Sunday, December 13, 2009

Global warming - What are the implications


Global warming – What are the implications?

One of the most pressing issue now and for decades to come is the emission of carbon or the green house gases. Perhaps the oft repeated term global warming is more familiar to the common man on the street. It simply means the average global temperature will rise all the way from the tropics to the poles. The more obvious implications are melting of the polar caps, bringing about the rise in sea level, the seas gets heated up faster than the landmass leading to a steeper pressure gradient. This would in turn lead to more frequent and violent hurricanes and typhoons and a more unpredictable climate. The long term consequence would be far more reaching as it will reduce agricultural productivity, diminishing marine resources and radically alters the biomes and changes the equilibrium of ecosystems.

By the past few years the atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached 387 ppm (0.038%). Human activities has since increased the level of carbon dioxide from 250 ppm in 1750 to the present level. This include deforestation especially of the rainforest (which serves as the most efficient carbon sink), the burning of fossil fuel and industrialization etc. It was earlier thought that we can still endure an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration below 450 ppm, but by now we realizes that we need to bring down the level to below 350 ppm before we pass the point of no return. Another threat would come from frozen methane which has been released into the atmosphere by the melting of ice sheets. We are seeing an increase in methane accelerated release from the high latitude tundra and the much larger reserve on continental shelves.

So far we can rest assured that changes to the climate is limited to the near term because of the climate system inertia. However, as the change continues to drive the climate to one extreme, the inertia becomes increasingly difficult to reverse direction.

In financial terms the scenario can be quite apocalyptic. If carbon emission are left unchecked, the damage to the environment would cost us up to 20% of the annual per capita income! Imagine the drop in the standard of living, we can never ever comprehend. Poorer countries would certainly bear the brunt and be worse off. Other predictions are less dramatic. They put the ‘social cost’ of extra tons of carbon, which would linger on for centuries anyway, would cost us up to 2.5% of the GDP, which is reasonable considering the annual global economic growth of 2 to 3%. To sum up, based on this wide ranging predictions, the true ‘social cost of carbon, emitters will have to bear would range anywhere from USD 300 to 2,500 per capita per annum. The basis of these predictions are the varied discount rates estimated by economists which is equivalent to the future interest rates. Even if the discount rate is zero percent, how would you value the cost in mitigating the impact of global warming in the future, for instance building a dyke or relocate a highway or an airport from the advancing shorelines.

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted with the objective of stabilizing the green house gas concentration in the atmosphere at a level that would slow down the impact of global warming. The protocol entered into force in 2005 and by 2009, 187 countries have signed and ratified the protocol. Under this protocol, 37 industrialized countries have committed themselves to reduce four GHG – green house gases (CO2 , Methane, nitrous oxide and sulphur hexafluoride) and two groups of gases (hydrofluorocarbon and perfluorocarbon). They set a target of reducing GHG by 5% lower than the 1990 level. One embarrassment though was the USA, a non-signatory to the Kyoto protocol. At present the US contributed close to 37% of the world GHG!

Perhaps it’s time to review the commitments of the Kyoto signatories on GHG emission control In the light of the Copenhagen communiqué on climate change. Most European countries have cut down their carbon emission by 2 to 3%. EU further commits to bring it down to 20% below the 1990 level by 2020 and will crank up its effort to 30%. EU has paved the way for the leadership in global climate change by generating USD 100 billion a year to subsidise developing countries to develop green technologies and to remove GHG by sequestration. In contrast, the US could barely commits USD 1 or 2 billion and even than there is no guarantee that the money will be forth coming. China at the present rate, contributes about one fifth of the global carbon, most comes from coal-fired driven technologies, is by far still the biggest carbon emitter, but this is quite normal for a developing country. Besides its population size is bigger than the US, Russia, India and Europe put together. Moreover despite of the 120% increase in carbon emission in the past decade, it is still lower than the US. And the good news is China is keen to cut down on pollution and GHG emission by investing in green novel technologies and ways of capturing carbon. India too has drawn up plan to cut down on emission. Brazil and Indonesia are committed to implement policies on GHG reduction by slowing down deforestation. Again the US would be the stumbling block at Copenhagen. The problem with the US is that any international treaty will not be adopted as the law of the States if it does not have two thirds of the Congress support. With 41% of the American public thought that the threat of global warming is an exaggeration, it is unlikely that Barrack Obama can make any pledge at Copenhagen. Like in any issues of international importance, economics, Science and ethics take the back seat in the US. Politics will have the last say.

I’ve thrown this issue to assess what should be our role as the muslim ummah? As khalifat-ul-ardh (vicegerent on earth), the muslim ummah ought to be at the forefront in addressing global warming. Perhaps we should draw up a strategy for a greater participation of the ummah at large for a behavioural readjustments to reduce carbon emission. Obviously it has to start with greater awareness of what the nasty effects of global warming can have on us and for the next generation.

Already 18 islands in the world has been inundated and another 2,000 are at the brink of disappearing below the ocean waves. Hurricanes and typhoons of categories 4 and 5 have doubled over the past few years. Humankind is certainly facing the greatest challenge yet to its wellbeing and survival.

Assoc. Prof. Dr Hafidzi Mohd Noor
Dept of Plant Protection
Fac. Agriculture
Univ. Putra Malaysia



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