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Climate Change - Will Our Leaders Show Some Courage One Last Time?

by Abhijit Bhattacharjee

posted in News and Society

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Climate change, we all know, is already here, and we are on course to march into a world warmer by at least 20 Celsius by the end of this century. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is bringing world leaders together in Paris from November 30 to December 11 this year to ink a new deal to address global warming. Scientists and environmentalists are urging that if the world is to have a reasonable chance of limiting global warming in this century to 2°C relative to the pre-industrial period, we must transition to a zero-carbon world by early in the second half of the century.
Do our world leaders have the same sense of urgency? Or do they have the courage to deliver radical measures that are needed?
Low-carbon economy does not have to mean contracting economies and human welfare, contrary to what our politicians fattened by generous donations from fossil fuel business would have us believe. The Western societies had a modest and healthier lifestyle in the 1960s and '70s. Overconsumption became a religion somewhere in the eighties and this fueled global warming as we began a systematic plunder of resources as if there were no tomorrow. Our welfare and social status began to be determined by our capacity to overconsume and expanding wastelines.
We have already released enough greenhouse-gas into the earth's atmosphere which, as scientist say, will start showing their warming effect in 30-40 years, and we are already on course to see a 20 warmer world by 2100, if not earlier. The call to move toward a zero-carbon economy to avert a more than 20 warming scenario may not be realistic now. It still is not a losing battle - if not zero-carbon, a much less-emitting economy than we have grown used to is possible if drastic actions are taken. And these are our only hopes to keep the planet habitable for Homo sapiens and other creations we cohabit with.
Much has been talked about renewable energy, but it still accounts for only about 11 percent of world's marketed energy consumption (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind) and this is an overestimate. At the current rate, it is projected to grow to only 15 percent by 2040. Despite all claims to the contrary, government policies often act as deterrent to investing in renewables. Fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of US$5.3 trillion a year, equivalent to US$10 million a minute every day, according to an estimate by the International Monetary Fund. This subsidy hides the true cost of fossil fuels and discourages investment in renewable energy. Current projections indicate that fossil fuels will continue to supply nearly 80 percent of global energy needs in 2040 - i.e., not much will change in the next quarter of the century.
If the Paris summit is to have any impact, our leaders need to commit to a timeline and process for gradual reduction in use of fossil fuels for energy by 2050, and increasing investment in renewables. And this is certainly possible if the trillions of dollars that go into subsidizing the fossil fuel sector were pumped into developing and expanding renewable clean energy on a much bigger scale than the half-hearted attempts being made now.
While this would deal with the supply side of energy, managing the demand side becomes equally important, something that has been conveniently left out of all discussions.
Just take one aspect of our lifestyle - the food we produce, eat and waste, for example.
The United Nations estimates food loss and waste to be 1.3 billion tonnes per year. This amounts to economic losses of US$ 750 billion each year - 95-115kg of food waste is produced per capita annually in developed regions such as Europe and North America. In developing nations such as Niger, Liberia and Bangladesh, 6-11kg of food waste is produced per capita annually. Food waste is food loss occurring during the retail and final consumption stages - i.e. food discarded by retailers because it's blemished, and the food left on our plates or thrown away by retailers and us because these are past their 'use by' dates. We have been conditioned to expect each fruit or vegetable that makes its way to our table to be of uniform colour, shape and size - anything not fitting into this description, though perfectly edible and nutritious otherwise - simply gets thrown away at farmers' gate level or by the supermarkets. In developing countries, the problem is more of post-harvest loss than of waste at retail and consumer level. Weak infrastructure and poor technology leads to a third of production losses during production and harvesting.
If we did not waste and fed all the food that is produced to people, the world could feed another 3.5 billion people. Yet about 900 million people suffer from chronic hunger and a billion are overweight. In monetary terms, the financial costs of total food wastage amount to about US$1trillion each year. If one takes into account the full costs, including environmental and social costs of food wastage, this amounts to about 2.6 trillion US$ per year. The same estimated the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten to be 3.3 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent, without accounting for emissions from land use change (like deforestation to grow soy in Brazil for example), making food wastage the third top emitter after USA and China.
What has been currently missing in all conversations, policy discussions and international protocols on climate change is the centrality of lifestyle change. If we all continue to hanker after the big mac-burger and the juicy steak flown across continents, the neatly packaged exotic fruit one had never seen before, four cars for each family and the latest model of the smartest phone only to be discarded every six months, and continue to pile waste as we do now, we shall all heat up the planet by anything between 1.4° to 6.4° C between 1990 and 2100, according to one UN report.
Jimmy Carter, the former President of the United States showed some courage when, nearly four decades ago, he decried America's culture of greed when he said: "... too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption". He paid a heavy price.
Will our leaders show some courage as time is running out?
Next few months will show.
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