As the next fortnightly UN led high-level talks on climate change go into strides in Doha, two contradictory trends are obvious: unequivocal scientific evidence confirming that global warming is now proceeding at a breakneck speed and the climate talks meant to alter this dangerous trajectory are trailing miles behind. Unchecked, the door to staying below a two-degree temperature increase could shut permanently and as soon as 2015.
A possible reality of living in a world with a four-degree Celsius temperature increase should hit us hard. This scenario is no longer distant or unrealistic. It could happen in our lifetime, given the abysmally low emission reduction efforts from the developed world. Despite scientific evidence, acceding parties to the Kyoto Protocol wish to lock-in lesser emission reduction (12-18 per cent) than what science requires (25-40 per cent) over a longer period; eight years versus what the Protocol says: five years.
No wonder small island nations states are clamouring that the resulting sea level rise from melting ice and glaciers would eliminate many of them from the face of this earth; the 2010 heatwave in Russia is attributed to killing nearly 55,000 people and costing $15 billion in damages. Floods in Pakistan would occur more frequently and unpredictably. Hurricanes and storms in the US would be more intense than Sandy. Recurring cyclone and flooding in the Philippine Archipelago would force people to migrate elsewhere and ice sheets melting in the Arctic would release tens of billions of trapped carbon dioxide.
The ensuing unstoppable warming would actually commit the world to six degrees Celsius or more, says the World Bank’s recently-commissioned report. The definition of success at the Doha climate talks, therefore, cannot be registering low-level pledges by the developed world, which already exist under their national laws. These emission reduction pledges are bound to be fulfilled, notwithstanding inscription in Kyoto Protocol. Success at Doha is about constructing a long-term pathway to avert the perilous four to six per cent temperature increase, saving the small islands from extinction, reducing the possibility of a dangerous nine-degree Celsius temperature increase in the Mediterranean and the Middle East during July, sustaining food security in Africa where 15 per cent of its cropland would be threatened with drought and building resilience against impending water stresses in South Asia housing more than two billion people.
There is no mystery as to what would constitute such a pathway: higher emission reduction pledges from the developed world in the range of 40-50 per cent by 2020 and certainty in delivery of commitments to the promised $100 billion by 2020 in finance to the developing world, including pledges to the tune of $10-15 billion into the Green Climate Fund, which still remains empty three years after its creation and is weakening trust between parties.
Unfortunately, it is no secret that we are far from a political equilibrium in setting these goals, let alone achieving them. It is scary to note the limitation in our understanding of the impact of current 0.8 per cent mean global temperature increase with the sudden disappearance of the Greenland’s ice sheet in four days in July this year — a picture which some thought resulted from an error in satellite monitoring. The only conclusion one can draw from such intense events is our inability to fathom the extent and depth of climatic changes we will face in a two-degree Celsius, let alone a higher temperature increase.
Climate change will not wait for political realisation in Pakistan where policymakers are still grappling with the enormity of the threat that the country faces. There is an urgent need to integrate climate change impacts in our economic and planning frameworks. Just imagine if a storm like Sandy were to hit a developing country like Pakistan. Millions of lives would be lost.
Ordinarily, the Doha climate talks could be a one-off event whose success would not matter in the 20-year-old quest for a regime against the ever-growing threat of climate change. However, the window of opportunity is so small now that every misstep or lack of action could put the world in uncharted territory. History will judge the Qatari leadership at the 18th Conference of the Parties on very harsh terms.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2012.