Toxic air

Delegates at the ongoing annual climate summit in Bonn will hopefully heed the warning by a United Nations agency that the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide (CO2) content has already reached an ominous level at which only meaningful and result-oriented climate action can avert a catastrophe. The latest Greenhouse Bulletin issued by the World Meteorological Organization just prior to the Bonn meet reveals that the CO2 accumulation has swelled in 2016 to the highest-ever 403.3 parts per million. This is 45 per cent above pre-industrial era levels and is growing at a rate 50 per cent faster than the average in the past decade. It can potentially raise the earth’s temperature by 3 degrees Celsius and the sea level by 10-20 metres to submerge several small island nations and large parts of other coastal countries. More importantly, it practically rules out meeting the Paris climate accord’s goal of keeping the temperature rise “well below 2 degrees Celsius”. The noxious ramifications of a rapidly altering climate are already evident. A study by leading journal The Lancet finds that weather-induced disasters are up 46 per cent since 2000 and labour productivity is down 5.3 per cent. The economic losses in 2016 were worth about $129 billion.

These reports should, indeed, be read along with another recently released document of the UN Environment Programme, the “Emissions Gap Report 2017”, to understand their real import. It maintains that even if national pledges on climate action are fully implemented – which is quite unlikely – the resultant emission reduction will merely be a third of what is required to meet the Paris accord’s objective. An upward revision of contributions determined by nations to global action is therefore imperative. The withdrawal of the United States, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, from the Paris agreement, though a significant development in itself, need not cause much despair as several major US business houses have publicly expressed their resolve to honour this deal. Many of them are even willing to contribute to the UN clean climate fund if the US government does not do so.

However, all eyes will now be on India and China, the third and second largest environment polluters, irrespective of their relatively low per capita emissions. India, on its part, has already promised to slash the carbon footprint of its economy by 33 to 35 per cent by 2030 over 2005, a robust target that has evoked wide acclaim. This is sought to be achieved by increasing the renewable component of its energy use to 40 per cent, apart from other measures. However, progress towards this end, though impressive, falls short of the task. Of the target of producing 100 gigawatts of solar power by 2022, only a little over a 10th of it has actually been achieved so far. With solar power tariffs plummeting due to aggressive bidding, future investments in this sector have become uncertain. A good deal of hydel power potential is, no doubt, lying untapped, but it can be harnessed only if resistance from environmental activists is overcome. Also, since India cannot reduce its dependence on coal for power production without jeopardising development, it should compensate for it by improving the efficiency of coal-based power production. New Delhi can also contribute to the global climate crusade by playing a constructive role in the Bonn deliberations. 

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