ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 2, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 40

Switch off that light, close that tap!

Part 2 of Too darn hot: What can we do to combat the impacts of climate change?

By Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala

The first approach is to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing carbon emissions. Stringent energy saving measures, improving energy supplies, optimising equipment to work at 100% efficiency - all reduce the quantity of CO2 emitted. Hydropower, wind and solar power emit no CO2 and are, therefore, carbon clean. Another option is to use carbon neutral energy such as dendro power (energy generated by burning plants grown for the purpose) and biofuels (fuels obtained from plants, animals and their by-products: manure, garden waste and crop residues). In carbon neutral energy processes, plants absorb the same amount of CO2 that is emitted into the air on burning. Finding innovative methods of transportation is another method of mitigation. Toyota popularised a hybrid vehicle – the Toyota Prius - which uses both rechargeable energy storage system and an internal combustion engine and boasts 70% less emissions than the average vehicle.

Yet another way of mitigating the effects of climate change is to offset carbon emissions. Not only do you actively reduce your carbon sources, but you also balance the emissions by making efforts to protect or increase carbon sinks. In short, you protect like gold forests that are already around and you grow trees.

At a global level, the reality of climate change has been accepted for some decades now. A United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was formulated in the early nineties. A subsequent amendment called the Kyoto Protocol, committed 38 industrialised countries, once they ratified the Protocol, to reduce the emissions of greenhouses gases in the world by 5% from 2008 to 2012. It also reaffirmed the UNFCC principle that developed countries have to pay, and supply technology to, other countries for climate-related studies and projects.

Many parties ratified the convention, but in order for it to become operational, it took considerable political manoeuvring until 2005. As of December 2007, 174 parties, including Australia had ratified the convention, the only notable exception being the USA, the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

The net result of all these delays is that not much has been done yet. Governments met in Bali last December in a much hyped-up climate conference to prepare a ‘Bali road map for climate change’ - Kyoto’s successor. Although the EU pressed for 25-40% cuts in emissions by 2020, this was opposed strongly by US, Canada and Japan and deleted from the final agreement. The final agreement has shifted from internationally binding global commitments to national actions, disappointing environmentalists.

One thing is clear: mitigation alone will not be enough. Even if GHG emissions are reduced drastically, the current effects of climate change will be felt for several decades more. It will also take 20-30 years for carbon offsets to become effective, as trees have to grow and mature. In some cases – such as in Sri Lanka - we would need about 1/3rd more land area under forest cover, if we are to effectively offset our country’s emissions.

Therefore, a second strategy for dealing with climate change – adaptation –also becomes essential. Adaptation simply is being prepared like the proverbial boy scout. At a local level, the single most important response to climate change is adaptation.

Comparisons show that the impacts of the same hurricane (named Jeanne) - which hit Florida and Haiti - were felt more in Haiti because Haiti was less prepared for natural disasters. Anticipating climate change, planning in advance to minimise damage from an extreme weather event and responding to it in a pre-planned manner that minimises risks is critical.

Adaptation also entails using innovative agricultural methods – such as selecting different crops that absorb more carbon. In Bangladesh, some farmers have learned to grow vegetables on floating beds during the monsoons when it floods; dry zone farmers in Sri Lanka know which crops will grow well during the monsoons and which do not. Collecting rain water in a drought-prone area is another adaptation to climate change; installing proper insulation in buildings, designing/constructing building infrastructure that is disaster resistant are others.

Both mitigation and adaptation need to be effected in parallel. While carbon clean and carbon neutral technologies are integrated into development, and carbon offsets are initiated, it is vital that adaptation measures are also taken globally, regionally, nationally and locally. Innovative technologies for agriculture, diversifying livelihoods and ensuring that they are sustainable, effective and cheap approaches to drought resilience and flood management are all now needed urgently.

The role of natural ecosystems in attenuating the effects of climate change has also become crystal clear. Reducing deforestation is now a critical global need. Protecting coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes - which can serve as barriers against the physical forces of natural disasters - is also of paramount importance now.

What can we as a nation, as organisations, as individuals do? Our country may not be within the top ten carbon emitters of the world but just look at the way we light up our cities at the drop of a hat for any given religious festival, or keep the street lights on during the day. The government needs to formulate stringent policies on energy conservation, which penalise energy wastage and provide incentives – particularly for small scale enterprises - for employing alternative energy processes. It also needs to set standards for emissions from factories and vehicles (it is reported that in 2008, all vehicles will be subject to emissions testing) and ban incineration as a method of waste disposal.

The government needs to be more stringent and vigilant in implementing existing laws that protect the natural environment. For example, Sinharaja may be a protected, globally valued National Heritage Wilderness Area, but it is being eaten away from its borders by encroachment and other illegal activities. Many of our dry zone protected forests are logged illegally and mangroves clear-felled without pause. The government also needs to integrate climate consciousness into its development plans.

As institutions – whether public or private - there is much that we can do. Training staff to be energy conscious, switching to energy-saving bulbs, saving paperx3, actively supplementing energy use with carbon clean and carbon neutral processes, setting up programmes to offset carbon emissions – i.e., actively reforesting an area or undertaking to protect a forested area, setting up adaptation measures (for example, hotels in the dry zone should have rain water collection tanks to irrigate their gardens during the dry season) and influencing clients, suppliers and users.

Although Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC Chairman says, “At the end of the day this is not going to be solved by individuals taking action. This is going to be solved by governments making sure that we have technologies (such as cheap solar panels) so that it becomes so cheap that they take it up," I believe strongly that every individual has a role to play in the drama that is unravelling the world’s climates. As someone said, ‘Whether you are a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker, the time to do something about climate change is now.’ It is imperative that each of us integrates climate consciousness into our subconscious thinking, so that all our actions reflect measures for mitigating and adapting to climate change and contribute to reducing the damage to the earth. The time to start is right now. There is not a moment to lose.

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