The recently released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mandated by the 2015 Paris Agreement says that “by 2100, global sea-level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with 2 degrees Celsius. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with at least once per decade with 2 degrees Celsius. Coral reefs may survive with 10-30% probability in the 1.5 degrees Celsius case while being virtually eliminated in the other scenario".
The report contrasts the difference in impact between a 1.5°C and 2°C rise in temperature above pre-industrial levels with the ultimate objective of convincing countries to limit the temperature rise through concerted action on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)-mitigation, climate change adaptation and financing mechanisms for climate change resilience.
The report adds that human activities are estimated to have already caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels with a range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052, if it continues to increase at the current rate. Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea-level rise with associated impacts.
The research predicts a harsh reality with a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires and the near elimination of coral reefs by 2040. It discusses various possible pathways for limiting the rise in temperature to 1.5°C. All pathways that limit global warming to that level—with no overshoot—project the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) on the order of 100-1,000 GtCO2 over the 21st century. The term GtCO2 refers to a gigatonne of CO2 used to standardize the metric of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on one common scale.
Measures to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere include ramping up the installation of renewable energy systems to provide 75% or more of the world’s electricity by 2050. Other measures include afforestation, eating less meat, riding bicycles and reducing flying. One approach is to directly capture CO2 from the air and store it underground. The technology to do this “carbon sequestration" is still very nascent, and it is unclear whether it can be done at scale in the next few decades.
There are many takeaways from the study, but the simple conclusion is that, we are well on the way to a 1.5°C rise in temperature. There are meaningful consequences, and the more we delay concerted action, the more likely the overshoot, and the costlier it is going to be.
While the report was released, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded this year’s economics prize to two economists—William Nordhaus and Paul Romer—both of whom have done work in the economics of the environment. Nordhaus was among the early environmental economists to warn about the costs of climate change, and Romer has worked extensively on the endogenous growth theory. Nordhaus has been the primary advocate of a uniform carbon tax as the only way to place a true cost on GHG emissions. Romer’s growth models work with both innovation and nature, and in doing so, consider the cost of impacting the environment.
For India, the Nobel prizes and the IPCC report serve as a useful reminder that we need to have a cogent policy with respect to climate change and environmental sustainability. It would be all too easy to say that as the US has publicly declared that is it going to pull out of the Paris Agreement and as Brazil might soon elect a president with a similar view as the US president’s, India too should tread its own path. That path would prioritize fast development over sustainability, and would retain a major role for coal in electricity generation.
Though the argument that it is “India’s turn to pollute" is often made, the optimal long-term answer is to favour sustainability both for India and for the world. From India’s point of view, the cost of development with a heavy carbon footprint falls disproportionately on the poor through air pollution, extreme weather events, heat waves, water scarcity and increased impact on agriculture.
India has taken several positive actions, including its major emphasis on renewable power through its 100 GW solar mission and its total 175 GW renewables mission. Last year, for the first time ever, new installations of power using solar cells exceeded all other types of power. India could well be one of few countries that achieves its (self-declared) climate action targets under the Paris Agreement by 2030. However, a more proactive plan is required to manage the contribution of coal power in such a manner that India advances its peak GHG emissions by a decade from 2035 to 2025. At the same time, a more comprehensive approach is required to make India’s rapid urbanization more environmentally friendly through energy efficient buildings and mass transportation systems.
Indians have always prided themselves on leading sustainable lives. The next few decades are the best time to demonstrate it and, in doing so, help ourselves and the world. The IPCC report is a stark reminder that the time for action is now.
P.S: “Water and air, the two fluids on which life depends, have become global garbage cans", said Jacques Cousteau.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read his earlier columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand.
Comments are welcome at