By Ramesh Jaura
Ahead of a landmark United Nations climate conference beginning on November 30 in Paris, two international organizations are warning that unless appropriate steps are taken, the planet would become “more dangerous and inhospitable for future generations” and poverty stretch its wings further by 2030.
Less than a month before negotiators gather in the French capital for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as COP 21, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says that a record high amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is fuelling climate change and will make the planet “more dangerous and inhospitable for future generations”.
The WMO press release on November 9 warns that the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had reached “yet another new record high in 2014”, and were “continuing a relentless rise”.
In a similar vein, the World Bank warned on November 8 that without inclusive and climate-smart development, alongside efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions that protect the poor, agricultural shocks, natural disasters and the spread of diseases could push more than 100 million additional people into poverty by 2030.
WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said: “Every year we report a new record in greenhouse gas concentrations. Every year we say that time is running out. We have to act now to slash greenhouse gas emissions if we are to have a chance to keep the increase in temperatures to manageable levels.”
In its Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, released ahead of the UN climate conference from November 30 to December 11, WMO says that between 1990 and 2014 there was a 36 per cent increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) from industrial, agricultural and domestic activities.
WMO also highlights the interaction and amplification effect between rising levels of CO2 and water vapour, which is itself a major greenhouse gas, albeit short-lived. “Warmer air holds more moisture and so increased surface temperatures caused by CO2 would lead to a rise in global water vapour levels, further adding to the enhanced greenhouse effect,” says the report adding that further increases in CO2 concentrations will lead to disproportionately high increases in thermal energy and warming from water vapour.
The study shows that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – the most important long-lived greenhouse gas – reached 397.7 parts per million (ppm) in 2014. In the Northern hemisphere CO2 concentrations crossed the symbolically significant 400 ppm level in 2014 spring, when CO2 is most abundant. In spring 2015, the global average concentration of CO2 crossed the 400 ppm barrier.
“We will soon be living with globally averaged CO2 levels above 400 parts per million as a permanent reality,” Jarraud declared. “We can’t see CO2. It is an invisible threat, but a very real one. It means hotter global temperatures, more extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods, melting ice, rising sea levels and increased acidity of the oceans. This is happening now and we are moving into unchartered territory at a frightening speed.”
Jarraud explained that “excess energy trapped by CO2 and other greenhouse gases is heating up the Earth surface which leads to increase in atmospheric water vapour which in turn is generating [and] trapping even more heat, underlining that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the ocean for even longer”.
“Past, present and future emissions will have a cumulative impact on both global warming and ocean acidification. The laws of physics are non-negotiable,” he warned.
The WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin reports on atmospheric concentrations – and not emissions – of greenhouse gases. Emissions represent what goes into the atmosphere while concentrations represent what remains in the atmosphere after the complex system of interactions between the atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere and the oceans.
According to WMO, about a quarter of the total emissions is taken up by the oceans and another quarter by the biosphere, reducing in this way the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The World Bank’s report, Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty, finds that poor people are already at high risk from climate-related shocks, including crop failures from reduced rainfall, spikes in food prices after extreme weather events, and increased incidence of diseases after heat waves and floods.
It says such shocks could wipe out hard-won gains, leading to irreversible losses, driving people back into poverty, particularly in Africa and South Asia.
“This report sends a clear message that ending poverty will not be possible unless we take strong action to reduce the threat of climate change on poor people and dramatically reduce harmful emissions,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said in a press release on November 8.
“Climate change hits the poorest the hardest, and our challenge now is to protect tens of millions of people from falling into extreme poverty because of a changing climate,” the World Bank chief explains.
SDGs could be derailed
Efforts to end poverty, the linchpin of the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in September, could be derailed if the impacts of climate change on poor and vulnerable people and communities not effectively addressed.
The report explains that the poorest people are more exposed than the average population to climate-related shocks such as floods, droughts, and heatwaves, and they lose much more of their wealth when they are hit.
In the 52 countries where data was available, 85 per cent of the population lives in countries where poor people are more exposed to drought than the average. Poor people are also more exposed to higher temperatures and live in countries where food production is expected to decrease because of climate change.
The report shows how ending poverty and fighting climate change can be more effectively achieved if addressed together.
Agriculture will be the main driver of any increase in poverty, the report finds. Modeling studies suggest that climate change could result in global crop yield losses as large as 5 percent by 2030 and 30 per cent by 2080.
Health effects – higher incidence of malaria, diarrhea and stunting – and the labour productivity effects of high temperatures are the next-strongest drivers.
The impact of climate change on food prices in Africa could be as high as 12 per cent in 2030 and 70 percent by 2080 – a crippling blow to those nations where food consumption of the poorest households amounts to over 60 per cent of total spending.
In focusing on impacts through agriculture, natural disasters and health, the report calls for development efforts that improve the resilience of poor people, such as strengthening social safety nets and universal health coverage, along with climate-specific measures to help cope with a changing climate, such as upgraded flood defenses, early warning systems and climate-resistant crops.
All-out push needed
At the same time, the report says an all-out push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is needed to remove the long-term threat that climate change poses for poverty reduction. Such mitigation efforts should be designed to ensure that they do not burden the poor. For example, the savings from eliminating fossil fuel subsidies could be reinvested in assistance schemes to help poor families cope with higher fuel costs.
In poor countries, support from the international community will be essential to accomplish many of these measures, according to the report. This is particularly true for investments with high upfront costs – such as urban transport or resilient energy infrastructure – that are critical to prevent lock-ins into carbon-intensive patterns.
“The future is not set in stone,” said Stephane Hallegatte, a senior economist at the World Bank who led the team that prepared the report. “We have a window of opportunity to achieve our poverty objectives in the face of climate change, provided we make wise policy choices now.”
The report also reviews successful policy solutions to show that good development can protect the poor from shocks. For example, after Typhoon Yolanda, the Philippines was able to use the existing conditional cash transfer system to quickly distribute emergency funding to the affected population. In Uganda, the combination of new crop varieties and extension visits has boosted household agricultural income by 16 per cent.