Don’t let climate change issue go adrift

Tags: Op-ed
The pressing problem of climate cha­nge is intertwined with the challenges of economic development. Although developed countries aggravated the problem through large-scale emission of heat-trapping gases (in particular, emissions of carbon dioxide), poor people in the developing world are the ones feeling the impact more. Moreover, a number of developing countries have taken the lead and are now major emitters of heat-trapping gases. In fact, the developing world account for more than half of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Therefore, to be effective, responses to climate change, must address developing countries’ needs, including their right to development. The failure of UN negotiations to reach an international accord, coupled with the failure of the US to enact climate legislation presents the world with a scary and seemingly intractable problem: there is no Plan B for averting a climate catastrophe.

The two main policy responses to global warming being expounded at the moment are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (climate-change mitigation) and adaptation to the impacts of global warming (for example, by buying insurance in response to climate impacts). Another policy response that has recently received greater attention is geoengineering of the climate system (injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from the earth’s surface). However, how these different responses are being adopted — and by what extent — in the developed and developing world is a matter of debate.

The urgency for these responses is highlighted by projections from a number of reports produced by the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC). Under a business as usual scenario, greenhouse gas emissions could rise by 25 per cent to 90 per cent by 2030 and the earth could warm by 3°C this century. Even with a temperature rise of 1°C to 2.5°C, IPCC predicts serious effects, including reduced crop yields in tropical areas leading to increased risk of hunger, spread of climate sensitive diseases, such as malaria, and an increased risk of extinction of 20 per cent to 30 per cent of all plant and animal species.

According to IPCC, by 2020, up to 250 million people in Africa could be exposed to greater risk of water stress. Over the course of this century, millions of people living in the catchment areas of the Indian Himalayas and Andes face increased risk of floods as glaciers retreat. When the once extensive glaciers on these mountain ranges disappear, it could lead to drought and water scarcity. Sea level rise will lead to inundation of coasts worldwide with some small islands possibly facing complete inundation.

However, a precise calculation of global warming is hard because no one really knows how much climate change can be attributed as well as the exact role of other factors. One indication of rising costs due to climate change is the number of people around the world affected by natural disasters. In 1981-85, fewer than 500 million people required international disaster assistance; in 2001-05, the number reached 1.5 billion. This includes 4 per cent of the population of the poorest countries and over 7 per cent in lower-middle-income countries.

Other studies show that if temperature increases are less than 3°C (from 1990–2000 levels), average losses should be contained at or below 3 per cent of world GDP. However, estimates of damage often suffer from incompleteness —they rarely cover nonmarket damage, the risk of local extreme weather and socially contingent events and the risks of longer-term global catastrophes. Studies typically do not examine the dynamics of damage from rising greenhouse gas concentrations.

In a report in 2006, Nicholas Stern calculated that a 2°C rise in global temperature cost about 1 per cent of world GDP. But the World Bank, in its latest world development report, says the cost to Africa will be more like 4 per cent of GDP and India 5 per cent. Even if environmental costs were distributed equally to every person on earth, developing countries would still bear 80 per cent of the burden (because they account for 80 per cent of world population). As it is, they bear an even greater share, though the citizens’ carbon footprints are much smaller.

The regions that are likely to be hurt the most by climate change include Africa, south and southeast Asia and Latin America. India and Europe are exposed to catastrophic risk from a change in monsoon patterns and the reversal of the atlantic thermoline circulation, respectively. In contrast, China, North America, advanced Asian countries, and transition economies (especially Russia) are less vulnerable and may even benefit at low degrees of warming (for example, better crop yields).

The poor are more vulnerable than the rich for several reasons. According to IPCC, flimsy housing, poor health and inadequate health care mean that natural disasters of all kinds hurt them more. It is a fact that when Hurricane Mitch swept through Honduras in 1998, poor households lost 15 per cent to 20 per cent of their assets but the rich lost only 3 per cent.

So, what’s the bottomline? Although climate change research might lack precision, it is certain that damages to the developing world will far exceed those of the developed world. Thus, it is suggested that the developing world come together and formulate a portfolio of mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering actions and fight climate change together.

(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi. He is also knowledge editor of Financial Chronicle)

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