Dr Surjit Singh Bhatti, Formerly Professor & Head, Physics & Dean, Faculty of Sciences, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar (India).
The world has faced several natural calamities in the past like droughts, famines, epidemics, earthquakes, wildfires, flooding and more. These were confined to limited regions of the Earth. Today, this planet as a whole is besieged by an imminent peril which is assuming monstrous proportions with every passing day. It is not a sudden phenomenon. We have since long been inviting this disaster, particularly during the last two centuries. This peril is the devastating climate change due to global warming being produced by harmful greenhouse gases. These include carbon dioxide, methane, chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs), hydro-fluorocarbons (HFCs), nitrous oxide, water vapor and ozone.
Global Warming due to greenhouse gases (GHG)
Greenhouse gases absorb Sun’s rays (in Infra-red or IR range) during the day but re-emit only a small fraction into the atmosphere at night. The trapped radiations begin to heat the Earth. Carbon dioxide (CO2) comes from decaying and living systems, burning of fossil fuels and volcanoes. Methane (CH4) is released from wetlands, rice fields, cattle yards and coal mines. It is several times more effective than carbon dioxide in causing warming. Nitrous oxide (N2O) is part of the Nitrogen cycle where-in it passes from air to soil to living organisms and back to air. It is produced by bacteria in soil and the oceans.
The HFCs and CFCs are produced in air-conditioners, refrigerators, propellants, fire extinguishers and the fire-suppression systems in aircrafts. They deplete the ozone layer which protects the Earth from Ultra-Violet (UV) rays. Under international agreements, called the Montreal Protocol, these have to be destroyed by incineration. Some of them are thousands of times more harmful than carbon dioxide. They release heat energy that changes circulation patterns of winds, affecting precipitation. Carbon dioxide stays in atmosphere for years even after burning of fossil fuels is stopped.
Universe is Cooling but Earth is Warming
It is ironic that while the universe as whole is cooling but the Earth is getting warmer. Temperature of the universe at the time of its creation is estimated to be about 5.5 billion degrees Celsius, after the Big Bang took place, nearly 13.8 billion years ago. The steep fall of temperature thereafter was result of the huge expansion, due to continuing recession of the galaxies with time. Obviously, the rise in temperature of the Earth is a result of irresponsible and irreversible human activities.
Consequences of Global Warming
2019 was the second hottest in the last 140 years. 2020 and the coming years will be even hotter. It was for the first time in history that Alaska’s temperature went above freezing. The temperature will rise in future also unless controlled. It is being said that planet Earth has fever, which is increasing. Warm air absorbs more moisture out of soils and trees. Dry trees get more inflammable and are attacked easily by insects, increasing the number of dead trees with higher fire risk, frequency and duration. The forests burned have to bear the consequences for centuries as hot weather makes fires harder to suppress and reseeding difficult.
Human Energy Requirements and GHG Pollution
Increasing human energy needs had induced climate change about 5,000 years ago, with extensive agriculture in Middle East, China and North, Central and South America. This led to production of huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Burning wood and coal and clearing of land for farming and human settlements impacted bio-diversity and ecosystem functioning. Energy required for the increasing population (likely to increase from nearly 7.8 billion today to 11 billion by 2100) and the accompanying digital revolution are leading to further rise in greenhouse gases. The burgeoning energy needs of the expanding road and rail transport and aircraft industries are the other contributing factors.
Deforestation Resulting in Global Warming
Trees absorb carbon dioxide and water vapor from air and release oxygen during sunlight. This is known as Photosynthesis. Nearly one third of the Earth’s surface was covered with forests in the Pre-Industrial era but this area of about 15 billion acres has been reduced to about 10 billion acres due to felling of trees. Deforestation is highest in parts of Africa, South America and Asia, producing more of carbon dioxide and climate change.
Climate Change on Global Agenda
An Earth Day has been earmarked every year by Earth Day Network Organization, to focus on factors like ravages of massive oil spills, pollution from traffic and factories, raw sewages, toxic garbage dumps and poisonous gases destroying wildlife, air and water. In 1970, Clean Air, Water and Endangered Species (Protection) Acts were passed in America. The issue came up at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro UN Earth Summit. It is now on the world political agenda and media is taking serious note of it. Pope Francis has warned the world in these words “Our children and grandchildren should not have to pay the cost of our generation’s irresponsibility”. The Swedish Climate Change Activist Greta Thunberg has been declared the “Times Person of the Year”. Electorates in some of the forthcomings elections in some countries are now demanding perceptible, coordinated action within their own countries as well as at the global platforms.
Fate of the Paris Agreement (2015)
Representatives of 196 countries attended this conference to reach an Agreement (within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) to prevent the temperature of the Earth from rising more than 2.0 degrees Celsius (0C) above pre-industrial levels (mid-to late 1800s). By 2020, the goal was to stabilize temperature at about 1.5 0C by reducing the greenhouse gases. However, the current global temperature is already more than 1.6 0C above the proposed target, which seems un-achievable. Global warming is already being seen in the collapsing eco-system, scorching heat waves, melting of more glaciers, horrid wildfires, stronger storms, heavy downpours, floods and rising seawater level.
Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS-25) 2019
After Paris Conference, another attempt was made to agree to contain jointly the emission of greenhouse gases. The COPS-25 Conference was held at Madrid (Spain), by the UN Committee on Climate Change, in December 2019. Efforts were made to iron out the conflicting perceptions of the 200 participating countries and arrive at a consensus. However, there was no agreement on some issues and the conference was a near failure.
The Raging Australian Wildfires (2019-20)
Australia is experiencing unprecedented devastating fires due to global warming. About 25 million acres of forests have been burnt and thousands of homes and innumerable flora and fauna have been destroyed. There were scanty rains leading to the worst drought in last one century, particularly in Eastern and Southern regions. Gigatons of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases are belching out from the mines. Convection currents are set up in the country’s surrounding oceans due to unusual heating. Such conditions were ideal for forests to get ignited. Forest fires have caused huge damage in recent past in other countries too. Fires have struck in parts of Canada, California, Brazil, Borneo, Greece, Portugal, Amazon, Boreal forests, Alaska and Siberia. There have been huge fires even in places where people thought fires were not possible. Now, all parts of the world are considered vulnerable and no region is safe.
Global Warming causing Meltdown of Glaciers
The heat waves that raised the temperatures in parts of Europe during mid-2019, later swept across Greenland. This island, lying between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, had more than three-fourth of its area covered with ice. More than half of this ice, about 10 billion tons, has already been lost. Its temperature has risen by 2 0C above the normal, which makes this polar region hottest during the last 10,000 years. The sea level is projected to rise another one to four feet by 2100 as a result of melting of ice. If all the ice in the glaciers were to melt, water-level in the oceans can rise by about 70 meters and major source of fresh water in many parts of the world would vanish. The temperature of Antarctica has also risen to the all-time high value of 64.9 F (18.3 C).
Human Refugees due to Climate Change
Millions of people are being driven out from their homes by the effects of climate changes. These people are moving, against their will, to escape droughts, wildfires like those in Australia, rising seas drowning coastal areas and low-lying islands and the destruction of crops due to flooding of rivers. Already, nearly 70 million people have been displaced. Legal questions are becoming more complicated. So far, mainly Turkey has helped more than four million such refugees. Many countries have increased the carbon tax already levied on carbon dioxide emissions from industries burning fossil fuels.
Diseases due to refugee Insects, Birds and Animals
Increasing human urbanization is leading to destruction of the natural habitat of several living beings. This influences the normal life cycles of many species of insects, birds and wild animals. Their interactions with human beings are, therefore, increasing. Many diseases are thus being transmitted from wild creatures to human settlements. Some of these diseases had taken pandemic dimensions in the past. Corona virus is yet another example of such transmissions of diseases to human beings.
Bumblebees spread pollen and fertilize many flora and agricultural crops like tomatoes and blueberries. It is found that during the last about 50 years their numbers have dwindled to nearly half.
Likelihood of Conflicts due to Climate Change
Many people fear that the adverse effects of climate change may lead to conflicts in future which can result in wars. As some areas become uninhabitable because of serious and recurrent droughts and famines or unseasonal rains and floods, people would be forced to move to safer lands. This will lead to resentments and fears of losing jobs among the original settlers. The consequent land-related and other disputes and violence would escalate gradually into wider conflicts. Ethnic differences, religious angles and poverty can pour oil on these smoldering fires. Bad governance and greed for usurping natural resources of other countries can ultimately give rise to wars.
Greenhouse Gases due to Home Heating / Cooling
North America and European countries are trying to phase out natural gas-based heating of buildings, to reduce CO2 emissions. About half of Canada’s greenhouse gases come from burning fossil fuels to generate heat in winters. Leakages from furnaces and inefficient insulation of buildings also cause emissions. People are now looking to electrical, geothermal and solar heating procedures. Stand-alone passive solar panels are being installed to produce energy required in each building.
Effect of Transportation – Electric Vehicles and Aircrafts
Transportation by road, rail and air is responsible for the addition of millions of tons of greenhouse gases to the environment every day. Efforts are now afoot all over the world to replace fossil fuels with electricity as source of power. Air travel industry, with more than four billion passengers per year, is contributing substantially to the greenhouse gases today. The number of passengers is expected to double by 2040. On ground, every liter of liquid fuel (of fossil origin) being used today in cars or trucks is generating two to three kilograms of the greenhouse gases. About one-third of the greenhouse gases in Canada are being produced by its surface transport. All-Electric and more efficient engines for all modes of transportation are at present the main hope of the future.
Canadian Scenario and Efforts to Reduce Emissions
Canada is warming up at nearly twice the global rate and the climate change is clearly visible in the extreme heat and precipitation, and the devastating fires in Fort McMurray (1916) and some other places. Northern temperatures are rising faster compared to the average rate of rise of temperature of the rest of the Earth. Canada’s Climate Change Report (2019) says the glaciers in the country’s North will lose upwards of 75 % of their volume by 2100 and may lead to a large rise in the seawater level. North America has already lost more than three billion birds of about a 100 species since 1970 due to loss of their habitat when wildfires burnt large parts of the forests. This loss is about two thirds of their total number before the climate changes took place. Canada’s Arctic birds and the Boreal birds are among the main victims of this man-made calamity. Several plant and animal species have also disappeared for similar reasons.
Canada has set up the Alberta Zero-emission Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZTEC) where research is focused on replacing the conventional polluting liquid fuel oils by the clean hydrogen fuel. Alberta’s large deposits of oil sands are now proposed to be used for extracting hydrogen fuel. The carbon isolated in this process will be dumped back into the oil sands mines. Work in this direction is underway at the University of Calgary’s Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research (CESAR) project. It is proposed to start hydrogen-fueled trucks moving between Calgary and Edmonton by 2021. The cost of producing hydrogen fuel will be lower compared to present cost of producing diesel and petrol from oil sands.
Canada sets up a Climate Institute (2020)
A new Canadian Institute for Climate Choices (CICC) has been established recently as an independent think tank. The aim is to develop a roadmap for Canada to tackle the Climate Change Crisis. The issues connected with this imminent global disaster are getting complicated because climate changes have wide global impact. These issues cannot be neglected any longer. Hence, this Institute assumes immense importance not only for Canada but also for the world as a whole. The world has to tackle this problem unitedly, before it is too late. The damage today is only a tip of the iceberg. Complacency can lead to disaster reminiscent of the historic Titanic.
Let us learn to appreciate there will be times when the trees will be bare and look forward to the time when we may pick the fruit. ANTON CHEKHOV (Russian writer) ………………………………………………………………………………………………