In the lead-up to the World Environment Day 2008, Ban Ki-Moon , the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations (2007-2016), said with sheer dissatisfaction, "Addiction is a terrible thing. It consumes and controls us, makes us deny important truths and blinds us to the consequences of our actions.
Our world is in the grip of a dangerous carbon habit," to echo the theme of the day, 'Kick the habit - Towards a low carbon economy.'
Fourteen years down the line, the highest level of carbon particles is present in the atmosphere today. Thanks to increasing development, the pursuit of comfort and individual luxury, and often the denial to curb carbon emissions, the world is setting new records for climate change-induced adversities almost every year.
The recent heat waves and record rainfalls in South Asia provide a glimpse of the challenging future that lies ahead and are a reminder that we are not resolute enough to battle a stubborn problem: climate change. The apparent concern now is "are we fighting a losing battle against climate change?"
The heat waves in this sub-continent are not uncommon. Nearly every year, millions of people of the sub-continent experience pre-monsoon heat waves during May. However, as reported in the media, the heat wave that struck as early as March this year in India and Pakistan, with temperature reaching over 50° C, is something never seen during the past 122 years. Scientists have found the linkage to human interference in climate to cause this extreme heat wave in the sub-continent.
In a recent journal article published in Nature, researchers have concluded that climate change has increased the likelihood of such extreme heat waves in India and Pakistan in 2022 by a factor of about 30.
Other parts of the world, including Bangladesh, are also encountering heat waves. Without proper action plans, which many countries currently lack, people will find it problematic to adapt. The extreme heat affects the natural evaporative cooling process of human bodies. For instance, when a human sweats, the body heat helps sweat to convert into water vapor, causing evaporation to take place. As the evaporation process progresses, the human body cools and feels better.
However, since warmer air holds more moisture, resulting in increased humidity, the natural evaporation of sweat may slow down at higher temperature, posing greater health risks. While this will tempt more people to buy air coolers, many will still not be able to afford air coolers.
The other side of the story is a paradox – the growing number of air coolers will only shoot up the consumption of electricity, releasing more carbon and making the climate battle even more arduous.
The other event in the region that has obviously caught global attention is the flood of June 2022 that inundated the Sylhet region of Bangladesh, affecting the lives of 2 million people. The region normally sees flash floods every year with varying levels of impact on lives and livelihoods. But this year, the record-breaking rainfall in Cherrapunji, India, has found people of the Sylhet region of Bangladesh off-guard with disrupted communication systems, power outages and a shortage of essential supplies. On the basis of past data, the finger has been pointed to climate change that has possibly intensified the rain.
Elsewhere in the world, there is no shortage of climate change-induced extreme events, be that in America, Europe or other regions. While we are in a 1.1° C warmer world compared to pre-industrial levels, the extreme events have already reached alarming proportions. Worryingly, with the foreseen greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation efforts, global warming will reach beyond 2.7° C, which is likely to make the world more catastrophic to live in than at present.
The situation, therefore, looks extremely gloomy. It brings forth the same question – on the climate change front, are we fighting a losing battle? Of course, due to carbon emissions and our dilly-dally approaches, some of the extreme events have become unavoidable. We have waited too long to respond and when we take measures, they appear to be too little.
However, amid all the uncertainties and inevitable extreme events, attaining a 1.5° C goal is still a possibility. Indeed, in a 1.5° C warmer world, the frequency and intensity of extreme events will be less than those of 2.7° C. Many GHG mitigation technologies are already proven to play important roles in our quest to limit warming to within 1.5° C and are financially viable.
Some costly technologies are experiencing falling prices and are likely to be feasible in a few years. Technological breakthroughs are also expected. Hence, swift mitigation actions can realistically contain global warming within 1.5° C, limiting the risks.
On the other side of the coin, solutions for adaptation are available and there is no stopping of innovation. Nature-based solutions, green infrastructures, etc can help reduce the impacts of extreme weather events. Prudent and timely measures can save costly infrastructures too.
For a long time, we have underestimated the cost of extreme events. Perhaps, it is high time that the countries strengthened early warning systems to allow them to take precautionary measures and devised extreme event-related action plans to mitigate both health and financial risks.
Finally, to touch upon our carbon addiction, it is all-important to revisit the individual pattern of energy and resource consumption and to have a proportionate willingness to act to rectify the wrong. It seems the young generation is very much aware of the oncoming apocalypse of climate change and is persistent, they can surely accelerate action to tame climate change in the years to come. They are leaving no stone unturned to ensure that their voices don't fall on deaf ears. Therefore, in the climate battle, despite all the despair, there are reasons to be optimistic.
Shafiqul Alam is an environmental economist. He is a clean energy fellow of the National Bureau of Asian Research, US.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.