Friday, 4 November 2016

What the gap in emissions means for human and ecological systems

Source: Reuters

Greenhouse gases?

Sources of emissions in 2010 by sector
Source: Environment Protection Agency based on data from the
Working Group III  of the fifth assessment report of the
International Panel on Climate Change 
These are gases that have the ability to trap heat and cause a 'greenhouse effect' potentially causing variations in atmospheric temperatures and affecting human and ecological systems. They include;
  • Carbondioxide is the major greenhouse gas emitted mostly from exploitation of fossil fuels, agriculture, and land use changes and forestry
  • Methane mainly from agricultural practices, burning of biomass, poor management of waste  and energy inefficiency
  • Nitrous oxide primarily from fertilizers used in agricultural activities and burning of biomass.
  • Fluorinated gases from consumption and production processes especially from industries and the refrigeration.

What is the current science saying?

The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report clearly acknowledges that the earth system is warming unequivocally, increasing the global temperatures, and that there is a strong linkage to greenhouse gas emissions.The 2016 Emissions gap report, recently launched by the UN Environment, shows that the road to staying well below 2°C is still long. Despite commitments from governments, there is a steady increase in the amount of emissions especially from fossil fuels that account for approximately 68% of the emissions. In summary, 
  • People already face rising seas, expanding desertification and coastal erosion. 
  • There is a global upward trend in the emissions of greenhouse gases
  • Majority of these gases emanate from industrial processes and combustion of fossil fuels
  • Since 2000, the world ha experienced 10 warmest years
  • The intended nationally determined contributions geared towards reducing emissions are still not consistent with the goal of limiting emissions to way below 2°C - if fully and unconditionally implemented, these contributions can only curb emissions to way below 3.2°C
  • Different scenarios for total global greenhouse gas emissions in 2025 and 2030
    Source: Emission Gap Report, 2016

What does the emissions trend mean for humans and ecosystems?

A correlation exists between the gap in emissions and the level of risk to impacts of climate change. The risks of, and costs associated with climate disaster continue to increase putting a strain on vulnerable populations across the world. According to the 2015 global assessment report (GAR), the increasing level of risks due to climate-related disasters are often fueled by variations in temperature, precipitation, and rise in sea levels. This scenario has led to losses mostly in small island developing states and other developing countries that are highly vulnerable but lack the capacity to respond or cope to disasters. People’s lives and ecosystems’ survival are intertwined in the carbon cycle, hence when one end of the system is perturbed, the multiplicity of impacts is felt.
Source: Stephanie Andrei

Bouwer 2013, finds a clear correlation in the projections of future extreme events losses and the changing climate (increased warming due to increased levels of greenhouse emissions), that is especially biased towards increased losses due to floods.  The study also attributes the frequency of prolonged dry seasons and sea level rise to the increasing levels of emissions. However, Knutti et. al 2016 argue that the relationship between increasing global temperatures and the ensuing impacts is not always linear and 'straightforward'. This study agrees with James et. al, 2014 arguing that there is a cloud of uncertainties in attributing anthropogenic emissions to climate losses and damages  mainly because evidence varies among sectors, countries and regions. Furthermore, the uncertainty occurs when there is a wide variation in terms of time, space and character of various impacts occurring at varying levels of climate change. Nonetheless, science, and the latest data especially from developing countries continues to make clear the fact the anthropogenic emissions are distablizing the climate system and causing disproportionate impacts on individuals, communities and ecosystems.

What needs to be done?

The emission gap report recommends that, to achieve the goal outlined in the Paris Agreement, deep emission cuts be effected prior to 2020, and further, lower emissions pathways be embraced by 2030 . As a result, strong and consistent actions are required from governments and all actors in terms of promoting energy efficient mechanisms, tapping into non-state actors’ contributions and aligning activities to sustainable development goals.

It is absolutely necessary that risks to climate losses and damages, resulting from increasing emissions, are drastically reduced at all level. Policy decisions need to be pegged on the knowledge of such risks especially in having a clear understanding of the relationship between global emissions, and the resulting impacts.