A Climate Friendly Future?

Published in SouthAsia (July 2007)

Climate change or global warming is endangering the road to sustainable development in South Asia: a region that adds only a fraction to global emissions. Is it possible to pursue economic prosperity and address environmental concerns, simultaneously, inquires Ayesha Hoda

Global warming is often referred to as climate change as this signifies noticeable changing patterns in measurements such as temperature, precipitation, or wind , etc.; changes which last for decades or even longer periods.

The concept of global warming goes as far as 1824. It came to the forefront as a result of Joseph Fourier’s calculations, which led to the conclusion that without ‘atmosphere’, the Earth would be a much colder place.

The greenhouse effect is what makes this planet habitable for human beings, plants and animals; the atmosphere comprises certain gases, which confine heat like the glass panels of a greenhouse.

The factors responsible for bringing about such drastic alterations in the climate include natural factors (changes in the sun’s intensity or gradual changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun), natural processes within the climate system (e.g. variations in ocean circulation) and human activities.

In 1895, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, discovered that humans could enhance the greenhouse effect by making carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. Anthropogenic degradation of the environment, which causes changes in the atmosphere’s composition, is brought about by burning fossil fuels, deforestation, desertification, urbanisation , etc.
Global warming is different from the Ice Ages and long periods of warmth experienced centuries ago. There have been rapid changes in the climate since the Industrial Revolution, causing perhaps some irreversible damages to the environment.

The earth’s temperature has been rising; the three warmest years have been witnessed in the past five years only. In recent times, we have been frequently witnessing several negative impacts of climate change.

These include increase in the average level of temperature, rise in the sea level, melting glaciers, disappearance of entire islands, increase in the number and types of tropical diseases, lengthening/shortening of growing seasons, extinction of some species of animals, many adverse effects on ecosystems, etc.

South Asian countries are more vulnerable to climate change. Economic losses in the region, due to environmental degradation, are estimated to be five or six percent of GDP. Food shortage is expected in South Asia, according to the predictions of a recent World Bank report. Bangladesh is expected to be hit by persistent typhoons in the future, which will make it inhabitable and cause massive immigration to countries like India, which have to cope with their own environmental crisis.

According to recent projections, land populated by 80 million people is at risk of flooding. Around 60% of this land is in the South Asian countries of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma, with the very existence of the Maldives Islands under threat.
Sir Nicholas Stern, former Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, commenting on the issue of climate change in South Asia, recently said:

“I think people understand the rising water stress, and how vulnerable they are to melting glaciers and snows from the Himalayas…Precipitation comes and it’s held there. That’s how you get water in the rivers. That effect will not be there if the glaciers and snow are not there. Which means you’ll get torrents during the wet season and dry rivers in the dry season. So you’ll get a combination of flood and drought.”

This reveals that, apart from other things, agricultural produce will be significantly affected. Several South Asian countries like India and Pakistan are largely agrarian economies and farm produce represents a large part of their national output. Even short run fluctuations in the climate can have drastic effects on productivity. Crop yield may fall by as much as thirty percent, around the middle of the century. Average crop yield is estimated to drop down to 50% in Pakistan.

Decrease in yield may be attributed to lack of access to an adequate amount of water, a shorter growth period and vernalization. Also, the countries will have to deal with flooding in some areas and drought in others, simultaneously.

Looking at the options open for defence, there are just two approaches that can be taken to combat global warming. These are mitigation and adaptation.

Mitigation refers to diminishing the extent of global warming whereas adaptation refers to lessening the impact.

Adaptation methods include development of stronger defences from flood (storm drainage systems), water management systems (that can handle water extraction plus irrigation efficiently) and changing patterns of land use (avoiding vulnerable areas for housing). There is a need to develop crop varieties with greater drought tolerance.

For mitigation of global warming, governments need to plan and shift from their present energy policy and modes of investment planning. However, since South Asian nations are still developing, they cannot reduce emissions much because of industrial development.
Individual choices can also affect the global warming scenario. Methods for mitigation for individuals and businesses include support to renewable energy resources, reduction of energy use per person, carbon capture and storage and birth control to lessen demand for resources.
However, to bring about substantial change in global warming, global effort is a prerequisite, since South Asia is not even the biggest contributor to increasing climate risks.

To address this issue, the US government has established a policy to slow the growth of emissions, strengthen science and technology and enhance international co-operation.

However, despite being the largest greenhouse gas emitter, the United States has refused to abide by the Kyoto Protocol. This is the most significant international agreement on combating climate change and came into force on 16 February 2005. It encompasses 160 countries and controls 55% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The US has rejected it since there are no emission targets for Asian countries; despite the fact that an average Indian produces only a 10th of the greenhouse gas emissions of Europeans and a 20th of the average American.

The Kyoto Protocol is an important step taken, but mitigation efforts, as compared to daily threats posed by climate change, have been modest on a global scale. So unless countries like the US, Australia and Kazakhstan co-operate, perhaps not much can be achieved.

Moreover, for technology, research and resources, the South Asian countries need the help and aid of the developed nations. Only then is the development and application of renewable technologies throughout the region (which range from large-scale hydro projects with proper environmental protection and small-scale renewables with social safeguards), possible.

It may be concluded that there is no question now of ignoring this environmental crisis, in pursuance of wealth. Economic prosperity now needs to take into account the depletion of natural resources and the negative effects of industrialisation, on the environment. However, the responsibility does not lie with South Asia only.

To counter the dramatic impacts of global warming, the only viable option seems to be for all countries to work together and make a difference, by adopting the various measures mentioned above.

In the words of Former President World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz:

“We have an opportunity today, to think outside the box and find new ways, practical solutions, to promote the generation and diffusion of low carbon technologies and the integration of climate concerns in development strategies. Let’s work together for a climate friendly future.”