Global Warming: Biggest Menace to Our Existence

Dr Kanhaiya Lal, Environment and Health Area - Environment and Waste Management Division. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi - 110003

2021-12-25 12:19:51



If someone is truly worried about the fate of the world, it would be a climate scientist. After testing all his climate theories, when he would look at the world, he would see only devastation in the future. The carbon dioxide level has risen to 415 parts per million (ppm) from 280 ppm at the preindustrial level, around the year 1800. In the year 2013, carbon dioxide levels surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history.

At its Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, the carbon dioxide measurement had a reading of about 410 ppm in 2019, 413 ppm in 2020, and 415 ppm in 2021. That is, we are adding at least two ppm of carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere every year. Today, carbon dioxide levels are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.

An increase in carbon dioxide levels directly relates to the temperature in Earth’s atmosphere. So far, the Earth's average temperature has risen about 1.1 degree Celcius (?C) which is clear evidence of global warming. At 1.5?C temperature rise, nature can do unimaginable devastation, leaving no miracle that can save us. The temperature of the Earth has set to rise due to historical emissions, mainly from western countries. The reason is only human - their habit of being comfortable at any cost. The sad reality is that there is no hope from anywhere except a bleak of developing excellent carbon capture and storage system. Electricity, vehicles, and LPG are part and parcel of modern life. Can we think of everyday life without these? Developed nations have already poured so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from coal, and developing countries like India are not even considering phasing out the electricity made from coal.

Few policies are underway to replace diesel-petrol fuelled vehicles with battery-operated vehicles. There is talk of running thermal power plants on biomass-based fuel. The extraordinary development in Solar energy is the alluring of some bright light. However, all these interventions wouldn't make much difference in avoiding warming attributed to past carbon emissions in the near future. As per the current estimate, an increase of two and a half degrees Celcius temperature is highly likely, even if we stop releasing everything today. This is because of the thousand-year life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yes, even a kick of your bike releases the carbon dioxide into the environment with an atmospheric life of thousand years. This is like setting free a bottle-locked genie on Earth. Burning coal and LPG, running diesel, petrol, and CNG-powered vehicles, is an act of making free carbon dioxide - a dangerous genies for millennia. Carbon dioxide is not only our concern- methane with a life of twelve years in atmosphere, nitrous oxide with more than a hundred years of life, chlorofluorocarbons having life of more than tens of thousands of years also being released from several human activities, including one of our oldest professions –agriculture.

It is a misconception that trees and plants can trap all the carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels. There is no denying that trees are the most efficient and largest sequester of atmospheric carbon dioxide, but they cannot lock the excess carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels. Even if we grow more and more forests, the carbon dioxide cannot come down to the earlier level. Another misconception is that the right economic policy can revert the damage of atmospheric composition that has already been done. An economic policy or any system cannot help us with past wrongdoings in this regard. An economic policy cannot reduce the current carbon dioxide level to 280 ppm. Even if we switch entirely over solar energy, carbon dioxide cannot come down to the earlier level. We have to acknowledge that life on Earth happened when an equilibrium of carbon dioxide was established in the atmosphere following to course of millions of years. And this equilibrium has been shaken now, and it will return to its preindustrial conditions only after mass destruction in thousands of years.

The experts are suggesting now, if nothing else, stop burning biomass in the open air, which will halt black carbon release in the atmosphere, whose atmospheric life is for a few days only. An immediate stop in black carbon release in the atmosphere from biomass burning would halve the rate of increase in the temperature of the Earth, giving more time to come up with a solution, and help achieve the earth’s temperature below 2?C by this century as agreed in the Paris agreement in 2015. It is to be noted that biomass is a carbon-neutral energy source because it captures almost the same amount of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis while growing as is released when biomass is burned.

We can’t revert the historical carbon dioxide emissions. However, each of us can contribute to cutting the rate of current emissions, thereby slowing down the rate of global warming.