Gurinder Kaur 

Dr Gurinder Kaur makes overarching recommendations on what should be touched upon during the Summit on Climate Change in April 2021

In 2015, the then-US President Barack Obama raised the issue of climate change in the Paris Climate Agreement. In 2017, the then-US President Donald Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as he came to power.

In those four years, the United States increased its carbon emissions as President Donald Trump, during his tenure, approved high-carbon projects such as coal-fired power plants and refineries, he also withdrew over 100 environmental protection laws.

President Joe Biden after President Trump’s four-year term sent a request to the United Nations on the first day of his term in 2021 to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which was accepted the same day. In fact, President Joe Biden wants to re-establish the United States as a pioneer in Climate Change.

He has called for this virtual Summit on Climate Change as a prequel to the 26th Conference of the Parties in Glasgow which will be held from November 1-12 in collaboration with the United Kingdom and Italy. The motive of the virtual summit to push the Paris Climate Agreement forward and the United States to reclaim its leadership on this front. 

Climate Change: need for global cooperation

With the US announcing its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, many countries in the world besides the European countries, especially China, India, the Russian Federation, Japan, Canada, Indonesia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and some others have not taken the Paris Climate Agreement seriously.

As a result, the past six years from 2015 to 2020 have been the hottest on record so far. According to a NOAA 2020 report, the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere in 2020 was the highest in 141 years, 1.28 degrees Celsius higher than the average temperature of the Pre-Industrial Revolution period. Despite the Covid-19 and La-Nina year, the average temperature in Europe and Asia is recorded higher by 2 degrees Celsius in 2020.

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Photo Courtesy: BBC; Left – Mellimage/Shutterstock.com, center – Montree Hanlue/Shutterstock.com.

Temperatures in Australia, South America, the southern parts of North America, and the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Oceans have also been above average. Arctic temperature has risen three times since the Pre- Industrial Revolution period. Siberia recorded an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius in June 2020. Rising temperature has led to widespread wildfires in California, Siberia, and Australia in 2020. 

An IPCC report (2014) revealed that the average surface temperature of the earth is rising rapidly due to human activities. The various research studies also show that humans are harming other organisms (from plants to all kinds of living beings) cohabitating on earth for their own selfish needs.

Two-thirds of the land use patterns on earth’s surface have been changed by the human population due to the development of agriculture during the last 11000 years, natural vegetation has halved.  About 85 per cent of the wetlands have been wiped out in the last 300 years, and more than 65 per cent of the oceans were compromised to some extent by humans. In the last 200 years, 50 per cent of the coral reefs have disappeared.  

The human population has grown rapidly from 1.6 billion (1900) to 7.8 billion (2020) in the last 120 years. Along with human activities, the growing human population, its way of living and choice of food are responsible for the rise in the average temperature of the earth.

According to a study conducted by Arden Dier, only 1 per cent of the world’s population causes about 50 per cent of air travel emission. Each of Australia, the United States, Canada, South Korea, and the Russian Federation emits 16.92, 16.56, 15.32, 12.89, and 11.94 metric tons of carbon emissions, respectively, through their living style. Today, to accommodate an increasing carnivorous diet, large-scale deforestation is taking place to create pastures for breeding animals.

A meat rich diet instead of vegetables increases the concentration of two types of gases in the atmosphere – carbon dioxide and methane. Deforestation and domesticated animals, both result in producing large amounts of carbon dioxide. Animal digestion process is responsible for increasing the concentration of methane gas in the environment. Both gases are important greenhouse gases that raise the temperature.

Methane gas is capable of heating the atmosphere 25 times more than carbon dioxide. One animal emits 220 pounds of methane gas each year. According to a study conducted by U.C. Davis, domesticated animals are responsible for producing 14.5 per cent of the total greenhouse gases.

The forests of the tropical region have the potential to absorb more carbon. A research study by the World Resources Institute shows that between 2019 and 2020, deforestation in the tropics has increased by 12 per cent covering 10 million acres.

Despite the warning given in a 2014 IPCC report and the facts stated at 2015 Paris Climate Conference regarding rising average temperature of the earth, many countries around the world still have not taken steps to reduce their carbon emissions.

According to the Climate Watch data organisation, there are 80 countries in the world that have not yet made any changes in the framework for reducing carbon emissions according to the Paris Climate Agreement. These countries release 47.2 per cent of the world’s total carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

It is pertinent to mention here that out of these 80 countries, 78 countries emit only 4.2 per cent of the total carbon emissions and the remaining 43 per cent carbon emissions are emitted by two countries China (28 per cent) and the United States (15 per cent).

China, which currently emits more carbon than any other country in the world, is still generating 60 per cent of its energy from coal. China made an announcement in March 2021 to have a peak in emissions by 2030 for accelerating economic growth and then later will aim for carbon neutrality by 2060.

The United States is second only to China in coal-fired power generation and total carbon emissions. President Joe Biden has recently declared a carbon free electricity goal by 2035, a switchover to renewable sources which will eliminate greenhouse gas emissions produced while generating electricity and also setting a goal of “net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.” 

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It is important to note that the average temperature of the earth will increase speedily if carbon emissions are not reduced rapidly and the current safe average temperature rise limit (1.5 degrees Celsius) ‘set by the Paris Climate Agreement’ will be exceeded in the next few years.

According to a recent study published by the Australian Academy of Sciences, if carbon emissions continued at the current rate for only three to four years it would be impossible to achieve the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in temperature but the temperature will rise by an alarming 3 to 4 degrees Celsius. 

Although greenhouse gas emissions were reduced during the lockdown due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, 2020 is still the second hottest year on record. The concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is also constantly increasing.

On April 6, 2020, its concentration was 415.70 parts per million (ppm) which on the same day in 2021 increased to 418.64 ppm. Before the Industrial Revolution, it was only 280 ppm.  Power generation, transportation, and industry produced large amounts of carbon.

The United States alone produces 5 billion metric tons of carbon each year from these sources. In order to control the average global temperature, all the countries of the world should promptly reduce their carbon emissions by imposing a climate emergency. 

The 11th Annual Gap Emission Report (2019) of the United Nations shows that if all the countries of the world cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 per cent per annum in the coming years, the temperature would still be above the safe limit by the end of the century.

The report also said that if serious measures had been taken in 2010, greenhouse gas emissions would have been reduced by 3.3 per cent per annum. Taking actions to address this imminent issue should not be delayed any longer.

Firstly, China and the United States, which account for 43 per cent of the total carbon emissions in the atmosphere, should, like New Zealand, declare a climate emergency in their respective countries and cut carbon emissions expeditiously without wasting time. Both these countries should seek guidance from the European countries as well who have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 24 per cent in 2019 as compared to 1990’s level.

These countries have now pledged to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55 per cent by 2030 as compared to 1990’s level. Great Britain has gone even further vowing to reduce green gas emissions by 68 per cent during this period. In contrast, China is still demanding another 10 years to start reducing its carbon emissions.

Way Forward

The United States has already backed down at every conference. India, Japan, and the Russian Federation have not yet submitted their new plans to reduce carbon emissions to the United Nations. The targets set by nations such as the USA, China, India, and Russian Federation (those are still emitting the major share of greenhouse gas emissions) could dramatically affect whether the world can reach the goals set in Paris. 

 In the April 22-23 Summit on Climate, all countries of the world should agree to outline measures to reduce carbon emissions, increase their dependence on renewable natural resources for energy production and implement actions immediately.

All countries must make drastic changes in their living style, eating habits and accelerate their forest cover and focus on replacing the corporate economic growth model with a pro-nature and people economic development model so that all living beings can avoid the scourge of natural disasters caused by rising temperature. 

About the author:

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Prof Gurinder Kaur is a Professor at Department of Geography at Punjabi University, Patiala. She is also a Visiting Professor at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute.