Saving Our Planet

COP21 has defined the framework. We however have quite a long way to go before we save the planet

The world has finally woken up to the reality of the seriously impaired health and fibrillating pulse of our common homeland, planet Earth. 23 years have elapsed since the first COP (Conference of the Parties) held in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed by 154 countries.

The aim of the UNFCC was to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to rein in climate change and global warming in order to contain their dire and damaging effects on the existential conditions and livelihoods of people across the globe.

COP21 was therefore the 21st such conference held every year since 1994 to discuss a substantive and binding agreement to cut down rising and damaging emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused by the irresponsible and predatory manner we continue to despoil and impair our planet. However, despite the growing weight of scientific evidence that the world must act urgently to save the planet, wanton and rising pollution has continued to belch greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The state of the planet and air quality has deteriorated substantively to red alert levels through 23 years of procrastination and political shenanigans by the main polluting countries averse to impose stricter controls on offenders responsible for the emissions of increasing volumes of greenhouse gases within their industrial, manufacturing and productive sectors feeding on energy produced from the combustion of fossil fuels, for fear of undermining them.

Gassed by rising carbon emissions during this period, our planet has been gasping for clean air. Satellite imaging and more pointed technological tools have enabled scientists to provide a range of data and a global perspective on the seriousness of the adverse effects of rising greenhouse gas emissions on the worsening health sheet of Earth.

A heavy toll

Thus, 10 of the warmest years have occurred in the last 12 years. Warmer seas have caused vast areas of coral to die. The rate of rise in sea level during the last decade is nearly double that of the last century. It is already causing serious coastal tide-driven erosion. This puts in danger small islands states such as the Maldives or Kiribati which is just two metres above sea level. If it is unchecked, global warming and rising sea level could inundate coastal cities such as Tokyo, Mumbai, Lagos or New York.

The ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctic have shrunk, the extent of Arctic sea ice has declined significantly and the glaciers are retreating in almost all the ice-capped mountain ranges such as the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes or the Rockies. Higher carbon emissions have also caused a higher acidification of the upper layers of the ocean, adversely affecting marine life.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) deforestation in the ‘lungs’ of the planet in Indonesia, Brazil, Thailand or in the forest belt in Africa have resulted in an estimated 18 million acres of forests, about the size of Panama, being lost every year. Deforestation adversely affects climate change as carbon dioxide which is the principal source of greenhouse gas emissions is absorbed by trees and plants as part of the carbon cycle.

Climate change has also brought about extreme conditions including drought and torrential rains and flooding affecting agriculture, food security and commodity supplies. The world is also more and more affected by freak meteorological events such as flash floods, severe cold spells or ‘monster’ storms often affecting new areas.

Average increases in temperature means that the rise in temperature is higher around the equator. Africa, which contributes some 5% of global carbon emissions, is seriously impaired by the adverse effects of climate change. Lake Chad which provides water to 68 million people in four countries surrounding it, on the edge of the Sahara Desert, has shrunk significantly. Niger River which is the third longest river in Africa which flows through five West African countries is silting and sanding up. Desertification is also taking its toll through frequent and severe droughts especially in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.

The imperative of a collective will

The COP21 agreement thrashed out in Paris in the presence of 150 world leaders and approved by 195 countries therefore brings a welcome hope to the people of the world. Its package of measures responds to the crying demands of scientists and the multitude fighting to save the planet. Its aim is to cut greenhouse emissions to a level which caps global temperature rises ‘well below’ 2C with continued efforts to limit it to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

It also provides $100 billion a year of climate finance by 2020 with a commitment to increase financing further, to help developing countries adapt. It thus provides a framework to enable every country to collectively help save the planet by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions according to their ‘Intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDC). The approach is for a fair sharing of responsibilities in line with national circumstances, capabilities and quantum of greenhouse gas emitted by each country. Equity but also ambition are key underlying principles. Countries are encouraged to do more than their fair share.

Beyond the euphoria of the Paris deal, a lot remains to be done. The Agreement will not enter into force until 55 countries who account for 55% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified it. The United States and China account for 14% and 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement has therefore scheduled a signature ceremony in April 2016.

Average global temperatures have already increased by 1C above pre-industrial levels. In a bottoms-up approach, 180 countries have thus indicated the cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions they will effect for the first cycle beginning 2020. The initial undertakings will not be sufficient to put the world on track to meet the maximum temperature rise goal agreed. To this end, starting in 2018 each country will have to review and make new commitments every five years. There is no penalty for countries that miss their INDC targets. Transparency rules aim at encouraging countries to honour their pledges and report on their emissions and their efforts to reduce them. The agreement allows for some flexibility to developing countries that need it.

The agreement commits countries to begin reducing global carbon emissions as soon as possible and targets a ‘net zero emissions’ between 2050 and 2100 when man-made emissions could be reduced to a level that forests and oceans can absorb. This therefore means a systematic and substantial reduction in the combustion of fossil fuels such as crude oil and coal which are the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

In the case of Mauritius, cutting our greenhouse gas emissions means reducing our production of energy from crude oil and coal from its present level. In the context of COP21, Mauritius has already committed to reduce its carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. New commitments will have to be made in 2018.

Owing to the massive use of coal (which produces some 45% of the electricity output), Mauritius has a per capita greenhouse gas emissions which is just below that of Nigeria, an oil producing country and higher than that of another oil producer Egypt, Pakistan or India. Inspite of the hype about our green footprint, it should be noted that to produce the same amount of energy, coal releases much more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than other fossil fuels. This crying reality should end the coal turf wars that have plagued the framing of a coherent national energy policy for years.

A new policy framework and mindset also calls for more cogent efforts to significantly increase and store green energy production from solar, wind, ocean or geothermal resources as well as the induction of smart and innovative technologies to produce clean energy.

Greener footprint

For example, a technology invented by a young English engineer converts the kinetic energy from footsteps or movement of players over a pitch in Lagos in Nigeria into electricity using special underground tiles. The electricity is stored and combined with power generated by solar panels to operate floodlights to enable play at night in a safer and more secure space. The financing from the $100 billion annual adaptation fund will therefore also help break new ground in terms of both new green technologies and new innovative pathways for increased green energy production to provide the world with a greener footprint.

COP21 has defined the framework. We however have quite a long way to go before we save the planet. The road to assure that Earth is a healthier habitat where people and nature live in harmony is clear cut. The countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions must lead by example to slash their carbon emissions to the fullest extent possible with commensurate contributions from the other world countries. It is only then that we can collectively win the battle to save our homeland and bequeath it as a safe and sustainable haven for future generations.

* Published in print edition on 18 December 2015

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