On August 1, 2019, tonnes of melting water formed on an ice sheet in western Greenland and drained into a moulin – a hole within a glacier /ice sheet from which water from the surface enters the ocean or is contained within a crevasse. July’s heat wave in Europe spread to Greenland and melted the island’s ice sheet, causing massive ice loss in the Arctic. Greenland lies between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans; 82 per cent of its surface is covered in ice.
The melt has been increasing daily; the Danish Meteorological Institute said that in July, Greenland lost 197 billion tonnes of ice, and the loss will increase due to the arrival of warm air from North Africa and Spain that caused heat waves in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Britain. In Russia, forest fires have destroyed nearly 30,000 square kilometers of land in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Greenland also had a plethora of Arctic wildfires.
While melt can refreeze on the ice sheet, experts say man-made climate change can cause permanent loss of ice. The UN World Meteorological Organization states that the rise of global temperatures has caused extreme heat waves to occur at least ten times more frequently than a century ago. The world can no longer afford the luxury of climate change denial.
Given the urgency of the matter, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and six European think tanks are asking transnational corporations to make investment decisions factoring the 1.5 degree window for global warming. In a policy paper on Climate Justice, prepared for the UN Climate Action Summit New York (September 23, 2019), they suggest that the UN include fair transition plans while preparing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Parties to the Paris agreement should commit to these transition plans to help foster a New Global Social-Ecological Contract, whilst phasing out fossil fuels and moving towards a de-carbonised society.
FEPS moots climate-proof global investment, finance and trade. To stimulate systemic change for a planet- and people-centric approach to climate investment, it suggests that governments at all levels implement measures including tax justice, committing to climate- and social-friendly procurement standards, incentivising sustainable modes of transport and introducing an internationally agreed levy on airline fuels. Countries and businesses should agree to carbon disclosure and facilitate direct support for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises to invest in green and social initiatives.
The paper suggests involving young people in decision-making through green youth councils and greater civic participation. An international framework for sustainability and environmental rights, including recognition for environmental defenders and climate-displaced persons, is an urgent imperative. Nationally Determined Contributions must include nature-based solutions as the most cost-effective way of mitigation and adaptation. Governments must guarantee the autonomy of indigenous people and traditional communities over their territories in order to better value nature.
Chaired by Teresa Ribera, Minister for Ecological Transition in Spain, the FEPS approached stakeholders from across the world, including policy experts, academics, political, civil society and business representatives to formulate recommendations for rapid de-carbonisation and global economic equality. Political leaders and powerful corporations must acknowledge the current climate emergency. The target of 1.5 degree Celsius can no longer be deferred; the world must achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, for which governments and transnational corporations must find the political will and funds.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report 2019 warns that global warming will impact food production, aggravate freshwater shortages and loss of permanent vegetation, cause wildfires and permafrost thawing, and declines in crop yields, thus making famines more widespread. Moreover, higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will change plant chemistry and make food less nutritious.
The IPCC report stresses the need to curb meat consumption to reduce methane emissions; nearly 70 per cent of methane comes from cattle, sheep, and rice fields. This is aggravated by deforestation and loss of peat lands, even as intensive agriculture increases soil erosion and loss of organic material in soils. Hence, peat lands (critical for preserving global biodiversity, providing safe drinking water, minimizing floods, and sequestering carbon dioxide) must be restored on war footing. The world must shift towards vegetarian and vegan diets (coarse grains, pulses and vegetables, nuts and seeds).
Global temperatures cannot be controlled unless the world changes the way it produces food and manages land. Far too much land is under agriculture and use of artificial fertilisers like nitrous oxide intensifies the greenhouse effect. The destruction of tropical rainforests to grow palm oil is especially calamitous, and over the past two decades has caused the death of almost one lakh orangutans, while posing serious risks to elephants, rhinos and tigers.
The problems are likely to worsen as “climate change exacerbates land degradation through increases in rainfall intensity, flooding, drought frequency and severity, heat stress, wind, sea-level rise and wave action”. Warning that mankind is close to the tipping point for climate destabilisation, the IPCC insists that land will have to be managed more sustainably so that it releases less carbon than at present.
The United Kingdom’s Committee on Climate Change moots a net-zero emissions target via 20 per cent reduction in consumption of beef, lamb and dairy to release more land for forests and peat land restoration. Afforestation of 30,000 hectares a year, increasing woodland cover from 13 to 17 per cent, would capture 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in trees. The G7 declaration from Biarritz, France, also urged stricter curbs on beef, soy, minerals and other products from areas affected by deforestation.
US President Donald Trump skipped the Biarritz session on climate and biodiversity (Aug. 26), though the summit pledged $ 20 million to fight the Amazon wildfires and find new ways to cut carbon emissions. French President Emmanuel Macron, who put climate centre stage, called Amazon the “lungs” of the planet and said similar help is being considered for African rainforests. With Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate skeptic, resenting charges of encouraging deforestation as many fires were purposely set to clear the land, Chile President Sebastián Piñera stepped in to mollify him. It took enormous international pressure before Bolsonaro sent two C-130 Hercules aircraft to douse the Amazon fires, and if the rainforest is to be reforested, as UN is likely to discuss in 2020, it would need the cooperation of Bolsonaro and the local communities.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal)
The Pioneer, 3 September 2019