Red alert: Why we need to act now to counter the challenges of climate change

Reposted from FirstPost link: http://www.firstpost.com/living/red-alert-why-we-need-to-act-now-to-counter-the-challenges-of-climate-change-2818634.html 

The current drought affecting 330 million people, the heat wave that is gripping most cities and falling water tables in Delhi, Gurgaon, Bangalore and other parts of India are all indications of what we could expect from our future as humans continue to burn massive quantities of fossil fuel, encroach green spaces to build ever-growing concrete cities. Water tables are declining at alarming rates of 1-1.2 meters a year in the major metros as well as other parts of India. The ratio of trees to humans has fallen to 1:7 in Bangalore as against the desired level of 8:1 i.e. there is one tree for seven humans as against a requirement of eight trees for one human. April 2016 has set the record on fire as being the hottest month globally and the seventh month in a row.

The multiplicity of such ecological stressors could cause a systemic fall in the architecture of our modern life. Our food and water supply, quality of the air we breathe and weather conditions that make life livable are under threat from risks of climate change and resource depletion. Our reckless high carbon progress and complete disregard for natural resources is taking us towards the brink of ecological and economic collapse.

The relentless burning of fossil fuels has led to the tremendous increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Reuters

The relentless burning of fossil fuels has led to the tremendous increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Reuters

Exponential growth in population has put and is putting enormous pressure on an already depleting natural resource base while the process of conversion of resources to economic goods has created vast amounts of pollution leading to climate change. The scale of these challenges is unprecedented, especially for a highly populous and developing country like India.

These challenges will continue to grow as we keep emitting huge amounts of carbon dioxide every year. This relentless burning of our greatest nonrenewable resource, fossil fuels, has led to the increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from 285 parts per million (ppm) in 1850 to400 ppm in 2015. This has resulted in the warming of the planet and Earth’s average surface temperature has already gone up by around 0.85° Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels.

Taking cognisance of this alarming rise in the temperature, global leaders have been meeting every year, now for over two decades, to decide on what conscious actions each country can take to reduce their emissions. The latest Conference of Parties (COP 21), held in December 2015 in Paris, is considered to be a landmark event in the history of global climate change discourse. It is so because countries have come to an agreement, with many non-legal binding elements, to reduce their national carbon emissions starting from 2020. If they successfully meet their mitigation targets, which have never happened before, then it will restrict the global warming and temperature rise to 2.7° Celsius.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers an increase of 2° Celsius as the maximum safe limit to avoid dangerous repercussions of climate change.

With April 2016 recording 1.1° Celsius above the baseline 1951-1980 average, has global warming reached a new normal of increase in temperature of 1.1° Celsius or is it a temporary phenomenon caused due to weather conditions?

The science of climate change is complex. There is huge uncertainty involved in the predictions done by models on global temperature rise. There are a set of scientists who believe the target to limit atmospheric concentration to 450 ppm is optimistic and could trigger a potential snowball effect which can take the temperature rise well beyond 2° Celsius. They advocate for a maximum atmospheric ppm level of 330-350 in order to avoid the irreversible process of the temperature rise. No one knows for sure when the climate tipping points would be crossed. But if we continue emitting carbon the way we have done so far, then breaching the tipping points could be just a matter of time.

With an already warmer planet and shrinking natural resource base, it is in our interest to reduce the atmospheric concentration from current levels of 400 ppm to 350 ppm. What this means, in terms of changing our world and lives, is beyond what we have seen in the global climate change discourse. A conscious mitigation effort, as seen in the Paris agreement, would only reduce the extent of increase in ppm levels or at best stabilise them at higher levels. But to bring it down requires some serious and mass scale redesigning of the systems in which we live. Our transportation choices, what we eat, buy, throw, consume everything would need to undergo systemic redesigning, in fairly quick time. But first, this change has to begin in our minds. If we fail to take it as a personal responsibility and consider climate change as a personal issue, rather than seeing it only as a universal issue, then all policy measures at global or national levels would be futile.

This becomes particularly important since we not only face risks of global climate change but also of running out of local natural resources. While non-renewable resources like minerals, metals, and fossil fuel are bound to deplete because they don’t regenerate, even the renewable natural resources like water, biodiversity, timber etc are under severe depletion. Our disregard for conservation of natural resources poses an immediate clear threat to the sustenance of the human kind and economy.

In order to understand how humans have created an impact on Earth, let us take a look at some of the irrefutable facts.

1) Human being’s population in 1800 was 1 billion. In 2015 global population has crossed 7 billion. We have grown by 7 times in 200 years, doubling ourselves in every 30-35 years. Which other species has followed this trajectory in this time?

2) Fossil fuels are formed over millions of years of biogeochemical process. They are derivatives of ancient sunshine and biomass buried underneath Earth’s surface. We are burning about millions of years of ancient sunshine in 250 years through industrialisation. And we are not finished yet.

3) According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, rapid consumption of natural resources over the past 50 years has resulted in considerable, and to a large extent, irreversible loss of ecological diversity. 18,788 species out of 52,017 so far assessed are threatened with extinction.

4) Since 2000, 6 million hectares of primary forest have been lost each year.

5) Every day species’ extinctions are continuing at up to 1,000 times or more the natural rate. With the current biodiversity loss, we are witnessing the greatest extinction crisis since dinosaurs disappeared from our planet 65 million years ago.

6)In most places groundwater tables are depleting faster than their regeneration rate. Delhi’s groundwater is estimated to be depleting 1 meter a year on average.4000 borewells have gone dry in one month in Bangalore, an increase by 12 times compared to last year.

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell, says author Edward Abbey in The Second Rape of the West. This quote provides perspective into the human paradigm responsible for our current ecological crises.

Ideally,these indications should be enough to stimulate our common sense in believing that immediate actions are to be taken. Until we work at changing our paradigms and belief systems, we are merely doing window dressing with the hope of expecting systemic change.

Degrowth in atmospheric concentration levels can be achieved, only if we take cognisance of current reality, build harmonious consensus and start putting our act together. We have enough time to act but none to waste.

The author is an Associate Fellow, Earth Science Climate Change division at TERI. All views are personal. 

Envisioning Carbon Neutral Villages

I am very pleased to share my paper on Envisioning Carbon Neutral Villages published in Current Science Journal. 

This is an outcome of my 5 year engagement of working closely with rural communities in India for a climate change adaptation programme. It had 10+ thematic areas of research and intervention. I focused on local money flows, climate risk impact assessment, carbon neutrality, livelihood resilience and alternate energy. 

This paper integrates all those thematic interventions, through a systems thinking approach, and positions them as enablers for transiting towards carbon neutrality. These interventions qualify as mitigation and adaptation both. Thereby, it also breaks the stereotype of ‘either/or’ and highlights the synergies between mitigation and adaptation.

It presents a scenario where social, technological and environmental interventions could potentially mitigate emissions, strengthen sinks and ultimately enable them to reach equilibrium.

With the risk of ‘runaway climate change’ increasing, I personally think lot of bottom up pilots need to be done in order to demonstrate that carbon neutrality could be achieved. Relatively soon and we need not wait till year 2100 (as science and models suggest). 

It is the need of the hour! By design or destiny… 

I hope you like reading the paper!.

Paper Link: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/110/07/1208.pdf  

Presentations

These are a set of presentations on various topics which I have presented at different forums. It is being made freely available for non commercial use and source attribution would be highly appreciated. For any questions, clarifications or corrections please write to me.

Source: Presentations

The Idea of Localisation

Here is a note on my views of localization and why it is an effective way of achieving a sustainable society.

I welcome reader’s comments on this.

Vision: Communities thrive on resilient exchange of local goods and services in sustainable ecosystems for their overall well-being.
Mission: Enable social transformation towards more localized economy through regeneration and conservation of ecosystems and creation of local green jobs

Why go local?
Many reasons,
a. Learning is a feedback process. Behavior would modify if we receive feedback on our actions in relatively short time. Eg. While driving a vehicle the speedometer provides a feedback, similarly the fuel gauge also provides a feedback where we can take proactive steps to refuel in time. On these lines if our daily actions start providing us with feedback it will help us to be aware of the consequences our actions would have and affect behavior modification. Hence, it is important to collapse the space time between cause and effect. This is not possible if distant actions affect remote communities and ecosystems much beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of the people living in those places. This delay creates blindness and hence restricts their learning process and awareness towards the consequences of their actions. The large delay involved between the unsustainable consumption practice and its impact on environment could very well close the window of opportunity where proactive actions could be taken to recover the situation or adapt to it. Thus it is important to go local and as much as possible have a close loop economy where what goes comes back in relatively short time. This could enable a self-governing system.
b. Complexity needs to be managed and harnessed. Tools which help us analyze data and make sense are good to understand situations which we don’t know. But at least here we are aware that we don’t know. Hence, it can be known through use of methods, tools, technology etc. But what happens when we don’t even know that we don’t know? The current situation of climate change, ecosystems degradation, governance issues, and economic uncertainty is interrelated, interconnected and interdepended in nature. I am not very sure how the tools which we use to understand complicated stuff would work in this complex situation. Hence, if the world is banking on technology, mathematical modeling and other forecasting tools to help us understand what we don’t know then it could be a recipe of disaster. The world has become too interconnected for us to comprehend its mischievous nature. Thus we need to decouple and start working with subsystems. We have to first make it manageable and then harness the complexity involved in it. Thus, going local is more manageable to develop models of change which may get adapted when the time comes.
c. Many subsystems make up the entire system. Top down approaches for development and policy often get disconnected with the local context. Hence set of best practices does not account for local diversity rather it relies on standardizing practices and one size must fit all type of approach. Rather a bottom up approach which self optimizes itself over a period of time would ideally take into account the local diversity and priorities. Policies and practices evolving from ground could have more acceptance and endurance as compared to top down planning.
How to go local?
a. Local but not isolated. Going local does not imply cutting ourselves from the external environment. It does not imply boycotting or living on isolated territories. In fact 100% local would not allow for risk transfers to take place through exchange of resources. Thus, it is only advisable to have semi closed economy where local substitution takes place for goods and services which are consistent with local priorities and are feasible in the near term.
b. Import substitution. Participatory appraisal would be the key for deciding on what to substitute, what resources are required for that substitution to take place, what their state is and how to maintain or achieve the desired state.
c. Green jobs. In most likelihood the state of local ecosystem and ecosystem services would be below the threshold for their sustainable consumption. Thus, it could very well be the case where regenerating and conserving ecosystems becomes the immediate action and people, institutions engaged in these activities earn their livelihood by providing their services. These could also be termed as local green jobs. It is of utmost importance that they earn through regeneration and conservation of ecosystems since this would provide them immediate incentives instead of motivating them for long term anticipated benefits.
d. Local currency. If green jobs are to be paid then a local revolving fund where the medium of exchange is not rupee but a local currency which cannot be used outside the locally decided boundaries but can be used for purchase and sale of local goods and services can be established. This initial infusion would then keep revolving within the community through exchange and transaction of local goods and services. But we will have to put more thought on the design of such a system.
e. Building credibility. Going local may not be the solution to all the problems and that’s not the idea of localization. It has to be seen as a systemic response to the multiple stresses of resource depletion, climate change and macroeconomic oscillations. The objective is to establish a proof of concept and test our assumptions in a safe manner. Most of our learning would come from failures and the pedagogy would evolve as we keep experimenting. Hence, the project should be done in the spirit of experimentation and not to prove success. We should seek to build credibility of the approach/concept and enhance our own understanding in an evolutionary manner.
f. Safe fail approach. It is only ethical that the size and nature of interventions should be such that even if they fail they don’t hurt the community or cause long term damage. They have to be small, diverse and must be developed in participatory manner.

Low Carbon Pathways are not enough…. Consumption Cuts a Must!

The article, which we published recently, argues that:

  • Economic growth based on consumption is dependent on the exploitation of natural resources
  • Sustainable development demands lifestyle changes as much as technology and innovation
  • De-growth of the wealthiest economies rather than clean technology is the need of the hour

Aricle Link: http://www.scidev.net/south-asia/sdgs/opinion/sustainable-development-and-de-growth.html

Local Exchange Systems – Building Resilience

Local Exchange Systems

Here (above link) is a discussion paper, “Local Exchange Systems – Designing Community Incentives” which pitches localisation as one of the systemic and strategic ways of building adaptive capacity of communities towards climate change and potential risks of economic globalization. This was part of my Climate Change Adaptation work at WOTR (www.wotr.org)

It examines the role of alternative economics to provide incentives in form of coupons, vouchers, tokens, rewards etc. to people for ecosystem regeneration, local production and consumption of goods and services. The objective of the paper is to facilitate a discussion on the potential local economics holds in building adaptive capacities of communities to facilitate adaptation.

Lets create a discussion thread on this!!

Below is the abstract of the paper:

Abstract: Economic Globalization in its current form is a centralizing juggernaut which often causes large-scale resource depletion in remote eco-systems, unpredictable price variations in essential commodities and lead to macroeconomic upheaval. Coupled with this is the potential of widespread impacts of Climate Change which increases the vulnerability of human settlements especially the resource poor within. In context of the dual risks of economic globalization and climate change, Localisation appears to be the most systemic response mechanism. Localisation is the manifestation of a decentralized, democratized economy that allows communities to develop ecosystems based Climate Resilient Economies.