Friday, January 23, 2015

2014 hottest year on record, time to turn down the heat

Scientists have described the “global warming hiatus”, which shows that although global temperatures were rising, the rate of warming slowed in the last decade. Skeptics, especially in the United States, have seized this as evidence that anthropogenic global warming is a myth. Politicians have used this hiatus claim to justify inaction on green house gas emissions.

However, recent data shows that global warming has not stalled. In fact, warming has been relentless. Last year, 2014, was the hottest on earth since 1880. Moreover, the 10 warmest years have all occurred in the past 1 7 years. This is consistent with the retreating Artic sea ice, rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is now estimated at 400 parts per million, about 40 percent higher than in pre-industrial times.  

Twenty years of global negotiations, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), aimed at slowing the growth of heat-trapping emissions have yielded limited progress and generated much division between and among the so-called developed and developing world. Led by China, the developing world argues that the industrial west exploited global atmospheric resources and powered their way to unprecedented economic growth and human development. The developed world maintains that there can be no binding caps on greenhouse gases until they pollute their way to development.

Hence, the developing and middle-income economies will not commit to any commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the United States will not sign up for a global agreement, which requires its economy to de-carbonize. The discourse in the US has been dominated by climate change skeptics and those who ague that any caps or tax on carbon emissions would confer undue competitive advantage on China and emerging middle-income economies. Today China happens to be both the largest economy and the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Africa is stuck with the victim discourse. Africa’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions is low, but Africa is the most vulnerable region, and because of a myriad geographical, socio-economic and governance factors it suffers the greatest impact of climate change. Africa’s agriculture, which employs over 60 per cent of the population, is especially exposed and sensitive to climate variability. Crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa could decline by 50 per cent by 2020. Similarly, the population at risk of water stress is projected to be 75-250 million by 2020. Moreover, with a projected decline of 25-40 per cent, wildlife conservation and tourism as we know it today could collapse. 

The case for global cooperation and action to break our addition to fossil fuels, decarbonize growth and slow down global warming has never been stronger. Last November, in a dramatic shift in the politics of climate change, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to cut emissions. The United States pledged to cut emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. China promised to cap its greenhouse gas output by 2030 or earlier.

One would hope that this unprecedented leadership by the United States and China could encourage other countries to make unilateral, nationally determined commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, delivering the much needed momentum and consensus for a new global climate agreement. But the China-US pledge is not enough to slow down global warming and avert irreversible damage to livelihoods, economies and ecosystems.

There is no place for half-hearted measures. The impact of climate change is not in the future. The catastrophic impacts of climate change are already here; extreme droughts, brutal winters, heat waves, rising seas, irreversible ecological damage, conflict and hunger, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Delay will only worsen climate change impacts and make the cost of adaptation steeper. 

Steering the global economy on a low carbon path presents techno-economic and geo-political challenges, but also unprecedented opportunities. Against the ravages of disease our forebears invented medicine. They redefined productivity through two revolutions and delivered unprecedented leaps in human flourishing.


Our generation has the opportunity and duty to deliver an energy revolution, end our addiction to fossil fuels and power a new green global economy. A new global agreement on climate change must feel the burden of history, rise above narrow national economic interests, turn down the heat, halt the rising seas and heal a fragile planet. A new climate agreement must re-set the climate for growth and development and demonstrate that we can be green and grow.

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