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Five years since Paris Accord: Are we any better?

Global warming and rise in sea level

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris Accord hammered out by more than 190 countries at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21). The core objective of the accord is to save humanity from the existential threat posed by climate change. To that end, the participating nations agreed to keep the increase in the average global temperature to within 2 degrees Celsius while endeavouring to limit it to 1.5 degrees by the year 2100. Besides pledging to temper the rise in temperature, they agreed to restructure the global economy, phase out fossil fuels over the coming decades, switch to renewable sources of energy, embrace clean technology, and most importantly, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

The Accord gives every country the ability to set its own goals to confront the climate crisis, in line with their specific situation. Moreover, instead of demanding expeditious and deep cuts in fossil fuel usage, it allows parties to peak greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” followed by a gradual decrease in order to reach the zero emissions goal. It is patently evident that such a vague timetable fits the interests of the major polluters, including the United States, China and India. Nevertheless, beginning this year, each nation is required to reassess its own reduction plans once every five years. However, there is no consequence or penalty if a country fails to reassess or falls short of the pledged reductions.

The Accord also requires nations to address “loss and damage” caused by climate impacts. Since the wealthy, industrialised nations are largely responsible for the backlog of climate changing emissions lingering in the atmosphere, they should compensate poorer nations for unavoidable loss and damage. But even after COP25 held in Madrid last year (2019), wealthy nations are playing Jekyll and Hyde roles—promising to cover losses while dragging their feet on providing new finance.

We are now a full five years into the Paris Accord which, according to the former US President Barack Obama, is supposed to make the “world safer and more secure, more prosperous and more free.” Are we really on course to transform our planet into one as envisioned by Obama? Are we winning the race against climate change? Did we succeed in slowing down the damage resulting from climate change? By all accounts, the Accord did not make an iota of difference in decelerating the progression of our planet, and subsequently our civilisation, toward climatic meltdown. On the contrary, climate change and its deleterious effects are accelerating, with climate-related catastrophes piling up, year after year.

Our planet is now almost at the breaking point. The environmental changes sweeping across the world are occurring at a much quicker pace than five years ago. As the Earth warms, we are witnessing more cataclysmic wildfires turning forests into carbon dioxide emitters, not to mention calamitous floods inundating nearly half of landmasses in countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Thailand and so forth. Persistent droughts, fierce storms and an increase in extreme weather phenomena—derecho, microburst, bombogenesis, Frankenstorm and many more—are on the rise. The fingerprints of climate change since 2015 can also be seen in the exacerbation of internal and international migration patterns of climate refugees.

Scorching heat waves, of all places, in the Arctic region, are now more frequent and long-lasting. It is quite likely that 2020 will be among the hottest years ever, even with the cooling effect of this year’s La Niña. Seas are warming and rising faster, putting more coastal cities at risk of going under acidic water. Warmer waters are wreaking havoc on marine organisms forcing them to migrate away from their familiar habitats. Glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, thus disrupting availability of freshwater.

Climate-induced mayhem is taking a heavy toll on the Arctic region. The amount of Arctic sea ice whose whiteness normally acts as a natural reflector of heat back out of the atmosphere is dwindling so rapidly that the region may soon become ice-free. Loss of ice is also changing the Arctic terrain—making it greener and prettier, but at the expense of releasing copious amounts of carbon dioxide and methane trapped in the frozen soil, which in turn is making global warming even worse. Additionally, scientists have found evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean, worrisomely called the “sleeping giant of the carbon cycle,” are escaping into the atmosphere. In fact, northern landscapes are undergoing massive change, with potential ramifications not just for the Arctic itself, but the world as a whole.

Permafrost in cold climate countries is thawing at breakneck speed, releasing, just like Arctic ice, large amounts of long-stored carbon dioxide and methane. In addition, viruses and bacteria that had been buried under the permafrost for thousands of years are being released into the environment, posing health risks to humans and other forms of life. Also, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, a vital carbon sink that retards the momentum of global warming, has surged to its highest level since 2008.

As for peaking of emissions, there is a cavernous gap between the sharp cuts in emissions required to meet the goals of the Paris Accord and current projections. In a recent report, World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations, states, “There is no sign of slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement.” Rather, emissions from just about every country are still on the rise, thereby making it difficult to close the gap so as to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

The report further notes that even the coronavirus-related drop in emissions failed to make much of a dent in the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Consequently, WMO warns that the world risks becoming an “uninhabitable hell” for millions unless we drastically cut emissions—by at least 7.2 percent every 10 years if we want to keep the rise in temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius. Otherwise, we will soon be north of 3 degrees Celsius.

The warning from WMO is corroborated by a study published last month in the British journal Scientific Reports, in which the authors assert that we have already passed the “point of no return for global warming.” The only way we can stop the warming, the authors say, is by extracting “enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

The Earth’s average temperature has already risen by roughly one degree since the advent of modern record keeping in 1880. The devastation caused by one degree rise clearly indicates that an additional 1.5 – 2 degrees Celsius rise before the end of this century will lock in the changes to the Earth’s climate system that will be beyond our adaptive capacity.

Five years ago, the then UN chief lauded the Paris Accord as a landmark agreement, a potent message from world leaders who had finally decided to take on climate change in earnest. Five years later, in a complete volte-face, the present UN chief, in a speech at Columbia University in New York, issued a searing indictment of our utter disregard for the pledges made in Paris. He said, “The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging a suicidal war on nature, facing new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation….”

So much for the Paris Accord! No wonder environmentalists believe that the Accord is meaningless, and with good reason. Indeed, the toothless, nonbinding, non-enforceable accord is an oversold empty promise—a gentleman’s handshake applauding the imposition of a global climate regime on humankind that is harming the planet in the name of saving it.

Finally, world leaders should realise that fixing the climate is not about making pretty promises at grandiose conferences held in glamorous cities. And if we rely on grandstanding and farcical Accords that give us false hopes, we will lose the race to keep our planet cool and habitable.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

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