moreover, over 60 percent of global emissions come from low and middle income countries. This includes countries like ours where most people are struggling to earn basic necessities, trying to escape poverty or striving for a reasonably comfortable lifestyle.So, it will be unfair to ask developing economies to cut emissions to stop rapid climate change; especially when the rich countries making such demands have already caused (and are still causing) severe damages in the first place.
The demand for animal-based food is growing in both rich and poor countries around the world.About 40% of world agricultural land (equivalent to North and South America combined) is being used for meat production, one way or another. Although many argue it to be the worst source of GHG emissions, cutting back on meat consumption can easily make both rich and poor unhappy.
This puts us in a unique situation where eating less meat alone won’t stop climate change, but climate change cannot be stopped by continuing meat production at the same pace. The same holds true for many other consumer products we may consider essential to run our day-to-day life.
It all comes down to this: we cannot stop rapid climate change without changing our life-style.If we are really serious about this change, both rich and poor will have to chip in. Rich may need to sacrifice some of their luxuries while poor will have to give upsome of their ambitious dreams, unless we come up with some technological interventionsrather sooner than later.
NoTime for Blah, Blah, Blah
We already have technologies to capture industrial CO2 emission before it gets released into the atmosphere. CO2 thus capturedcan be permanently stored underground or used in the production of fuels, chemicals, building materials, etc.
Implementing such technology to reduce CO2 in the atmospherewould cost factories and power plants trillions of dollars per year. This would inevitably skyrocket theirproduct cost or even increase the possibility of their bankruptcy, impacting billons of people around the world.
On the other hand, it also seems counter intuitive to expect the governments to do much about the problem because they are already committed to subsidizingoil and gasfor the same industries in the name ofemployment generation, infrastructure development, economic growth and cost reductions to keep product prices affordable for general public.
Due to the circular nature of this problem it is hard to substantially cut off fossil fuel production and use as well as to require big emitters to cut off their emissions drastically.
Some critiques end up blaming capitalism and ever-increasing demand for economic growth for the climate change crisis. They suggest economic “degrowth” to be the solution. The proponents push for ecologically sustainable society with socio-environmental wellbeing as the indicator of prosperity. All that sounds good, but it seems a bit far-fetched argument, if not unrealistic.
The truth is every politician on the left-right political spectrum has some idealistic view to stop rapid climate change; however, no political system has been able to demonstrate a sustainable model in true sense.
And we are already running out of time!We don’t have time for more experiments, more political promises, more empty rhetoric, and more sustainabilityblah, blah, blah. In a recent Youth4Climate summit (28-30 Sep 2021, Milan, Italy), Greta Thunberg rightfully said: “Build Back Better - blah, blah, blah. Green Economy - blah, blah, blah. Net Zero by 2050 - blah, blah, blah”.
Personal Responsibilities Can Only Take Us So Far
One of the popular narratives of our time is that every individual of this planet is responsible for the accelerating climate change and thus everyone needs to act responsibly. So, people started doing their bits by using electric stoves, riding electric cars, switching off lights, avoiding meat, eating organic, saving water, stopping to use plastic-bags, recycling, bicycling, etc.
The narrative is so effective (also true to some extent)that people even feel bad when they are unable to carry out their so-called “personalresponsibility” to reduce GHG emissions. This sentiment presents business opportunity for companieswho take advantage of your guilt and make profit by selling you yet another product which is labeled “green” and leaves less “carbon footprint”, so they say.
In the meantime, what we don’t realize is that the “responsibility” was cunningly shifted from giant oil industries and carbon emitters to anordinarylayman. The emotional buy-in strategy is effective for businesses and corporates,but switching “responsibility” to a common person is not likely to solve the actual problem on hand.
As mentioned earlier, CO2 emissions could be cut down drastically if rich population favored climate over wealth and comfort. In fact, both rich and poor came quite close to doing the samein the year 2020. We all voluntarily became part of a global experiment in which we behaved responsibly by staying home, travelling less,entertaining less and shopping less. However, we were able to reduce CO2 emission by only 7% throughout the year 2020.
Nearly 20 years ago when British Petroleum (BP) rebranded itself as “Beyond Petroleum”, it cleverly popularized the term “carbon footprint”. The propaganda was a plain distraction as well as a clever deception in the sense that itindirectly held people personally responsible for environmental pollutions. The narrative subtly indicates that the pollution is your problem (so, you choose your actions to solve it) and not the problem of the oil and gas giants, such as BP; the notion is far from reality.
If we look at the massive scale of the problem, asking average people to solve rapid climate change may get us nowhere.Owning the problem and taking personal responsibility to reduce your carbon footprint is great; Bravo!Nonetheless, let’s face it; these efforts can only take us so far. They caneasily be overshadowed by systemic reality of corporate greed and ever-growing global GHG emissions as well as the lack of political will and consensus over how to quickly stop them.
Call for Systemic Changes
We spent over three decades in pep talks and we know that it didn’t work.Had it worked, the GHG emissions would have significantly decreased by now. Moving forward, we will face more and more extreme environmental and ecological challenges which will be unavoidable as well as irreversible to a large extent.
Of course we need to be hopeful, but one thing we desperately need more than hope is real action on the ground. I have to agree with Greta when she says “Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.”We must actively correct our past mistakes by immediately coming up with strict measures to reduce GHG emissions in all fronts.
Stopping rapid climate change is a systemic problem which demands all-encompassing systemic change, including technology, economics, politics, culture of consumerism, and the very fabric of our modern industrial societies. It is not only about how we devise policies and operate ourselves but essentially about a radically different way of thinking.
Currently around 80 percent of our global energy demand is met by coal, oil and natural gas; China and India being the two largest coal consuming countries. And the numbers are not likely to change for another 10-15 years, unless politicians choose to do something totally different about it.
Every single day we use 100 million barrels of oil and so far no politics or economics whatsoever have been able to reduce that figure. Evidently there are no stringent rules to stop extracting that oil out of the ground. Even if there are some, they need to be reassessed and changed in a rather fundamental way.
Politicians, global leaders, and governments play a pivotal role in changing the rules.And they can do this only if they coordinate and collaborate before it is too late. However, this too seems very unlikelyas long as their thinking is limited by national interests and geographical separations. It is even worse when their motivations are influenced by ideals, personal gain, corruptionand sheer indulgence of big tax payers, mighty corporates, campaign contributors, etc.
The ongoing inequitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution serves a pertinent scenario here. These days, affluent countries are being blamed for holding supplies or even stockpiling more vaccines than they need for their entire population. They are planning for the third-jab or a booster dose for their population at a time when an entire continent of Africa is still struggling to vaccinate even 5 percent of its population.
Such restricted thought is allowing even more deadly variants of COVID-19 to emerge and spread across the globe, because an infectious disease like COVID-19 will remain a threat globally, as long as it exists anywhere in the world.If things don’t change soon enough and so-called global leaders fail to see the bigger picture,it will be impossible to meet the global target set by the WHO; vaccinating 70 percent of the population of all countries by mid-2022.I just wish that this would not be the case with the efforts to prevent rapid climate change, as more or less the same countries and politicians are involved to change our collective fate in this planet.
Nevertheless, people can make politicians think, understand and feel differently by making them realize that the votersreally care and that their career or political success depends on honestly tackling GHG emissions; starting withenergy, transportation, agriculture, food, forestry and waste management sectors.
At the global level, the Paris Agreement (12 Dec 2015) at COP21 was a job well done. Hopefully the COP26 summit (31 Oct – 12 Nov 2021) in Glasgow will successfully finalize the rules and procedures for implementing the Paris Agreement which aims at limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial era.This is easier said than done; however, the agreement is also our best bet for humanity at present.
Politicians must also act in the direction of changing laws, incentivizing green technologies, enforcing strict regulations, punishing non-compliersfor real, investing in green innovations and reducing investment in fossil fuel productions. Doing all that may help reduce GHG emissions, but the demand for energy will certainly exceed the supply. This may result in staggeringly high oil and gas prices followed by energy crunch; like the one currently faced by the UK and Europe.
This is because solar, wind,and other alternative sources of energy aren’t yet enough orreadyto replace the fossil fuels overnight. Therefore, unless our politicians are also prepared with a robust energy transition (fossil to green) strategy, it is likely that they will again be forced to get back to the same old ways of doing things.
The Paris Agreement requests each country to outline and communicate their post-2020 climate actions, known as their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). It also requires each country to prepare, implement, communicate and maintain successive NDCs that the country intends to achieve. To comply with the Paris Agreement, all countries should pursue domestic climate change mitigation as well as adaptation measures to meet the objectives set by their NDCs. These climate actions (performed by individual countries) will then collectively determine whether the world will achieve the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement or not.
If we are to bring about systemic change, every world citizen must feel personally responsible to make their politicians accountable (at local, regional and global levels). Are your politicians effectively planning, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating your country’s NDCs to pursue climate change mitigation and adaptation activities? Believe me, this is more important than you switching the lights off, turning off the tap when you brush your teeth or avoiding plastic bags when you go shopping.
Are You Part of the Solution?
We discussedabove,it will be expensive for power plants, factories and industries to suddenly implement carbon capture technologies. Therefore, the global need for reduced carbon emissions has to be compensated (even after generous government subsidies) by increased prices of their products having minimum carbon footprint.As a result, price of specific products and services will increase for sure, but the important question to ask ourselves is, are we prepared for such price hikes though?
In addition to holdingpoliticians accountable, thisis one place where “personal responsibility”part can add sustainable value to bring about systemic change we all strive for.
Not everybody can afford to buy low-carbon products, but if you are well-off enough, you can contribute to the systemic change by purchasing or investing on such relatively expensive goods and services today and help grow demands for tomorrow. This will help drive down priceshence more and more affordable for larger populations.
Another meaningful way to add significant valueto the cause is to just talk, spread awareness and speak about the impending climate crisis on as many platforms as possible.In the meantime, you can also keep recycling your waste, taking shorter showers, riding bicycles to work, eating less meat, avoiding air travels, building bamboo houses, buying electric cars, and indulging less in consumerism, etc.
Although you can share love, joy and sadness with each other, unfortunately, in this case,you cannot share your personal responsibility, nor can you digitize it. So, we have to do what humans are best at; i.e. cooperate and participate as responsible individuals ofrespective communities to achieve the common goal. Both people and politicians must work together towards climate change mitigation and adaptation activitiescommitted by their NDCs.
Your behavior and actions should reflect in your day-to-day priorities, not because you feel guilty to have ruined the planet or you naively think that you alone can fix it, but because you are an integral part of the systemic change you so desperately seek.Remember that if you are not part of the solution, you must be part of the problem.
I have very little doubt that climate change, in the next couple of decades, will dramatically transform our modern way of living on this planet as we know it.Even after taking drasticpreventive measuresnow,it is highly likely that we will be living in a completely different world within the next couple of decades.
My onlyhope is that the residents of this new world will have a brand newway of looking at life; a new thinking, a new politics, a new socioeconomics and a renewed relationship with both technology and nature.Although it will feel like living in a different planetthen, I seriously hopeand pray it will be relatively healthier and safer to live in.
Shrestha is a freelance Consultant, MS in Risk Control & Safety Management; The author is passionate about the issues involving environment, occupational health, safety and sustainability for the planet, people and profit.
Contact Email: OHSNepal@gmail.com, Website: www.ohsnepal.wordpress.com Twitter: @OHSNepal
VOL. 16, No. 15, March.24, 2023 (Chaitra 10. 2079) Publisher and Editor: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75
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