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A fresh warning

Climate change report calls for action

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

The status of global warming as projected in the latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) seems far more ominous than was deemed earlier. The portentous indicators to this effect are many: unabated heating up of the atmosphere and oceans, changing global water cycle, diminishing snow cover and, more importantly, rising mean sea level. The emerging climate pattern, marked by frequent weather extremes, spells more natural disasters of the kind that wreaked havoc in Uttarakhand recently. Worse, the global map may change due to the submergence of small island nations and a rise in coastal sea levels by 10 to 32 inches by the end of the century, against the earlier projected level of seven to 23 inches. Equally dreadful are the implications for the Indian subcontinent. In the worst-case scenario, temperature here will climb by up to four degrees Celsius, rainfall will increase by up to 20 per cent, and the swelling seas will sound alarm bells for coastal cities, including Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

True, much of what has been stated in this report conforms to the trends sketched out in the IPCC's fourth report, which released in 2007. However, there are some subtle variations that merit special notice. For one, it holds carbon dioxide (CO2) more responsible for global warming than methane and nitrous oxide, though all three are potent greenhouse gases. This implies that the methane-spewing paddy fields and large livestock populations of developing countries, such as India, are not as much to blame for global warming as deforestation and fossil fuels. The report, notably, maintains that even if CO2 emissions are stopped - which is impossible, given the critical reliance on hydrocarbons for energy - most aspects of climate change will persist for centuries. The reality, however, is that the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere seems set to spurt in the next 25 years to a level that will jeopardise the revised goal of limiting temperature rise to the tolerable threshold of two degrees Celsius. What is worse, a sizeable part of the emitted CO2 will get absorbed in oceans to turn them too acidic for the marine flora and fauna to thrive. Many useful fish species may, therefore, face the risk of extinction. Several others may migrate to deeper zones in search of hospitable habitats, thereby shrinking fish catches and adversely impacting the availability and prices of sea foods.

Significantly, this report discounts the plea put forth by the disbelievers of the theory of climate change that the average global temperatures have remained almost flat in the 15 years between 1998 and 2012. The IPCC ascribes this phenomenon to several reasons. One factor is the base effect; oceans were relatively warm in 1998 due to a strong El Nino effect. Besides, this period coincided with the normal downward phase in the 11-year solar cycle. The fact is that each of the last three decades has been successively hotter and they all have been warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.

It is, thus, amply clear that the Kyoto protocol on climate change, which was inked in 1997 and enforced without the participation of key polluters like the US, has failed to effectively stem the process of climate change. A better targeted, result-oriented and globally binding successor to the Kyoto pact is, therefore, a must. Inaction on climate change mitigation may prove costlier than well-advised action.

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First Published: Tue, October 01 2013. 21:38 IST