Friday, December 18, 2015

Reader’s Guide To Paris Climate Change Conference: Part 1

What exactly was the Paris Climate Conference 2015 about?

The heads of around 200 nations met in Paris in November- December 2015. They had a single problem to solve – how to limit the global warming and avoid the disaster in the near future. In the pre-conference discussions, a goal was decided – to limit the global warming to 2 degree Celsius.

So what’s the big deal about 2 degrees? We don’t seem to care when in summer the temperature rises by 10 or 20 degrees.

This is not the normal atmospheric temperature that we are talking about here. It is called ‘Global Mean Surface Temperature’ (GMST) of the earth. Because it’s an average of temperature at many places at many times in the year, it does not change much. As an example, the GMST in July 2015 was 16.61 degree Celsius, which 0.08 degree more that July 2014. Even this change of less than a tenth of a degree is considered large. So when someone says that the GMST is up by one degree, she is giving you real bad news.

Why is it such bad news? Just because it’s going to be hotter? I guess we can use more air-conditioners to keep cool.

The rise in GMST (also called as Global Warming) is much more than rise in atmospheric temperature, which makes us feel warm. Its effect on the climate of the earth are many, and disastrous. If we want to make a very short list, it will look like this:
  • -   Sea level rise : costal land will go under sea
  • -   Bigger and more storms, heat waves and floods : we have already seen this in last few years
  • -    Draughts and water shortage – this will probably the first and most dangerous outcome
  • -    Food shortage – due to destruction of life in the seas and on  the land

One doesn't have to explain what will be the impact of these on humankind.

But is this going to happen anytime in foreseeable future? Usually such things are millions of years away.

Not so lucky this time. Some of the effects have already started. Most of them are supposed to become full blown problems by 2100, which is going to be in the lifetime of the children born now.

Of course, the scientific models that predict these outcomes cannot be completely accurate. The climatologists are certain about the outcomes, but not so certain about when they happen. But there is a general agreement that the climate changes will happen in this century.

What is causing this temperature rise?

The primary cause of the temperature rise is the increasing amount of carbon-dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The CO2 in the air traps the heat, which cause temperatures to rise. Naturally, CO2 comes from breathing of most animals and from decaying matter. The oceans and forests absorb CO2. Because of these sinks, the CO2 levels in atmosphere are maintained.

But CO2 also comes from burning what is called as fossil fuels – coal, petrol, diesel, gas and so on. Since the beginning of industrial revolution in the 1700-1800s, we are burning more and more fossil fuels. In fact since the second half of last century- from 1950 onwards- the use of fossil fuel has risen to mega proportions. The sinks cannot absorb so much CO2, so atmospheric CO2 goes on increasing. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is now about 400 parts per million, which is more than double of the levels in the last 20 lac years.

So is it a question of using fewer cars then?

Well, our energy requirements go much beyond transportation. We need an enormous amount of energy to run our homes, farms and factories. In cold climates, electricity is used to keep houses warm, in hotter regions, to keep them cool. Our water distribution and irrigation needs electricity. Our whole civilization is powered by energy in various forms. And almost all of this energy is produced by burning fossil fuels - as of now, 86% of energy production uses fossil fuels!

But electricity generation using non-fossil fuel sources like solar and wind is already growing. So won’t the problem be solved in a few years?

Some sources of electricity are environment friendly. The best example is hydroelectric power. Others are solar, wind and nuclear energy.

While each of these methods has problems of its own, the biggest and common problem is investment. Take for example solar energy. The setup cost to produce 1 megawatt is about 8 crores. The city of Mumbai needs around 4000 MW of energy. So the investment required to shift Mumbai to solar power will be 32,000 crores! Similar investments are required for wind and nuclear energy. Most nations are not able to make this kind of investment.

The second problem that stands in the way of shift from fossil fuels is political. Many countries and large companies are dependent on fossil fuel for their economy. These bodies naturally resist any large scale attempts to discard fossil fuel use.   

Why can’t we simply reduce our energy requirement?

Any reduction in energy use means reducing quality of life. Residents of richer nations use much more electricity than the residents of poorer nations. To give examples, a resident of the US uses around 15000 units per year (KWh), while a resident of India uses 1000 units and someone in Congo uses 100 units! As the poor nations achieve better economic status, their energy consumption goes up. In the years 2000 to 2014, China’s electricity consumption per person rose by five times! So for the developing nations, reduction in energy consumption works like a dampener on their efforts to come out of poverty.


To summarise, it is essential to reduce the burning of fossil fuel if we want to avoid a looming disaster. But reducing it is difficult because of the complexity of the factors involved. This is not a problem that one nation or a small group of nations can solve. To make any progress, the whole world has to come together. This is the rationale of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference.

In the next part, we will see what transpired at the conference and its outcome.

Chennai Floods - a grim reminder

The recent flooding of Chennai and other areas in southern India is a grim reminder of the power of nature’s fury. All man-made fortification come up short against the intensity of an engulfing flood. We have seen it time and again.

The post-mortem of the floods will go on for some time. Some have claimed that the opening of the water reservoirs of the dams was not managed properly. The El Nino effect (the warming up of water in the Pacific, which happens periodically) was responsible for the severe North-East monsoon in late November. The biggest reason being sited is the destruction of green cover in areas around Chennai, including the mangroves.

Our ecosystem is our first and last protection against floods. Last year I had written an article on how the ecosystem performs the all important function of flood control. Here is the link: