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Not just up in the air

india Updated: May 07, 2007 04:37 IST

The third report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a classic case of scientific findings being watered down for political reasons. The report, released last week in Bangkok, makes it clear that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) can be curbed ‘at a reasonable cost’ by promoting renewable energy, checking deforestation and improving energy efficiency. But fierce opposition from countries like China, the US and Saudi Arabia seems to have forced major changes in the draft, which avoids references to the role of fast-growing economies in climate change and doesn’t even discuss nuclear power as a solution. This is unfortunate, as renewable energy is expected to make up as much as 40 per cent of the world’s electricity supply by 2030, with nuclear energy contributing almost 20 per cent, subject to constraints relating to safety, waste and proliferation.

Even enviro-sceptics who used to dismiss climate science as a big joke now acknowledge that enormous emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) are heating the Earth’s biosphere alarmingly. Current CO2 levels top 100 parts per million (ppm) above the pre-industrial average and this could drive temperatures up as much as 6 degrees C by 2100, triggering a surge in sea levels, destroying large numbers of species, and ‘wreaking economic devastation in tropical zones and mass human migrations’. The warming of the Earth — primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation — may not pose a direct threat to human life, considering that even the threshold in mine-safety regulations is around 5,000 ppm. But the point is, by radically altering the composition of the atmosphere, we are inadvertently conducting an environmental experiment that’s fast getting out of control.

The IPCC findings should prompt governments that are sceptical of international efforts like the Kyoto Treaty (which enjoins signatory countries to considerably reduce CO2 emissions) to abandon their reservations. And they evidently don’t have a moment to lose. With atmospheric concentrations of GHGs rising inexorably, time is fast running out for any effort to cut their emissions. For, the inertia in the atmospheric system ensures that these gases remain there for well over 100 years after being released.