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Planet in Peril

Saving Humans from Themselves

Everybody is talking about climate change and the need for green energy production, in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions. I want to demonstrate the link between greenhouse gas emissions, carbon foot prints, and their inexorable link to economies. I want to show why climate change, to some countries at least, there are very limited options for tools to fight the problem. But, first, if you allow me, I want to recapitulate some basic facts on climate change as they are known within the scientific community and to the general public.

Climate change refers to changes in regional and global climate trends, and the best available evidence suggests the pattern dramatically changed in the mid 20th century which, coincidentally enough, falls within the industrial revolution era. It's thought a sharp increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has helped to speed up the processes of climate change. In 2008 Sir Nicolas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, published the Stern Review on the economics of climate change. The Stern report confirmed what most environmentalists had always believed, human-induced climate change was happening. Stern found that early and strong intervention to mitigate the impact of climate change has a cost benefit from an economic standpoint. He suggested market-based schemes to internalize costs of greenhouse gas pollution, through carbon trading or carbon tax. Stern recommended that polluters should price the costs of climate change  into their decisions to conduct polluting activities.

Back in 2001 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put together a report in which they concluded that trends in stream flow volumes depended heavily on regional and local variables. In some places they may get more rain causing flooding and landslides, on the other end of the scale there will be little or no rain causing drought, famine, and hunger. Both scenarios point to two extreme ends of climate change. It's important to take note of impact of  global warming on glaciers.

"An iceberg about the size of the state of Delaware split off from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf sometime between July 10 and July 12. The calving of the massive new iceberg was captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Aqua satellite, and confirmed by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instrument on the joint NASA/NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi-NPP) satellite," Nasa, 2017.

 If the trend continues unchecked, we could see large scale extinctions of animals found in the polar regions of our planet due to lack of food and unfavorable habitat conditions. Animals such as polar bears need ice to access food in the sea. Loss of glaciers has consequences on human settlements and their economies. Low laying coastal regions of the planet may disappear due to flooding as melting glaciers dump tones of fresh water into our seas and oceans. Global warming can lead to significant changes in water temperature as well, our oceans will get warmer and as is already known, introduction of heat causes water to expand, this may lead to flooding in low laying areas.

Global rain distribution maybe affected as a result of glacial melting because oceans currents may change as the salinity of water changes. There are catastrophic consequences all round as a result of changes in global temperatures. The diagram below shows levels of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere over  centuries. This diagram tells a story about natural cycles of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But, as the diagram clearly shows, there was significant rise in carbon dioxide released in the 1950s, in fact the trend continues, even as we speak.

Graph Showing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Deforestation is another cause for concern as far as climate change is concerned, as well as acting as carbon sinks, forests provide cover for soil from rain and overland flow to reduce the impact of soil degradation, a process that can lead to soil infertility, creation of gullies through soil  erosion. Soil degradation can result in silt building up within river channels, lakes, and dams. Repeated episodes of siltation may result in a build up of sediments that may lead to lose of size of the reservoir and capacity of water that can be stored for future use; if dredging is not done regularly, it's possible entire reservoirs can disappear altogether, over time.

Carbon sinks are defined as anything capable of absorbing more carbon dioxide than it emits. The Amazon basin, home to the world's largest forest, has always been regarded as the world largest temporary carbon sink followed by the rainforest in the Congo basin in Democratic Republic of Congo. Amazonian trees emit an estimated 1.9 billion tons of carbon in to the atmosphere each year, the Amazon rain forest absorbs about 2.2 billion (Becky Oskin, 2014) tones of carbon dioxide per year. Illegal logging, clearing land for agriculture and perennial wars have directly or indirectly contributed to the destruction of huge tracts of forests. In addition, smaller countries such as Zimbabwe are contributing, in their smaller ways, to global warming. The Environmental Management Zimbabwe reported back in 2008, the country was losing 330,000 hectares per year as a result of deforestation.

Although scientists are generally concerned with greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas that is responsible for rapid global warming. It's a natural gas, however, human activities have accelerated its emission into the atmosphere. For example, in 2015 carbon dioxide accounted for 82.2% of all United States' greenhouse gas emissions. Human activities are adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and have negative effects to the ability of natural sinks, like forests, to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Deforestration in the Congo Basin

Impact of logging in Congo Basin

The only way to stop or indeed reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere is by using cheap electricity produced by environmentally friendly technology. So, where do we look, let's start with nuclear power plants. The cost of building nuclear plant is  prohibitively high, best estimates put cost of building a medium sized plant at US9.6 billion. Countries in the West, unlike third world countries, have resources and political advantage to pursue nuclear energy ambitions.

There are security implications associated with this technology as well, for that reason, possession of this technology effectively rules out third world countries like Zimbabwe. The issues around nuclear technology are brought to the fore  by the on going controversies besetting Iran and North Korea nuclear programs. Use of solar panels is meant to be cheap, however, carbon footprint on solar products is significant in terms of how they are manufactured and transported to export markets. Solar panels have limited use, not very effective for commercial use. Most third world countries import their solar panels from China; these products tend to be expensive for locals and they don't last long enough to be used as long term sources of electricity. Some of these solar panel products are of poor quality because they are mass produced to cut on costs and are not subjected to rigorous testing to conform with set standards, especially those meant for Africa and poor countries were trading standards fall short of the ideal.

It doesn't make sense to embark on mass production of electric cars and ship them to countries where electricity is a luxury, not a basic commodity. Equally, it doesn't make sense to ask oil producing countries to stop or reduce production of petroleum products when there is huge demand for their products. Diesel and petrol are widely accessible than electricity in third world countries, it can be argued that even if USA and all rich countries of this world stop using coal, change their vehicles to electric, climate change is going to happen. The question is how do we actually slow down or stop climate change?

"The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change. To reach these ambitious goals, appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework and an enhanced capacity building framework will be put in place, thus supporting action by developing countries and the most vulnerable countries, in line with their own national objectives. The Agreement also provides for enhanced transparency of action and support through a more robust transparency framework," United Nations Framwork Convention on Climate Change. 

One of the ways to avert the catastrophic impact of climate change is by assisting developing countries to improve their economies by providing them with practical help to develop their infrastructure, thereby, improving their economies. I suggest rich countries should embark on ambitious programs to assist landlocked countries to build hydro electric dams and wind power. Advantages of hydroelectric dams include the fact that they are fueled by water; it is a clean fuel source. Hydroelectric power is a domestic source of energy, there is no dependence on international fuel sources. Hydropower reservoirs offer a variety of recreational opportunities, such as, fishing, swimming, boating, and it also boasts tourism a valuable source of foreign currency.

Hydroelectric dams can also contribute to individual state food security because water from these sources can be used for domestic and industrial use as well as irrigation projects. Rich countries such as United States of America should be taking a lead in assisting developing countries to put these installations in place for long term economic independence. Walking away from international climate change agreements is not only costly to the global community, but to the US as well. In 2016, for instance, United States spent a staggering US$54.5 million in humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe, a country that has enjoyed peace and stability for nearly four decades with little infrastructural developments, the bill can only get bigger for American tax payer as the effects of global climate change take hold.

While it can be argued that the Paris Climate Change Agreement doesn't go far enough in dealing with global climate change menace and will have very limited impact on addressing real climate challenges, it's a good step in the right direction. It's a platform we can build on, not the end. This takes us back to the Stern report conclusions that early and strong response to global climate change impacts has cost benefit from an economic point of view. State to State bilateral assistance is far more effective than using UN agencies, in my view, because governments can account how they are spending tax payers' monies on foreign humanitarian assistance programs to their voters. 

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