16th October, 2020

Climate change

These are notes from "Module 4: Climate Change" of APU's Online Course - Sustainability in the Indian Context

Having the right conditions is important for life systems to sustain. Any changes in temperature is likely to effect multiple systems and push them out of equilibrium. If systems are pushed beyond a Tipping Point, it leads to a change in the configuration of the system and can snowball into a larger problem

Why is an increase in global mean temperature such a large problem?

The last 1000 years have been exceptional climate stability, with less than 1 degree of global temperature variation. A global increase of 1 degrees is much more severe than local. It represents an immense amount of trapped energy/heat - think about the amount of heat needed to increase the temperature of a world's worth of air and water by a degree celcius - thats an immense amount of heat.

A global increase of 1 degree also means that local increases can be much more than that. In several parts of the world, the seasonal variation has increased by much more - in some place, summer temperature has increased by upto 6 degrees celcius.

Because of this global increase in temperature, we will probably see severe impact on life on earth by phenomenon such as rising sea levels and lowered productivity of agriculture.

What is causing climate change? Humans? Noooo

There have been warm periods in the past which happen due to tilts in the earth's axis. These, however, happen over a period of millions of years. Our current problem is not due to natural cycles.

Greenhouse effect

Greenhouse effect is the trapping of reflected radiation inside the atmosphere. The right concentration of Greenhouses gases is the reason why the earth has a temperature which is conducive to live. Too little greenhouse gases would mean a cold planet (like mars), too much leads to Global Warming. The major greenhouse gases are:

  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Nitrous Oxide
  • Methane

How are humans causing Climate Change?

Human activity in the past 100 years has realeased a huge quantity of trapped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What releases these greenhouse gases?

  • Burning fossil fuels for Energy Generation - renewable energy may help
    • For electricity or transport
  • Industrial Agriculture - organic farming might be the answer
  • Industrial Processes
  • Deforestation/Land-use change
  • etc.

Why should we act?

We should take the Precautionary Principle when dealing with an issue which has the potential to wipe out the human race. This means not making it a close thing - by acting early.

Cost of not acting are very high compared to the cost of trying to fix the problem.

What prevents collective action against climate change?

One major problem which prevents the masses from mobilizing is that the science is hard to interpret and understand. This is made harder because there are vested interests working against this - they promote contrarian views and promote alternate non-scientific propoganda. They would take large actions to preserve the status quo and the current culture of consumption.

Another major problem is that the current socio-political system is a function of our energy availability. 80% of our energy sources are fossil fuels and since Economy is driven by energy, Political consequences of trying to control emissions are huge.

In reality, however, we do not need an ever increasing energy spiral. Evidence suggests that Energy access above a threshold has exponentially decreasing effect on Human Development Index. So, as long as everyone is getting access to a minimum amount of energy, we can still sustain ourselves as a population.

This is an example of a Wicked Problem - there are forces acting on this on different dimensions. Any solution to this requies action from governments (and organizations of all kinds) and individuals - some sort of Polycentric Governance structures would be nice to have.

Humans are shortsighted by nature and since governments usually reflect the median voter, they are useless unless there is public consensus.

This is also an example of Tragedy of the commons. Local causes reflect in global consequences where the global atmosphere is the commons. Unless consensus is reached, no single actor is incentivized to act.

Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto protocol is an international treaty aimed at curbing greenhouse emissions and limit global warming. According to this agreement, developed countries are required to meet emissions targets to combat climate change. Developing countries are exempt because historically, the developed countries have been the primary cause of emissions and this gives the developing countries a chance to do some development of their own.

One of the mechanisms which came out of this was the Market for Carbon Credits

The way forward?

There are only two strategies for us to move forward (or any mix of the two)

  • Mitigation
    • Direct reduction of carbon emissions - aiming to limit the damage which has occurred.
  • Adaptation
    • Learn to cope, prepare for effects for climate change - accepting it as an unevitable reality.

India's Commitments to Combating Climate Change

In the 2005 Paris Agreement, India committed to reduce GHG emission intensity by 33-35% from the 2005 levels by 2030.

Emission intensity is Emission per unit GDP

Reading about India's Climate change policy: https://www.indiabudget.gov.in/budget2016-2017/es2015-16/echapvol2-08.pdf

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